You know how sometimes you're really excited to visit a place, because you know it has a great beer selection and an atmosphere that you like? Good music, comfortable chairs, maybe a nice mahogany-surrounded dartboard and a fireplace? The kind of place where you could spend an entire afternoon watching a sporting event and still want to come back with a date later that night? Yeah...this week's post isn't about a place like that.
Let's face it - a lot of bars really suck at beer (and mead - basically all of this goes for mead, too). It's weird - they really should be good at it, right? I mean, it's at least one major source of their revenue, and almost certainly a source of their profit (once upon a time when I worked in restaurants, we were told quite regularly that the food basically breaks even, but that the place pays its bills with alcohol). It's like going to see a pulmonologist who smokes a pack a day. So this week's post is for patrons and employees of beer-selling venues, or if we're really lucky even some owners of beer bars. We can all profit from it. Because no one's winning in this equation.
This week's post is about the symptoms and signs of a shitty beer bar (philosophico-grammatical question - am I saying a shitty "beer bar" or a "shitty beer" bar? Deep...), and some potential coping strategies.
Addressing the Problem
Before we go another step, let's talk about methods.
In previous chapters of the "Your Beer Sucks" saga (scroll back in time to read those that came before now!), some of you have responded that you weren't sure how to call out a brewer/brewery on what might be deficiencies in their beer. Others indicated that they were just unwilling to do so (which I understand - unsolicited feedback isn't always appreciated, no matter how well-intentioned or well-phrased). But this is one area in particular where I think you should probably do so, and I'm going to explain why (briefly) and throw out some ideas for how (which I hope you'll add to in the Comments, here or wherever you linked from).
First, the "why." For one thing, you don't often get what you don't ask for. If you keep going to the same bar on the corner that offers the same bad/poorly handled beer and giving them your business just because it's convenient, then it's not a problem that will necessarily sort itself out via the usual "market forces" mechanisms. Maybe the place is doing OK, financially. They may not know they could be doing better. Maybe they're willing to keep plugging along and they're afraid to change. But I will say this: while I've definitely gotten a harsh response from a brewery when trying to give feedback, I've never had that happen at a bar or restaurant, so if what's holding you back is a concern that you'll get reamed out for offering polite and constructive feedback, I don't think it's as much of a concern here. Some of it might be because restaurants and bars deal with customer issues more frequently than breweries. Maybe it's because they belong to a larger regional or local group of restaurants/bars (even if it isn't a national chain of some variety) and they don't want the bad taste in your mouth (literally) to turn you off of more of their properties. But whatever the reason, I think it's worth speaking up in this case, and there's probably nothing to really lose.
Now for the how, and for me it's characterized this way: manners cost nothing. A polite comment almost never hurts, and often helps. If you can deliver it in person (by politely and discreetly speaking with the bartender or manager or owner), then great - but I know that a lot of you indicated that you might not be willing to do that for fear of looking like a bit of a douche, or because you think they won't care, or because you'd rather just move on. So consider this instead: almost everyone can be found online these days. Take advantage of that.
For one thing, there's often a general e-mail address or contact form for a place. Send a sincere and reasonable explanation of what concerns you - it costs you nothing but a few minutes of typing. Be specific, and try to avoid being judgmental. Avoid assigning motive ("I know you only keep that MACRO LAGER on because you're being BRIBED by the BIG BEER CONGLOMERATE!!!"), and just state simply what you want and why it's good for them ("It'd be great to see more local beers on tap - I know I'd stop by more often if there were!"). Simple.
Then there's social media. Now, I know that this is a little touchy - you're calling someone out publicly, so you'll want to really watch the tone and phrasing. Try to read it like someone who's really defensive, has an inferiority complex, and might come and slash your tires - and if you're convinced that that person would be OK reading what you wrote, then go ahead and click "Publish." But the upside of this strategy is that, since it is public, it creates an immediate need to address it on the part of your intended recipient. It also gives others the opportunity to chime in as well. Nothing like the appearance of real grassroots support to move an idea along, especially in profit-motivated parties!
And remember: be considerate. Even if you think they don't deserve it. Even if you think the owner/bartender/manager is an asshole. Otherwise, all you're doing is adding to the easily-dismissed noise of the internet: nothing is easier to ignore than a ranting loon who seems to be off his/her rocker. Don't give them that excuse, because if you do then the validity of your concern becomes irrelevant.
Now, what are our grievances (even if it isn't Festivus...)?
Bad Beer Selection
Doesn't your heart sink just a little bit when you see that run of generic, macro-brewery tap handles that have clearly been focus-grouped so they look just a little "authentic" while still conveying a sense of soulless reliability? Mine does. Oh sure, maybe there's one or two local IPAs up there because the bar manager once heard that "guys in flannel drink that stuff," but more than a courtesy tap or two for the persistent macro drinkers is a sign that you're in for a rough night.
