Bar Etiquette

DE-FENSE: A Case Study in Bar Defensiveness Over Beer Mistakes

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I swear, I didn't want to say anything.  I sat quietly.  I watched football on the big screens.  I thought about what I would order when I met my family for dinner in an hour.  But the hive brain on social media told me to say something.  Hell, I told me to say something (via BS, in a prior piece).  

I'd been given a patently wrong beer.  I was about to bring it up.  Let's go to the mental video tape...

Situation Report

So, I'm stupid enough to visit the largest mall in the United States two weeks before Christmas on a routine errand.  As I'm waiting in traffic to literally get into a parking lot so I can then prowl around like a stalker looking for a space, I realize that this is futile, and make my way to a nearby bar to kill an hour before meeting some family for dinner at one of those eat-until-you-die Brazilian steak houses (great time, but I think I prefer the cook-for-yourself fondue places).  

This is a place with a big wall of chalkboard with their craft beer selections on it - probably 40-ish, total.  Big wall of taps.  Reclaimed wood everywhere.  You know the kind of place.  I order a rye IPA from a local brewery.

It arrives.  I sniff and note pepper/phenol (weird...and no hops) and taste it: this is clearly not a rye IPA.  Sharply sour, medium-high levels of fruit, no hops to speak of.  I look at the board and find a likely culprit - a blueberry wild ale.

Thus my dilemma: do I say something?  It tastes fine, I don't mind sours, and it's shift-change time on a Saturday at 5PM (so, not rammed or anything, but certainly not quiet).  

Egged on by you agitators, I catch the eye of the bartender...and the fun begins.

A Descending Spiral of Nonsensical Defensiveness

I follow all of the rules I've recommended to others.  Polite, courteous, apologetic, etc.  No ranting or demands.  Short version: "Sorry to bug you, and I'm really enjoying this beer, but I think it's different from what I ordered.  Maybe there was a tap connected to the wrong keg or something?  Anyways, just wanted to see if there's a sour on that [Rye IPA] tap."

Phase 1: Obstruction.  "We don't give samples."  OK.  Well, I didn't actually ASK for a sample, and I've subsequently been told by lots of people that they DO give samples, but in any case... I respond that that's OK, I don't want a sample, they can taste it themselves.

Phase 2: Misdirection.  Said bartender pulls a couple of ounces.  Tastes it.  Gives me one.  I taste it.  They're definitely different.  Hell, they LOOK different.  I say, "wow, yeah, not the same."  Bartender says, "I think they're the same..."  NOTE: She hasn't tasted mine.

Phase 3: Explanation.  Our bartender is joined by another individual - a second bartender, maybe a bar manager or shift supervisor?  And now it's education time.  "No, you see, it tastes sour because this is a Rye IPA."  I haven't yet said the words, "I'm a brewer and a beer judge," nor shall I.  Don't wanna be an alehole.  But it's hard.  Instead, I mention that I've had Rye IPAs, and never noticed sourness.  Also, there's fruit - I offer her my glass to sniff, because there's a ton of berry coming out of this thing.

Phase 4: Deflection.  "Maybe it's the banana wheat..."  OK, this is kinda progress because at least we're conceding that it's not Rye IPA, but if there's one beer back there I'm sure it's not, it's the banana wheat.  

Phase 5: Conclusion.  "In any case, you drank most of it and you've already paid, so we can't give you a refund."  At this moment, my wife texts that they're at the restaurant.  I assure her again I'm not asking for anything, just wanted to let her know about the issue.  

END SCENE

De-Fense!!  De-Fense!!

It might be appropriate that I was watching the Detroit Lions have one heck of a defensive day against the Chicago Bears.  Because that's what this whole encounter reeked of (other than berries and Brett): defensiveness.  Why?  I mean, I'm just trying to help here - shouldn't you want that?

Why am I bringing it to you all?  Not sure.  I don't know that I have a larger point on this one.  I think I gave them every possible "out" to save face - they just didn't bite.  Nor did they seem much interested in them.  And this was a place that supposedly is pretty proud of its big craft beer selection.

