Piss and Vinegar: Beer Confusion

Beer fanatics love geeking out over the wide selection of beers available to us, even to the point of obsessing over the ingredients. It’s a great feeling to walk into a bar and see a row of 20, 30, or 50 taps of great beer sticking out of a wall. But what if the personnel at that multi-tap bar don’t share your obsession? Are you always sure that you’ve been served the beer you ordered and so eagerly anticipated? Did you get the correct beer, served in the correct condition? Or did the server’s Beer Confusion get in the way?

It’s easy to forgive beer ignorance or confusion at restaurants that happen to have a decent beer selection — the waitstaff and even the management is focused on food or atmosphere, and beer is just one of the many bases they are trying to cover. But even at multi-tap bars with a focus on beer, it happens far too often that the bartenders or servers have little expertise in what they’re serving. Here in Portland, Henry’s Tavern springs to mind as a bar which proudly boasts a gigantic beer menu, but where the waitresses–though nice to look at–have no idea what any of the beers are like, which taps have run out, or what the serving size will be.

I don’t expect much from a place like Henry’s, which is just another tie on the rack of some bean-counting restaurant ownership group, but even less corporate haunts can be guilty of trying to serve a sophisticated beer audience with confused staff. Here are a few Beer Confusion anecdotes:

  • At North 45 I was once served a glass of Fort George’s Quick Wit which was completely flat–no bubbles. I told the waitress there was a problem with it, and she said, “It’s that way because that’s the style it is, it’s a Belgian style”. Uh… no. She did graciously replace it, but I was definitely irked to be given such a lame and incorrect excuse.
  • One evening I was excited to see “Terminal Gravity Single Hop Double IPA” on the chalkboard at the Hawthorne Hophouse. For a few years now, TG has been putting out a series of single-hopped DIPAs–you occasionally can find several of them on tap side-by-side. But even if there’s just one on tap, isn’t the point to know which Single Hop it is? At the Hophouse, the server seemed bemused that I would ask which one it was–she had no idea. The bartender didn’t know, either. They huddled over a laptop for a while, then she came over and confidently told me, “Simcoe!”. “How’d you figure it out?” “The internet!” “Yes, but they have done it with several different hop varieties.” Here she got a little creative: “Oh, we found the one that matched our keg.” Nice.
  • It’s not always the front-line staff that are confused, sometimes the confusion comes from careless management. Even at the venerable Horse Brass–where the servers are about as beer savvy as they come — the rotating beer menu can be error prone. On a visit in the fall of 2011, the Brass claimed to be pouring the Crystal version of Full Sail’s Fresh Hop Lupulin, which unfortunately was one of the varieties brewed in 2009, not that year. The same menu lauded the Chinook hops in Oakshire’s Triune Fresh Hop, though that year’s batch actually used Fuggles, Cascades, and Magnums. I love the Horse Brass, but for one of the country’s landmark beer bars they can be startlingly inattentive about things like that, which are a big deal to a lot of their patrons.
  • I blew a gasket this past October when Concordia Ale House held a blind-tasting “Fresh Hop-A-Palooza” in which a slate of 10 fresh-hop beers was served without labels, and you voted on your favorite. It’s a great idea, but the execution was a disaster. The list of beers was riddled with stupid mistakes. Two of the beers–insultingly, the 3rd and 4th place winners–were not fresh hop beers, and I have my doubts about two others. There were mistakes in the names of three of the ten beers on the list, including the eventual 1st and 2nd place winners! Some way to run a competition.

Those are all examples of specific mistakes, but a disinterested or unknowledgeable beer server can rain on a beer geek’s parade even if all the orders come out correctly. If the people waiting on you don’t have at least a basic amount of knowledge about the beer, they can’t help guide your explorations. When I’m at a bar like that, I always wonder what the point is of having a great selection if the proprietors or staff aren’t very interested in it. And I wonder what other kinds of mistakes might arise out of that confusion–for example, not storing or serving the beer properly.

Watch out for beer festivals also. Most volunteers at beer festivals are not as obsessed about the beers as you are, and the person serving you a beer might not know anything about it, or even whether they’re serving you the right one. Case in point: at the Organic Beer Festival a few years ago, the Roots station was serving their Pale Ale as a hopless Gruit, and vice versa. About half a day went by before someone who could tell the two apart tried them both at the same time and got the mistake corrected.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and no one knows everything. But if the main point of your business is to serve great beer, your management and staff should have some level of interest in and knowledge of the subject. Otherwise, you are not respecting beer. I call on owners of beer bars everywhere: sweep away the Beer Confusion.

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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.

