how much to tip

Piss and Vinegar: Beer Bar Tipping FAQ

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In last month’s column I decried Beer Confusion — ignorant service at bars with a focus on beer.  To show that I’m an equal opportunity crank, this month I want to take the side of the hardworking bartenders and beer servers, and get all you cheapskates out there tipping properly.

A few short years ago I was in the same benighted state as a lot of you are:  rounding up to $5 on $4.50 pints, or throwing down a buck when I bought a round of three or four beers.  Luckily I asked for some advice on the matter, and got caught up on modern American beer tipping etiquette.  Now I am going to drop all that knowledge on you, in the form of an easily digested list of Frequently Asked Questions.  Share it with your chintzy friends, and for God’s sake email this FAQ to your parents right away.

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The Basics

Q: How much should I tip for a beer?

A: Tip $1 per beer.  Pint, half-pint, goblet, boot, whatever.  This is the rule for any individual drink at the bar: $1.  Tip even more if you got some special attention, like free tastes.

Q: But it’s happy hour and the beers are only $2.50.  Isn’t $1 an outrageous tip?

A: You got a cheap beer and you’re worried about tipping too much?  Tip $1 for that cheap beer.

Q: That was a frickin $8.50 beer in a tiny glass.  Do I really have to tip a buck on top of that?

A: Yes. Tip $1 for that expensive beer.  Listen, the bar is paying the server sub-minimum wage [Correction: on the West Coast, the server is making at least minimum wage ($8.80/hour, or $17.6K/year at 40 hours/week). Some states allow sub-minimum wages for restaurant jobs.] whether the beer is cheap or expensive.  Pay up.

Q: I ran a tab, and had a bunch of food and drinks on it by the end of the night.  How much should I tip?

A: Tip at least 20% of the bill.  Don’t be afraid to go over 20% by a little.  If you got any freebies, or got comped for some things, add those to the total for the purposes of figuring the tip.

Q: I bought a pitcher instead of individual pints.  How much should I tip?

A: Tip at least 20% of the price.  See above.  Nowadays that probably means $2-$3 a pitcher.

Q: Should I put the tip on the credit card, or tip with cash?

A: If you can, cash tips are better for the workers because they get divided up by those on duty at the time — at many places the credit card tips are averaged for the week and distributed based on the number of hours worked.  That said, it’s all appreciated, so a credit card tip is better than a weak cash tip.

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Don’t try to weasel out of it

Q: $1 a beer is a lot, especially since I paid for 4 beers.  Should I tip less?

A: No.  Tip $1 per beer.  Suppose the beers were $4.50 each, and you decide to shave the tip back to 50 cents a beer.  Your total bill would be $20, vs. $22 if you would just tip properly.  Hopefully you got a few hours enjoyment out of your time at the bar.  Don’t be petty about the last $2.

Q: This place is so cool that I was served by the owner herself.  Should I tip less?

A: No.  Tip normally.  If the owner is working instead of sitting on the beach, she might be making less money per hour than her employees.  For another thing, tips are usually shared by everyone on duty at the time, so you’re holding back from everyone, not just the owner.  Finally, if an owner thinks you’re being to generous, he has it in his power to make it up to you.  Wouldn’t you like to get on the good side of the owner of a cool beer bar?

Q: The service was slow, or surly, or otherwise inferior.  Should I tip less?

A: No.  This is difficult to understand at first, but tipping in America is not compensation for a job well done, it’s just compensation, period.  You don’t think that makes any sense?  I don’t either, but that’s the system we have.  Maybe you don’t like the system, but it won’t get changed simply by you welching on your end of the deal.  Can’t stand to tip for bad service?  Then stay home, serve your own damn beer to your own damn self, and save a bunch of money.

Q: I insist that I must teach the server a lesson for this bad service.  By withholding the tip, or tipping a single penny, I will teach him to do a better job next time.  What’s wrong with that?

A: There are a lot of things wrong with that:

  • A low tip doesn’t fix the service, or send a message to the management.  Unless you specifically tell someone how the service was lacking, you haven’t taught them anything.  If you had complained, maybe you would have gotten more attention, or something taken off the bill.
  • In most places, the tips are shared by several employees, some of whom may have served you well without you even noticing.
  • Servers already think “it’s not my fault”, and when you leave them no tip it will convince them everything is your fault.
  • If you’re ever coming back to the place, your tip — low or high — might be remembered and impact your service in the future.
  • Even if you don’t plan to return, people change jobs often in the service industry.  The surly bartender you stiff today might get a job at your favorite haunt tomorrow.

Even if you were treated badly, be big and fulfill your end of the deal.  You will feel better about it in the long run, and you can just put the episode behind you instead of carrying it around like some perverse badge of victimhood.

Q: I don’t tip the guy who takes my order at Burgerville.  Why should I have to tip someone who takes my order behind a bar?

A: Look, I didn’t make up this system, I’m just describing to you how to fit in to it.  The Burgerville wages are what they are; bartending wages are set artificially low, with customer tips to make up the difference.  Also, your bartender (at least here in Oregon) has to be licensed by the state, which implies following some rules on who to serve and how much.  The bartender has more messes to clean and more cranky drunks to deal with.  In short, the two jobs are not the same.  Pay up.

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Note that these rules don’t apply in much of the civilized world, where the service is part of your bill.  Hell, that’s how it is in most of the uncivilized world also — it seems like the USA is the only place with this insane system of leaving part of the server’s wage up to the customer’s ill-informed and miserly discretion.  It’s what we have, so if you want to enjoy a night out drinking beer, play by the rules.

Tip your bartender.  Don’t be like this jackass and claim that Jesus told you not to tip.