Maybe it's a sign that even places that don't care about craft beer are serving it, which is still a win, but it also means that the "craft" part might not be getting the attention it deserves from the vendors.  

In any case, I may need to reevaluate, going forward, whether it's worth mentioning stuff like this.  Maybe it would have been better off as an e-mail to the management, but I don't like going over folks' heads, either, and I don't like the idea that that kind of defensiveness is hard-wired into bar staff, if indeed it is and this wasn't just a fluke.

So, just wanted to share the story.  If this has happened to you, you're not alone.  I'd love any suggestions anyone has for this kind of scenario, moving forward.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


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

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Don't Order Tasters: Samples, Pints, and "Drinking 'Til You're Happy"

"Can I have a taste of that beer, please?"

God, I hate that question on so, so many levels...

The First Taste

First, your initial sip of almost any beer is a very, very poor predictor of what you'll ultimately think of that beer.  

If it's your first beer of the night (or day, if you're lucky), then your palate is reacting to the initial hit of alcohol, which (alcohol being what it is) is going to get numbed down pretty quickly.

Even if it isn't, flavor perception is an additive process.  What tastes good might not taste good after more of it.  A fingertip in the sugar bowl tastes good; eating spoonful after spoonful of it is disgusting.  And something that tastes not-great initially might grow on you.  But you won't know that, because you ordered a thimbleful of it and tried to make a prediction.

Palate Deafness

Second, as you drink more of something, the experience of it changes.  Your palate will adapt to what it's tasting, and things that are unpleasant at first can fade away or mutate into something pleasant or even transcendental.

That 120-IBU monster might seem too intense for you if you just drink one ounce.  But eight or 16 ounces later your palate has gone a bit deaf to it the bitterness and instead you may be tasting something very, very different thanks to that high IBU burn-in.  

And we're not only tasting - we're feeling.  That sharp sourness will seem much less so after a few sips, but the puckering tightness will still be there, and that might be something that changes your evaluation.

You'll never experience that, though, because you took one sip and moved on.  

Volatility

Third, beer is volatile.  It changes.  Some flavors will come right out of solution and dissipate in seconds - if you reject the beer because your little taster had that flavor and you didn't like it, you're walking out of a movie five minutes into it.

What if the beer is overcarbonated?  As it sits and approaches the "right" carbonation level, it will change, and its flavor will change.  You'll never know, because you passed after two sips or your sample.

Use the Right Tools

Your taster probably came in a completely different glass than your beer would have.  You probably aren't getting much of a sense of the aroma.  Any fault from a not-beer-clean glass is hugely magnified because of the surface-area-to-beer ratio in that tiny glass.  CO2 is being released differently on that lip.

In other words, you're not even tasting the beer you'd be getting by the pint.

Pouring These Sucks

It sucks for the bartender, but it also sucks for you.  Beer service off of a tap into a 2-ounce glass isn't the same as the same pour into a pint.  The system isn't designed for tiny pours.

And it's a pain in the ass for the bartender - have a heart.

Drink for the experience

I don't order a sample of anything.  What's the worst case scenario?  I drink it fast or give it away?

When I order a beer, I want the full experience.  I want several sips of it.  I want steadily declining carbonation.  I want all of the palate sensations.  I want to work through what I might consider "off-flavors" and maybe come to appreciate or understand or learn to ignore them.  

And I want to be a considerate patron, because a) I used to tend bar, and b) it gets me my next beer faster because they know I'm not going to ask them to pour three or four or seventeen tiny samples, and c) I'm only human and want people to like me.

So please, don't order a taste of anything.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


What's In a Name: Pitfalls and Opportunities in Beer Naming

"What's in a name?," Shakespeare asked.  "That which we call a rose - By any other name would smell as sweet."  Good point, Will.  But that's a pretty narrow view of the effect and import of names, and lately beer has been struggling with multiple identity crises.  

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet: but what happens when people start referring to a dead rat as a "rose rat"?  Or when strawberries become "rose berries" because they share a common color, resulting in the death of a number of people with strawberry allergies?