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Discussion

  • Unknown
    Unknown
    Tue Jan 15, 2013 4:02 PM

    I feel your pain. I visited Caldera’s taproom one evening and was impressed with the many visiting taps featured as well as their own seasonal offerings. The stab in the gut was a wait for service of any kind of 30 minutes to begin with. When the waitress did finally come by (she knew about us as she seated us earlier) I asked about the Belgian (Vas defrens) they had on tap. Her response was “umm chewy”. She then handed me their beer menu with minimal descriptors and then proceeded to point out which ones were not available since they had not had time to swap out the kegs that afternoon. Needless to say we left. I sent an email to Caldera that evening explaining the issues found and pointing out that this is not a generic tap house but a direct representation of their brewery. No response at all. I did however receive responses from several of the breweries on their guest taps (Rogue, deschutes, and Widmer) expressing their concerns. Absolutely unexcusable on Caldera’s end.

    • Bill Night
      Bill Night
      Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:08 AM

      Yep, that’s another example of what I’m talking about. Thanks for writing it up.

    • Shawn
      Shawn
      Wed Jan 16, 2013 6:14 AM

      But Henry’s veggie burger is excellent! That’s gotta count for something, right?

      • Urban Beer Hiker
        Urban Beer Hiker
        Wed Jan 16, 2013 7:54 AM

        We’re called “servers”, not “waitresses”, grandpa. And, “nice to look at?” You’ve got to be kidding. Not sure if I was supposed to take the rest seriously, but I did because it struck a nerve. Good job, I guess.

        Have you ever worked in the service industry? It sure doesn’t sound like it. I’ve been a bartender/server for over 10 years and also consider myself a craft beer geek/advocate/lover — whatever. Currently I work at a busy place with 15 taps and I really try to keep up with what’s on, what it tastes like, what it’s made from, who the head brewer is, where they came from, what hops… Wait, you know what? A nine-top just came in and they say 12 more are on the way and can they push these tables together and can they all order at the same time and they all have questions and can you put the other game on that TV and…?

        These are excuses, sure, and I know I sound like a crybaby. I sometimes think that if I ever worked at a place where all I had to do is stand behind the bar and pour beer and chat with beer geeks (Toronado, Apex), I’d be in heaven and I’d know everything about each beer and would taste them all before I started my shift. But then I visit those places, and understand why that can never be. It’s even harder there because people expect you to know exponentially more.

        If you work at a brewery tap room, then yes, absolutely you should be able to know all that. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. But at a restaurant/pub/alehouse? I don’t ever expect that kind of advanced knowledge (although it’s nice when you occasionally run into it.)

        I’m all hot and bothered now — and just before bedtime! I look forward to your next provocative post.

        • Urban Beer Hiker
          Urban Beer Hiker
          Wed Jan 16, 2013 8:27 AM

          I’ve just been made to understand that you were only referring to hot waitresses in terms of Henry’s. My apologies, gramps (you are older than me.)

          • Bill Night
            Bill Night
            Thu Jan 17, 2013 6:07 AM

            The point of the rant, which might not have come across that well, is this: why open a multi-tap and then staff up with people that don’t care that much about beer?

            All I’m asking for is people like you, that put some effort into knowing what’s on tap and what it’s like. People who show some interest. And who — subtle point here — know enough to be comfortable admitting the things they don’t know.

          • Anonymous
            Anonymous
            Thu Jan 17, 2013 1:55 PM

            My favorite anecdote along these lines:

            I’d bought a bottle of gueuze from Belmont Station and after untwisting the metal top, the cork simply slid out and the beer was completely flat. Normally, it’d just be a drain pour, but since it was kind of expensive and I’d been craving it, I went back to swap it out. Upon return—

            Me: Hi—I just bought this beer and I think it’s off—was wondering if you could maybe swap it out—it’s totally flat.

            Clerk: Have you ever had this style before? Hmmm? That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

            M: I guess, but I just had this same beer in Belgium, and it was pretty highly carbonated..

            C: Really? (Then shakes the bottle up) Look–it’s plenty carbonated. Look—that’s the way it should be, OK. I can’t give you your money back.

            M: Well, then why does it say on the back here—“with its Champagne-like effervescence…” There isn’t any effervescence. It’s flat. I don’t want my money back, I just want another bottle.

            C: (Very exasperated) Well fine then. Choose something else, but not this same beer—you won’t appreciate it.

            Nice!

            As opposed to a completely different situation at Beaumont Market (and a totally different context):

            I’d bought a bottle of La Fin du Monde and when I got home it rolled out of the back seat when I opened the door and broke on the driveway. Went back to get another, realized I didn’t have enough money, and was looking for something cheaper. The beer guy said “hey, back so fast?” Told him what had happened and he grabbed another bottle and just gave it to me. Above & beyond the call of duty.

            C: