Sending Beer Back: Walking the Customer-Alehole Tightrope

"Don't like that beer?  Send it back.  You're the customer - you should get something you like."

Oh, if only it were that simple (especially around here - right?).  

Maybe it's a desire to avoid conflict.  Maybe we don't want to look like beer snobs.  Maybe it's that there seem to be a lot of introverts in/around craft beer and homebrewing.  Whatever the reason, though, this is one of the topics in which I find a lot of anxiety, disagreement, and tension: when, and how, do/should we send beer back?

I know that some of you out there are brazenly demanding new pints left and right and think the rest of us just need to get more assertive, but for those who don't fall into that category, let's get into this a bit.

First, When?

Right out of the gate, I gravitate towards trying to sort out the situations when it's OK to send a beer back and those in which it's more of a questionable move.  

Probably Not OK: The one time when I'm reasonably sure it's unreasonable to send a beer back is when I simply don't like it.  If what I ordered is basically what I got (as in, I ordered a Pilsner and it's lighter than amber and has some hop character/bitterness), then whether I think it's good or not doesn't factor into whether I should send it back or not.  The bar's under no obligation to only serve me beers that I would rate highly.

Almost Certainly OK: A seriously dirty or chipped glass, a beer that's flat, obvious off-flavors of a fecal variety, something that's demonstrably not the beer I ordered ("say, this beer's pretty haze and pale for a Russian Imperial Stout...") - these all seem like perfectly good reasons to send a beer back.

In Between: The trouble I run into is when there's not a patently obvious justification.  What do you do when there's lots of bubbles on the beer glass (not "beer clean")?  Diacetyl, DMS, other minor flavor faults?  Slightly stale flavors/oxidation?  Temperature issue?  I guess there's never going to be a commonly-accepted rubric for what does and doesn't qualify, and even if we agreed on one there's a lot of subjectivity in beer evaluation.

This is what I mean when I say we're walking the Customer-Alehole tightrope.  One person's reasonable complaint is another person's eye-rolling "get over yourself" self-indulgence.

For these "tweeners," I like to go with the "Two Beer" rule.  If there's one beer with that problem, fine.  But if my second has it, too, then I'm either going to leave and not come back OR bring it to someone's attention.  

What you say v. What they hear

"When," it turns out, might be the easy part.  "How" is a much bigger challenge, because now you're treading on more-dangerous ground.  

Sending a beer back could trigger all kinds of weird responses, few of them good.

On the one hand, you could be at a place that is really committed to customer service, trains up their staff well, and genuinely cares that you have a great experience.  That, though...isn't everywhere.  Many don't want or need your feedback, and may not care whether you're happy or not.  

It's really kind of understandable.  I mean, you're just sending a beer back.  But to the bar, you might be saying any/all of the following:

  • "You're losing $6 because I'm not paying for this."
  • "You run a dirty bar.  Clean a beer line, just once, for the novelty of it."
  • "You don't know what you're serving - that's NOT a stout, idiot."
  • "You're an idiot who served this in a chilled mug."
  • "I'm a super-entitled beer geek and beer judge and homebrewer and YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!"

So...you know, maybe we should approach this cautiously.  

The "How"

Well, I suppose it should go without saying that you should be polite and courteous (and even complimentary - "we love it here, and we know you guys care about your beer, it's just that this one is [fill in the concern]").  I've been burned by "goes without saying" before, though, so it can't hurt to repeat it here.

Context matters here, too - if it's a bartender/bar owner that you've known for a while, then feel free to be more direct.  Some people I could spit-take the beer across the room without offending, but that's not most folks in most places.

So, how do we politely but firmly register a request to send a beer back?  I like the Triple-A Method (modified from writing on how to engage in challenging political discourse):

  1. Apologize: "I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I need to ask for a different beer."  Why lead off with an apology?  Because it suggests this isn't a power trip for you.  You don't want to make their lives harder.  You're just someone who wants a good, fair transaction.
  2. Augment: "I have a serious sensitivity to [whatever your beef is], and I'm tasting it in this beer."  Explain your concern in neutral terms.  No need to point fingers.
  3. Advance: "Could I have [new beer, new glass, etc.] instead?  Thanks SO much, and again, I'm sorry about this!"  Don't wait for them to suggest a fix - it can make you seem like you're trawling for more than a replacement, or they might think that you don't want it redressed at all.  

This method can work for all kinds of complaints.  It also makes no appeals to authority ("Look, I'm a homebrewer/beer judge, and I KNOW that's not right...") or normative value judgments.  It's clear, simple, and (unless someone's having a really bad day) pretty benign and non-reactive.

The Wrong Beer Exception

There's one area, though, where I haven't been able to come up with a single "clean" and non-insulting way to call attention: The Wrong Beer Scenario.

I ordered something.  You gave me something - but not what I ordered.

Now, one of two things could be happening here:

  1. It's patently the wrong beer (or Oktoberfest is now super-hoppy and cloudy).
  2. I know it's the wrong beer because I drink a lot of different beers and can tell.

There's no winning here.  If it's obviously the wrong beer, then pointing that out means you're calling the bartender an idiot.  If it's not patently wrong but my experience makes it obvious, then pointing it out makes me look like a smug beer snob.

The only thing that MIGHT work - but the server needs to be hip to what you're trying to do for them - is this face-saving statement: "Sorry, I think this must be for someone else - I ordered the Oktoberfest!  It's so busy, totally understandable..."  

Otherwise, you're on the express train to Awkward Town.  

Say Hi to the Vicar

Finally, a quick word on an under-pour.  I was drinking with an Englishman one fine afternoon, and on receiving his pint asked the waitress, "what about the vicar?"  I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so; apparently, he was referring to the white collar of head at the top of the glass, taking up space where his beer should be, and resembling (I now saw) a clerical collar like a priest or vicar might wear.  

If a place is slow, I might mention it.  Otherwise, I just let it slide.  He didn't - they're serious about a beer being a proper pint, those Englishmen...

Manners Cost Nothing

In any case, let your conscience be your guide, on all of this.  What I will say, though, is that being polite never hurts, usually helps, and costs nothing.  

If you're going to step out onto the Customer-Alehole tightrope, best to err on the side of courtesy.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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