Names matter.  And in many ways, when it comes to beer, we suck at it.  The issue of sexism in beer names has been well documented, and that's not what I'm talking about.  I'm talking about how marketing has resulted in an odd winnowing of the names we use to describe beer, and how that's hurting craft beer in ways that buyers and brewers alike should be concerned about.

Beer naming allows consumers (us) to get a preview of what's in the bottle, can, or keg.  It increases the utility of our selection process and makes it more likely that we get what we're looking for.  But more and more we're seeing names that are potentially working against us and making it harder to predict what's in the glass, and it's baffling to me that brewers don't see the downside of that.  

Once upon a time, I lived in Texas and worked as a waiter.  One of my first shifts educated me on a genuinely odd and unproductive reality of many Texans: all soda was referred to as "Coke."  

"What can I get you, sir?"

"I'd love a Coke, thanks!"

I bring him a Coke.

"I wanted a Sprite."

"But you ordered a Coke..."

"Right - but a Sprite."

Without a bit more care in how we name these things - and we consumers have a part to play and a share of the blame - we're at risk of shooting ourselves in the palate and, as a kicker, constricting the beer world in which we claim to value diversity above most other things.  

A World of IPE

I'm talking about India Pale EVERYTHING.  

It's an easy and obvious target, but good Lord, it HAS to be said: is there anything that brewers won't call an "IPA" these days?  The multitude of color variations is one thing (apparently IPA now comes in White, Red, Brown, Black and even Blue - true story), and while I agree there is potentially a difference between some of these and other base styles, the distinction isn't all that apparent when you get down to the actual beers.  Any number of Brown/Black IPAs are really just American Brown Ales or Porters or Stouts.  Those names already existed, and they already included the potential for significant hop character.  Why not use them?  "Josh, this way consumers KNOW they're going to get PRONOUNCED hops!"  Do they, though?  My last three in the Brown/Black IPA (or Cascadian Dark if you roll that way) category were pretty conventional/limited in their hopping, and in fact came in dragging in terms of bittering/hop flavor compared to many current examples of other already-there styles (fittingly enough, Rogue's Shakespeare Stout is rocking about 70 IBUs and a healthy dose of flavor hops - is it a stout or a Black IPA?).  I was judging a Best of Show panel for a homebrew competition about six months ago and the BOS winner was a "Red IPA" that was far less hop-driven than many of the American Amber ales in competition.  

Then there's the Farmhouse IPAs.  The Belgian IPAs.  Rye IPAs.  New England IPAs.  Fruit, Spice, Herb IPAs. Coffee IPAs.  SESSION IPAs, for crying out loud.  IPLs.  I could go on, possibly forever.  

Brewers, not everything with hop flavor needs to be an IPA.  And by tagging EVERY hop-flavor-having beer you make with that name, you're diluting the utility of it.  I know it's a useful marketing tool that feels good, but it's bad for you in the long run, like heroin, or Sons of Anarchy after season two.

A Fine Pilsner Beer

And what the hell is happening with Pilsners?  They don't get quite as much attention, but have you noticed what's developing here?  It would seem that "Pilsner" is being used to describe basically anything that's pale in color and uses a lager yeast.  And it isn't like we don't have a good historical basis for knowing what to expect out of a Pils.

I could rip on a certain macro lager that claims to be a "Fine Pilsner Beer," but I won't - for one thing, I kind of like it as a neutral option when I'm in macro-land and the closest thing to craft is Shock Top.  But for another thing, there's far less risk of a Danny Thomas-style spit take with that.  Maybe just a shrug that it doesn't seem to be as roundly malty as a classic Czech Pils or as flinty and spare as a classic German Pils.  

No, I'm talking about Pilsners (seriously - Pilsners) that are 8% ABV.  Or barrel-aged (no kidding).  Or dry hopped (which I can get behind, but is still a little surprising).  Or black - seriously, a Black Pilsner (which was also heavily hopped, btw); what, was "Black IPL" just a bridge too far for you?

