Young and Hungry

Beer Pressure: What Bartenders Say to Push Craft Beer

I encountered a few interesting sales pitches involving craft beer over the last week that have made me curious. On Sunday, Bruce and I went out for our usual brunch run in Adams Morgan and landed at the bar at Asylum. A bloody mary and two mimosas in, we asked to see a beer menu. Based on my request for a Rogue Dead Guy on draft, which they were out of, the bartender suggested a bottle of Kasteel Tripel (likely because these were two of the more highfalutin beers on the menu, not because they taste alike).

As I hemmed and hawed a bit, the bartender took the opportunity to employ a few...tactics. He said Kasteel Tripel was "like Budwesier times ten," "not so sweet like other Belgian beers," and "just like a lager." I giggled and said Kasteel was one of my favorite breweries and that I had never heard their tripel described that way before. The Belgian brew is an 11%-ABV medium-bodied beer with biscuit and fruit flavors, which is about as different from a Budweiser, math aside, as a bowl of chili is from a single lima bean.

Then a similar thing happened on Tuesday at happy hour at BarCode downtown. (First, the happy hour is a darn good one: Half price on their decent but modest selection of draft and bottle beers from 4 to 7pm Monday through Friday. $4 for a bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA? Unheard of!) My friend asked our server what Goose Island Sofie was like. His response, which I should divulge was preceded with "I'm not much of a beer drinker," was that it was just like Yuengling and that she would like it. Again, the tart, citrusy, sparkling wine-like Sofie is worlds away from Yuengling (Bleh).

Comparing complex Belgian-style beers to, let's just say, "mild-flavored" lagers like Yuengling and Budweiser offended the craft beer champion in me at first. But I quickly realized that while Bruce and I are less likely to order a new beer that is compared to Yuengling, most bartenders almost always have the opposite problem. They have to work pretty hard to get new drinkers to try the array of more flavorful beers that are poured along side the big American macro-brews these days.

Whether these bartenders were trying to help expand palates or pad their wallets, this kind of sales pitch is now an established pattern. Have you had a similar encounter? What modes of persuasion have bartenders tried on you?

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  • http://www.huckfinsbeerbuzz.com Huck Fin

    I would agree that the salesmanship you experienced was not high quality or informed. The real issue may be that many bars are adding craft beers but not properly training their staffs. If you go to The Church Key or other craft beer bars, usually the bartenders are knowledgeable on the beers. I don't think it's a bad thing that craft beers are available more venues, it would be better if the service personel know about what they serve. Perhaps those who do have knowledge such as yourself can help with the education of those who don't!

    Huck

  • DanF

    I definitely see this just about everywhere. But, you really have to look at it as "what does it take to be a bartender?". There's no test, little if any experience is necessary, and the worst part is the lack of training and education provided by the manager. The few folks I've seen dedicated to educating the customer in town are the two Greg's at Churchkey/PizzaP, and Bill (formerly) at Becks. Otherwise, you're pretty much on your own. Until craft beer is as profitable (mark up is generally much less than wine), and there's a higher demand for better beer, I wouldn't expect too much from your average bartender, regardless of how awesome a beer they serve.

  • http://jstreetbeer.com jtonzi

    I've seen this quite often too. I think it's a tough situation for many bartenders. The craft beer boom that's happening in DC right now has created a lot of confusion, for bartenders and for the consumers that are now venturing into this new world. To defend the bartenders (though in many cases it is just a lack of knowledge), they're trying to provide a product to consumers who have never seen many of these beers before. And the easiest way to give a consumer an idea of what their getting into is to try and equate it to something the consumer would know. Sadly, there aren't any macro-lagers you can equate to Belgian style beers.

  • bigman

    Craft beer? home brew is more like it. if it was so good germans and belgians would actually drink it. why can't any of these so-called "braumeisters" make a straight lager? because they are incapable is my guess. "craft beer" is to beer what wine coolers are to wine.

  • Tammy Tuck

    To be honest, I really wasn't complaining about uninformed bartenders--not today at least. Had either of these interactions happened at a more beer-focused place I would have expected more. The second case was definitely a knowledge issue, but I think the situation at Asylum was more about spin. The bartender actually knew a decent amount about beer. I think he sized me up as someone who would need a nudge to try the Tripel (perhaps because I started with a bloody mary and possibly because I am a woman, but more likely because I was in Asylum--not a place people go for their craft beer program). So he used a tactic he has probably found to work many times.

  • realbeer

    @bigman, you no doubt enjoy the "straight lager" flavor of bud and miller. fact is, beer comes in all shapes and sizes and some people prefer theirs to have more flavor rather than less.

  • http://lewbryson.blogspot.com LewBryson

    @realbeer, I hate to defend anyone who says "craft beer is to beer what wine coolers are to wine," but there's no call for accusing him of preferring bud and miller. There are lots of great lagers out there, and they get dissed way too much. Craft brewers tend to ignore lagers -- NOT brewers like Victory, Stoudt's, and Penn, happily -- and that's not right either. Both of you: shake hands, try the other's beer, and be civilized.