So what to do about it? Well, for one thing, definitely ask the bartender for a beer that isn't there. ["What? What's he talking about? Josh is drunk again." Nope. Not even drinking during Lent. Keep an eye out for my reflections on a dry 46 days coming in late March or early April.] My wife is the nicest person in the world. When we're at a brewery (especially if they keep a dog in residence) she almost always asks the brewer/owner/rep, "what can we do to help?" Almost without fail, the person responds with something along the lines of, "ask for our beer at the places you go." Why? Because if the bartenders hear enough requests for a particular brewery, or beer, or for craft beer in general, then word will filter up to whomever fills those taps that they might be losing business by not offering better beer. Sooner or later, they'll probably take the hint. Don't look for this to result in a beam of light and a chorus of angels and the immediate evangelical conversion of the macro-bar into your favorite gastropub - this is slow work. To paraphrase Max Weber (and that's the German-y "Max Weber" - so, "Mocks Vay-burr"), craft beer conversion is the strong and slow boring of hard boards. Be one of those that are giving this place a small nudge in a crafty direction.
Another option is, if it's allowed in your state, to just bring your own. When they see you opening a beer of your own instead of ordering one of theirs, then you better believe that the profit loss is going to be immediately apparent.
And finally, when a manager or owner stops by your table and asks how everything's going, be sure to make the case for craft. Let them know that you'd be a more-regular guest. Tell them how insane craft beer geeks are (Price is no object! Bring me the finest ale or lager from your cellar!) and that they can make a fortune off of you. Tell them you're committed to eating and drinking local because beer is just better fresh. Be a good beer ambassador. What else do they have to do - go in the back and count mozzarella sticks?
...In a CLEAN Glass
There's a classic scene in the movie The Right Stuff where Jeff Goldblum and a compatriot are in a dive bar to meet with some prospective space program recruits, and he asks the bartender for a Coca-cola, "in a clean glass." For some reason it just plays really funny, but the point is one that we should care about: it doesn't much matter what the quality of the beer is if it's served poorly.
Sometimes this is literally about a clean glass. "Beer clean," as our friends over at the Cicerone Certification Program would say. If you're seeing patches or lines of bubbles, soils or lipstick on the rim, no head retention, lots of fingerprints, a glass that's tacky from slopped head, or other such sins, then don't accept it. It's a dirty glass, and it's affecting your beer's flavor (or, at the very least, your enjoyment of it when you can clearly see that there's a problem). You're as justified in sending it back as you would be if you found a hair in your soup.
Other service issues include beer that is excessively cold or over-carbonated. Now, in theory this could go either way - not-cold beer, or under-carbonated beer - but I've literally never run across those issues. When you notice it, especially if you see a bartender about to pull a refrigerated or (gag) frosted glass to pour into, don't be afraid to stop them and let them know that you prefer a room-temp glass. If they ask why (and probably only if they ask - don't be a Beer Talk Terrorist), take a second to politely explain that overly-cold beer limits flavor perceptions. If they hear it enough, maybe they'll knock of the "frosty mug" routine. Not much you can do about excessive carbonation, but if you get the chance to talk to a bar manager, you might let them know that they're serving beer that's a bit too "spritzy" and that the excess carbonation can lead to a sharp or metallic flavor that might upset their customers.
Again, these might sound like silly things to mention, but you might be surprised: sometimes in a room full of people, it's the one who asks that gets what they want because everyone else is silent. Like I said - you don't usually get what you don't ask for.
Then there's those sick bastards out there that just torture their beer. You know what I mean: rows and rows of bottles of outstanding beer that some bar manager has amassed in an effort to make his/her place the premiere beer geek destination in the area - and they're all sitting under the unrelenting, burning, blinding glare of the lights. Particularly wavelengths of blue and ultraviolet. I can almost hear them screaming in pain, thanks to those damned fluorescent lights. Yes, bottle color matters, but even a dark beer in a brown bottle is going to show the effects of light degradation eventually. Everyone breaks, on a long enough timeline. Don't allow beer torture.
And what about those who keep their beer in confinement for ages? I once ordered a bottle of a good British pale ale that I didn't often see on bottle lists, and when it arrived, you could literally - literally - blow the dust off of it. It had a "brewed on" date of two f***ing years prior. This poor thing was clearly insane from a lack of timely consumption. It tasted angry.
In cases like these, again, take a moment to get in touch with people who can prevent it - and until my new international NGO "Beer Amnesty International" gets up and running, that's the bar manager or owner at the bar in question.
There's nothing wrong with asking for these things, if it's done courteously. We talk about a craft beer (and mead) "community," and community standards are fair game. Keep in mind that by asking for the beer you want or bringing it with you because a place won't/doesn't serve it, you're promoting the idea that we care about craft beer and giving a leg up to the sales reps from deserving breweries. By sharing polite feedback with those who make decisions at bars or restaurants you're helping others and yourself and the establishment to provide a better product. By talking to people in a positive and considerate way about good beer service and the Cicerone program you're letting folks know that there are programs out there to help improve the overall quality of the product they're selling. There's no loser in this equation.
Unless you're being a dick. Don't be a dick. If you're piping up just to show off, or feel superior, or run someone down, or vent your frustrations, then you're not helping anyone. In fact, you're hurting us. You're being the very person that the ABI Super Bowl ads say we all are. Don't do that to us - you're setting back the cause for your own self-aggrandizement. And if we see you or hear you doing it...well, I'm sure we won't do anything too bad to you for it. Because we're not you. But we're going to be working against you as often and as best as we can. And I think that'll do the job, in the long run.
Keep it simple.
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