Much as most hoppy beers are now just called some-kind-of-IPA, it seems that an increasing number of lagers are just called "Pilsners," regardless of whether the name actually applies.

And don't even get me started on...

'Tis the Saison

Yeah, one of the buzziest terms now is "farmhouse" or "Saison."  Cloudy, wheaty, spicy, hoppy, all or none of the above?  SAISON!  FARMHOUSE!  RUSTIC!  I can almost understand this one, since Saisons were originally very much a local-driven beer, made with whatever was on hand, and so there was a lot of variation.  But this isn't that - this is just laziness.  It's an appeal to an image, not a reflection of brewing history.

Spicing a Saison was actually not all that common.  Farmhouse beers weren't simply rustic, they were usually wild-fermented.  And they sure as hell weren't sold as being "smooth" as a Saison from a particular wildly popular brewery is.

No, this seems much more like Golden Age thinking and nostalgia run amok, picturing the quaint brewers of rural France and Belgium - not an homage to the authentic seasonal styles of Northern Europe.

And then we have...

Sour is Sweet

Some recent writing on Sour beers has suggested that calling beers "Sours" is applying too-generic a moniker to a very diverse set of beers.  I see their point (it's in many ways the point I'm making here - too-broad a name reduces utility), but this is one area where I ultimately disagree with it.

Justin Grant, writing in the Tampa Bay Times, notes: "'Sour' is about as meaningful as 'dark.' Both terms are woefully lacking in information, and they unfairly lump dissimilar beers together, simply because they share a single, arbitrary attribute."

I think that's significantly overstating the case.  Sour isn't an "arbitrary attribute" - it's a defining feature that provides a substantial indicator of what's in the bottle. The examples of how different and diverse Sours can be are accurate, but ignore the fact that if you had to describe Berliner Weisse, Lambic, and Flanders Red the first word nearly anyone would use is "sour" or "acidic." 

Moreover if you picked up beers that aren't called Sours and tasted acid, you'd probably be very surprised, right?  And maybe a little concerned/pissed?

"Dark" as a descriptor has almost no utility. "Sour" by comparison does add utility in that it identifies a defining (and often divisive in terms of the drinkers' impressions) attribute.

Nor is "sour" in any way necessarily pejorative as some have claimed.  Sour Cream.  Sour Candy.  Sweet and Sour Chicken.  We make use of the term all over the place, because acid is one of those things that makes us sit up and take notice - potentially as a sign of contamination or spoilage.  If it's going to be there, you should probably let people know it's there on purpose.

Let's Leave My Anus Out of This

Some (including some of you) have accused me of being a bit too anally retentive when I suggest that we should be conscious of and actively use the beer-nomenclature history and tools with which we are already endowed.  To that, I say, let's leave my ass-tightness out of this.  It's not about me being a stickler - it's about how branding and naming impact craft beer as a segment.

When making ordering decisions, individuals rely on the names of the products on offer to guide their choice.  They use them to increase the probability that what they order will make them happy.  When we over-use (and even mis-use) category or style names, we undermine consumers' ability to get what they want, and as that probability function starts to yield fewer happy customers, we start to lose them.  That's bad for beer.

It's also bad because it makes it harder for bar owners and managers to put a diverse selection of taps on.  First, you're making it harder for them to know what they're getting (much like you're making it harder on consumers).  "But the reps know what the beers are and can help them!"  Yeah - sure.  We'll deal with that one another day.  Second, though, by encouraging consumers to too-broadly categorize beers you're creating "demand" for only a few things (IPAs, Saisons, Pilsners, for example) which can result in tap lists that are overcommitted to just a few flavor profiles.  Yes, there's great variety within them since EVERYTHING is getting over-grouped into these macro-categories, but now we're relying on the bar to know the differences within the macro-category to effectively put on a variety of beers, and that's an iffy proposition.

Finally, it's bad because it makes craft beer look like what it's trying to replace.  When consumers see this macro-grouping going on, and see tap lists at "craft" beer bars that are 80% IPAs, they start to think we're just like THEM (the macro breweries).  "Macro" becomes "pale lager," while "Craft" becomes "IPA."  That's not a fair assessment on either side, but I've literally heard this very statement out of the mouth of a number of friends, relatives, and neighbors.  And we're feeding it, to our own detriment.  A tap list of nearly-all IPAs isn't all that different from a tap list of all-macro-lagers.  It just makes us seem uncreative, and as though we've become what we despised - boring and repetitive.

So let's make an effort to call beers what they are.  Why throw away the diversity and variety that fueled the rise of craft beer in the first place?  When you get a brown Pilsner, or a not-at-all-bitter IPA, or a smooth "farmhouse" beer, let the brewery know that they're misrepresenting their beers.  This is a tide that can be turned, but won't unless we reward a brewery for calling an American Amber an American Amber and not a Red IPA.  

And lest anyone accuse me of hypocrisy (how does "Beer Simple" oppose general names for beer?), I'd simply note that a synonym of "simple" is "obvious" or "clear."  Overgeneralization is the enemy of clarity.  

Keep it Simple.

JJW 

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


The "Beer Talk" Terrorist: How Not to be an Alehole When Discussing Beer

GUY WALKS INTO A BAR...

...and accidentally exposes himself to what appears to be a doctoral-level dissertation on the finer points of fermentation and how "100% Brett-fermented beers aren't actually sour, you know?" even though he didn't bring up Brett beer.  He doesn't know what Brett is.  He doesn't even know anyone named Brett.  All he did was ask the bartender about one of the taps, and the bartender gave a stock answer that was given to him/her by the distributor, who probably misunderstood it when the brewery rep explained it in the first place.  Then, our friendly neighborhood alehole, lurking in a dark corner of the bar, overhears the exchange, decides to jump in, and we're off to the races.  First, he/she corrects the bartender, which does wonders for over-the-bar relations (expect saliva and/or urine in your next tulip glass of exotic Trappist ale).  Second, he/she decides to crack an egg of knowledge on the fellow bar patron who asked the initial question.  Said patron might even be stupid/polite enough to ask follow-up questions of the alehole, despite the gleam of hop-fueled mania in the alehole's eyes.  We LOOOOOVE beer.  And we love talking about it.  But this can quickly turn on us.  If we're not careful, we're not scoring a victory for beer knowledge: we're being off-putting and (probably) irritating, and also not that helpful.  We're being Beer Talk Terrorists.

These situations can be the most treacherous arena of beer-person's life, and if you're conscientious you can make them positives for everyone involved.  But you can also wreck them and deprive people from good-beer-fueled happiness for the rest of their said, Aspen Edge-swilling lives.

Four quick vignettes will illustrate what I mean, and hopefully give you some useful guidance on Talking Beer without being an alehole.  Let's talk about The Eavesdropper, The Faux Beer Geek, The Casual Questioner, and (my favorite) The Victim.

The Eavesdropper

Look, if you really get into beer and hang around long enough, the day will inevitably come when you overhear a beer server or bar patron say something that is just balls crazy.  TRUE STORY: A bartender, on being asked, replies as follows to a query about one offering at his bar.  "Dopplebock?  It's like regular bock, but less hoppy, like an Amber Ale."  I've been pondering that one since June 2004, and I swear to God, I still don't know what it means.  What should you do?

NOTHING.  DO NOT ENGAGE.  I know the impulse to jump in is strong.  And I know you're thinking, "but I can be polite and informative to all involved and save the beer day!"  No you can't.  Gandhi couldn't thread this needle.  You're going to have to do a 180-degree correction on the server without wildly embarrassing him/her, while at the same time imparting useful information to the patron without boring him/her to death (see the many iterations in "Airplane").  It can't be done.  Sit there, shut up, and hope that someone asks you for your opinion (which almost certainly won't happen).  This is NOT the time to "train up" those around you.

The Faux Beer Geek

Your sister tells another attendee at her cookout that you brew your own beer, to which the individual responds, "Oh, I love craft beer!"  You think, "nice!  This could be fun..." when all of a sudden they follow it up with, "I totally prefer stouts to ales."  And your heart sinks.  The objection of "stouts ARE ales..." leaps to your lips - but hold it back.

This person is the Faux Beer Geek.  They don't drink macro beer (or, possibly, they think that Amstel is "craft" beer because it's imported), and they think because they know what an IPA tastes like (maybe) that they're the second coming of Michael Jackson.  DO NOT go all alehole on them.  They usually mean well - in other words, they're probably not just saying it to show off - and by putting them in their place with your massive beer knowledge, you may just crush their spirit like a can of fine craft beer (like Shock Top, you know?).  So what should you do?

FIND WAYS TO AGREE.  Don't talk down to them.  Steer clear of technical details and science.  Focus on flavors, and maybe make recommendations of things they might like based on what they tell you they like to drink or share the names of breweries you know to be solid that they may like.   Encourage their love of beer, and try to get them in the door of a place that has a great beer list - over time, they may develop a more-sophisticated knowledge of beer.  Maybe get them to a local homebrew shop to start doing it for themselves!  Nudge, don't shove, in the right directions.  You know, like cult recruiting, but with more vinyl tubing.

The Casual Questioner

This one is dangerous.  Maybe you're at a workplace event, and you notice that the company has sprung for some decent local beer - score!  You express your delight at finding a bottle of craft beer instead of the usual aluminum bottles of macro, and a colleague asks casually what makes your ESB-inspired-but-uses-New-Zealand-hops beer better or different.  What should you do?

BE BRIEF AND SIMPLE.  Hit the high points using language that isn't too jargon-y, and mainly talk up the ingredients and care-in-process aspects.  If I told you a bakery made awesome cake - way better than that supermarket cake - because they use fully-emulsified peanut oils and not propeller-expressed palm oil, you'd have no idea what the hell I was talking about.  And the longer I talked, the worse it would get.  Instead, imagine I just said, "Oh this stuff?  Pure Moroccan Vanilla in the icing and the baker is the third generation of her family to make them all by hand!  So how about that kickball game later?"  Give them something that leaves a positive impression, and don't belabor it.  In all likelihood they haven't been waiting for months to have an intense beer talk with someone, but maybe they've been thinking of giving craft beer a try.  If it's a good beer they ask you about, recommend they try one or others in the brewery's lineup, and leave it at that.  Less is more.

The Victim

This one is just sad.  I've been the perpetrator here a few times: you think you hear real interest in beer from the other person in the conversation, but what you're really hearing is a desperate need to keep a conversation going at all costs.  This might be someone who has tremendous fear of silence and pressure of speech.  It might be someone who is insanely polite and must constantly ask follow-up questions because you seem so pleased by them.  But this person DOES NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT BEER!  You just think they do.  So what do you do to prevent this from happening and weighing on your conscience, as it so heavily weighs on mine?

GET THEM TALKING.  If they're REALLY interested in beer, it will be obvious when they answer some questions.  Ask what they drink and why.  Ask if they've ever thought of brewing for themselves.  Ask if they've ever visited a brewery or gone to a beer dinner.  You'll know right away what you're dealing with: short, vague answers will cue you in to the fact that this is probably just polite conversation, so don't jump in with both feet.  If the answers are longer, enthusiastic, specific - and especially if the person in question loves to cook or works as a scientist, two huge tells in the beer community, I've found - then you may have a larval beer geek on your hands.  But play it safe; offer them multiple ways out of the conversation, either by bringing up a new topic or apologizing for going on and on about beer.  If they want out, that will give them plenty of opportunity.

In Closing

The ratio of the number of people who REALLY know about/love/want to talk about beer and brewing, versus the number of people who just DRINK beer, is pretty extreme.  Be a good beer ambassador.  Talk up the culinary, not the technical.  Educate, don't correct.  Be enthusiastic, not boorish.  And always leave them wanting more - the next sip, if you will.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

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