  • Kipp

    @bigman, I hate to break it to you but beer has been around literally thousands of years before the Germans or Belgians began making their beers and styles. And German Breweries still comply with Reinheitsgebot which was created in 1516 to deal with beer quality and purity issues. It was great for what it was and for the time period it was written; however, I would argue that it is also an Elitist law that the ignores generations of brewing traditions from numerous other cultures by limiting the ingredients. Saying Craft beer is to beer, what wine coolers are to wine is misinformed, completely flawed in its logic, and makes me wonder if you have the palate of goat. While many Craft Brewers do not make a lager, many do. And nearly all of them do it better than 90% of the mass marketed/produced lagers from any Nation. Also, most Craft Brewers don't make a lager because there are already 1000's of them on the market. I bet 7 in 10 beers in the US market are lagers, if not higher. So if you are trying to stand out and make a niche in a market dominated by Big Corporations, why create yet another one?

  • http://www.uncapd.wordpress.com Chris Dilla

    1. No one can know everything about beer and new beers are coming out quicker than the staff can learn about them.
    2. Be glad that craft beer as well as imports are becoming readily available and explore them.
    3. This article's scenerio has happened to me a zillion times. I especially love the part where we get down to the words 'dark and weird' to describe what I am looking for! (not)
    4. My staff is trained to say that they 'do not know' but will find the answer. They also offer tastes when it is on draft, and look to the internet for descriptions and answers to the customer's questions.
    5. The best staff go out of their way to learn about the beers, but as in wine, they can't always afford to educate themselves, but rather learn along with you. Learn together, share a taste with your server or bartender.

  • BongoZeptobrewery

    @bigman, allow me to address the factual problems with your comment. First of all, plenty craft breweries do make 'straight' lagers (hard to tell what you mean by that, though). In fact they're 'straighter' lagers (if I interpret you properly) than what you see from the big American breweries which are made mostly from rice (which is why Germans, for one, won't touch them).

    Second of all there is certainly no truth to saying Belgians don't enjoy American Craft beer, considering they collaborate with American Craft Breweries and Belgian brewers enjoy their visits to American cities (Philadelphia, especially). And if Germans in fact don't drink any American Craft beer, it might be due to an outdated, fascist decree they seem to hide behind.

    THIRDLY, if by comparing craft beer to wine coolers you mean to say that it is in any way 'bastardized,' 'feminized,' or 'cheap,' you only have to look to the larger breweries that craft beer is taking on to see the truly bastardized and cheapened 'beer' that is advertised ad nauseum, usually as sex. The Craft beer 'agenda,' if you will, is to put flavor back in beer and have it be enjoyed by an informed market. I will grant, however, that some fruited wheat beers come close to being like wine coolers.

  • http://comicsnbeer.wordpress.com Bob Britten

    Back on topic, your second-to-last paragraph, I think, nails it. It makes me think of how I judge beers that my father-in-law might enjoy: Is it more or less similar to Killian's Red, Coors Light, or Heineken? As a result, I've gotten him to try a number of Scottish Ales on their vaguest of proximities to Killian's (and he'll actually drink a Belgian White without question). He almost always enjoys craft beers - although I don't even try anything too malty/hoppy - but I need to pitch them in his language; sometimes that means a little torturing of reality.

  • Raul

    The issue you're having is not exclusive to craft beer. Most bartenders, at least in my experience, just don't seem know very much about anything drink-related. It's kind of odd until you realize that the vast majority of the beers a bartender will serve at most bars is the crap pale lagers of the world, and the majority of drinks bartenders make are exceedingly simple drinks like vodka tonics.

    I stopped ordering any drinks with lime or lemon juice because most bartenders use lime or lemon cordial instead of fresh juice. I stopped ordering drinks with vermouth like the Manhattan because bars tend to stock really cheap vermouth (one time, my Manhattan was even made with orange juice. Really?). Considering most bartenders don't seem to know how to make classic (but now "uncommon") cocktails, I've stopped ordering anything I'd assume a non-bartender wouldn't know how to make. If my vodka-tonic-drinking friend hasn't heard of a Pegu or Salty Dog, I'm guessing the attractive guy or gal probably hasn't either.

    That basically leaves me with ordering a beer, or a drink with the recipe in the title, e.g. a Gin and Tonic.

  • http://www.darorealty.com Chris

    From a craft beer perspective those experiences are just like nails on a chalk board. It almost pains me think of a great craft brew compared to "a Bud" so nonchalantly. But as you stated, we're still a minority in the beer drinking world, a quickly growing one, but one none the less. So in that regards I hope it's the bartender's attempt to push craft beer & expand people's tastes rather then pad his wallet... though in the end, no matter what reason if it gets someone to try a new craft beer for the first time then more power to them.

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