Bars

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).


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

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).

*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.