Is Craft Beer Demanding Too Much of Service Staff?

Maybe it's just bad luck, but I've run into some deeply challenged wait and bar staff lately:  overwhelmed, overconfident, overwrought and/or undereducated about the products they're serving.

I don't expect every front-of-house employee to be able to give me the rundown on how pH is a much less useful concept in evaluating the sourness of a beer than titratable acidity, but many are just running scared from one pint to the next.  I don't especially mind when folks just don't know something - worse is when they try to completely bullshit me.  Describing a Maibock as being "lagered instead of brewed with a bock yeast to lighten it up" is just nonsensical.  It's worse than a shrug, because it's clearly an attempt to sound competent despite the fact that what you've just said makes almost no sense.*

The Deep End

So, who's to blame here?  

You could blame the staff, but honestly, I can't do that.  For one thing, I used to be in that position, and I'm sure I misrepresented my fair share of information, too.  I'm also confident I did so in an attempt to appear knowledgeable about what I was serving, even if I didn't.  If their worst sin is image-protection, I think we can all understand that one.

No, I think you have to put most of this on bar owners and, to a lesser extent, on craft beer culture itself.  One created the deep end, and the other shoved us all into it.

Moving Targets

Let's say you're a well-meaning, beer-loving businessperson and you're opening a bar or restaurant.  As a beer lover (or, maybe, an opportunist who likes the idea of charging $6-7 a pint for beer), you want your bar to have a deep tap list that includes a wide range of craft beers.  You talk to some distributors and breweries, curate your list, and throw open the doors.  What kind of training do you give your staff?  

Answer: it doesn't really matter, even if you approach it seriously.

Let's say your staff learn, by rote, the details of each beer on the list (and let's further assume that that's even possible and you aren't pushing an absurd 60+ tap list).  Within a few short weeks, that list is changing.  Are they re-learning all of the new beers, or are they all just plugging along and trying to use the names of the beers to guide them (good luck with that)?

Your tap list represents a moving target.  And your staff - if you're like most service industry locations - is in a similar fluctuating state, with new people coming in all the time and institutional memory (such as it is) going out. 

A transient staff and a diverse and near-constantly shifting product selection.  What hope is there that you can get a reasonable answer to almost any question about what's on tap?

Nobody Expects It - But They Should

Then there's the Spanish Inquisition that often occurs when beer people hit the bar; nobody expects it, as the boys of Monty Python told us, but they really should.  I mean, first, when you offer a specialized product lineup you have to expect that beer neophytes might be intimidated by this and ask some questions - that's normal, and it's a problem that they might not be getting great answers.

Worse, though, are the beer geeks (and faux beer geeks) who turn the thing into 20 Questions.  A central feature of alehole behavior is the showing off of (real or imagined) esoteric knowledge of beer arcana, and this often lurks in the guise of asking questions of bar staff.  "So, which strain of Brett is in that pale ale?  Because Brett L can be a bit too piquant..."  

Yes, the very existence of craft beer culture creates the a scenario where a deep-dive/forced-drowning situation is virtually unavoidable, whether it be the newest or hippest people to walk up to the bar.

Information to The Rescue?

I know, I know, some of you are already yelling at the computer that we can all just whip out our smart phones and do our own research.  

And others are accusing me of creating a straw man because the tap list will have descriptions, too.

What I'd say to all of you is this: those have both, arguably, become unreliable narrators in the story of Craft Beer.  Ratings sites exist, but many don't offer descriptions of the beers in question - just reviews written by people who may be no more knowledgeable than you and subject to the same face-saving techno-babbly bias.  You can go right to the brewery's website, but the Maibock description above was also direct from the brewery, so that's certainly no guarantee of accuracy.

Then there's this: why should I have to?  

I've mounted this horse before, and I'm honestly not sure there's a clear answer, but if beer is going to be complicated, and style descriptions are going to be so broad as to be meaningless, and seasonal/one-off/collaboration/specialty beers are going to hit us (by popular demand) at a rapid rate, and bars are going to build out Hydra-like tap systems with a fecundity that rabbits would admire and then abdicate the responsibility to hire staff that know what's going on behind them, then...well, we might prepare for some pushback here.

I know that it's my simple-oriented bias showing itself here, but maybe - just maybe - we should start demanding quality over quantity, and not just in the beer, because the experience of drinking it matters, too.

Keep it simple.

JJW

*So here's what's wrong: this sentence draws distinctions without a difference and doesn't make a whole lot of technical sense.  True, there are "traditional "bock yeasts, so you could reasonably say that "this Maibock is different because it's not brewed with a bock yeast."  I wouldn't put it that way, but OK.  To go on, though, and say it is "lagered instead" draws two different fouls.  First, "lagering" is just cold-storing and can apply to any beer, even one brewed with an ale yeast.  Second, if the implication is that a lager yeast was used instead of bock yeast, there's a problem because bock yeast is lager yeast.  Last, lagering doesn't "lighten up" a beer, in any sense of the word.  It wouldn't lighten the color - color would stay the same or even darken, because oxidation is inevitable and oxidation darkens a beer.  It wouldn't lighten the body through continued fermentation, because by that time fermentation is complete.  And it wouldn't lighten flavor because as beers age the malt tends to come more to the fore since other flavors literally drop out of the beer.  So, yeah, we've got problems there.