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Bill Night

For the last several years Bill Night has been writing a Portland-centric beer blog called It’s Pub Night, named after the ritual weekly phone call or email rounding up friends for a night out: “Hey, it’s pub night!”. Despite his advanced age, he is lending a hand to the New School with a monthly rant called “Piss and Vinegar”. The name of the column comes from the British colloquial phrase “taking the piss” — making fun — and the sour character of Bill’s rants. He will continue to maintain It’s Pub Night, and he invites you to take a look at some of the fun things over there, like the Beer Review Generator, the Portland Beer Price Index, and the Six-Pack Equivalent Calculator.

16 Comments

  1. Unknown

    February 12, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Some good points here, but also some that are untrue and just bad advice.

    I tend the bar and own a restaurant and I tip really well myself when service is fair or better. If service is poor you shouldn’t tip well!!! Tips should be based on service. Servers in Oregon make $8.80 per hour plus before tips and tips to some extent should be earned. If service sucks I may still tip 5-10%, but never close to 20%. If service is great I go way over 20%.

    Bottom line: tips are earned and servers know it. If your server acts like they couldn’t care less that you’re there then show them how that makes you feel by the size of your tip. Same goes for the other side of that coin.

  2. Scott Lawrence

    February 12, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    The “unknown” above post is me (Scott Lawrence).

    I hate anonymous posts! I’m just not super tech savvy.

  3. Urban Beer Hiker

    February 12, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Well done, Bill. I don’t think I read one thing in this post that I disagree with. (I’ve been tending and serving for 12+ years, by the way.)

    I do lean more toward Scott’s camp and will tip less if the service sucked, but it depends on WHY the service sucked. Take a quick look around: was the service slow because the tender is a slug or because the place is mobbed and he/she has 60 things they’re trying to remember at any given time? I know when I get caught in that situation that my tips will be lower, but when people understand why their service was spread thin and tip 20% anyway, I usually remember them.

    Also, in addition to forwarding this your parents, sub-25-year-old could stand to read this also.

  4. Bill Night

    February 12, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    But isn’t the real answer to make a complaint? What has been accomplished with the low tip?

    • Urban Beer Hiker

      February 12, 2013 at 7:08 pm

      Absolutely, but it’s true that we’re becoming less and less confrontational these days and not everyone is comfortable doing that. Also, to elaborate on my comment: when I tip less (very rare and never less than 10%), it’s more for my own piece of mind, not to send a message. As you said, that’s not how it works.

    • ruffhauser

      February 12, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Dig it. If you don’t tell someone you have a problem with them, then you really don’t have a problem with them. It’s not fair to assume other people should be mind readers. Passive aggression is a symptom of mental illness.

  5. Anonymous

    February 12, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    I waited tables through college. Made a good living. If you acknowledge the patrons and somehow get them liquids and explain the busy and chaotic environment, they will still tip well. One last RULE if you want a 20+% tip from me or my wife, who also waited tables: NEVER EVER leave dirty dishes on a table.

  6. El.Hueso

    February 12, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Hey Bill-
    Are bartenders/servers really being paid sub-minimum wage in Portland? I was under the impression that was not the case.

  7. Anonymous

    February 12, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Bartenders in Portland (and all of Oregon) are paid $8.80, the mandatory minimum wage, as dictated by state law. The fact that most of the citizens in America willingly accept the notion that customers should subsidize the wages of service industry workers in order for restaurants/bars to maximize profit absolutely boggles my mind.

    I disagree with a few parts of this article, particularly about what to do when receiving poor service. However, I have question that wasn’t covered but that I find myself confronted with on a regular basis:

    Should I be expected to tip at a bottleshop/beer bar if I’m just buying a couple bottles to go?

    My favorite bottleshop refuses to take debit cards (but takes credit) so, no matter what, you’re confronted with space for “tip” even if all that person did was scan your beer and slide your card. To me, it kind of muddies the waters because these are the same guys that might be pouring me a beer the next night, where I have no problem tipping generously for their expertise (to me, the main reason to tip someone at a beer bar), friendliness, and service. I usually tip a buck for beer to go but I never feel like I should have or that they deserved it, just that it would look cheap of me to write $0 for the tip.

    The social pressure and expectation of a tip defeats the purpose of the tip in the first place.

    • Bill Night

      February 13, 2013 at 12:00 am

      All right, I was mistaken about sub-minimum wage, at least in Oregon, Washington, and (surely) California. I put a correction in the post. Thanks to everyone who pointed it out.

      I would not tip for bottles to go, unless something special happened during your shopping experience. And what fiendish place will take credit cards but not debit cards? I thought the fees were higher on credit than on debit, right?

    • Anonymous

      February 13, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      Oregon’s minimum wage is currently $8.95 per hour. It’s adjusted up (never down) every January 1 based on the Consumer Price Index. Oregon is 1 of 7 States that do not allow a tip credit. The United States Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour/ $2.13 per hour for tipped employees.

  8. Brewers Union Local 180

    February 13, 2013 at 4:00 am

    It’s $10/hour plus tips up here in the woods. We like our staff.

  9. Anonymous

    February 13, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Yeah, I agree with Scott more then Bill. Pay for service. And I still think a $1 a pint is a little over the top. I usually tip on the total bill, not the individual drink.

  10. Anonymous

    February 22, 2013 at 12:10 am

    If you can’t swing a buck then go drink your home-brew!

  11. Mackenzie Mauzy

    November 27, 2013 at 7:03 am

    All Question answer is so informative thanks for share your post.
    http://www.neworleansbarandgrill.com/beverages-menu.html

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