Hello, America! How’s tricks?
Have you ever regretted something? Asked for a thing, gotten the thing, and then decided it was, in fact, the very worst thing in the world? Well too damn bad, friends! You’re stuck with it. Except when you’re not. Let’s talk about beer.
Last weekend, Maine-based beer blogger Carla Jean Lauter tweeted a story about frustrating service at a craft beer bar. The bartender repeatedly let draft beer come into contact with the faucet as he filled the glass, and when it was pointed out to him, he offered the very weak theory that everything was fine because the tap lines had recently been cleaned. Things went downhill from there, as he compounded his ignorance with sexism, because anyone dumb enough to think clean draft lines mitigate against whatever airborne toxic sludge afflicts the exterior of the nozzle is dumb enough to think beer expertise is a gendered trait.
So let’s address this all in order of importance. First: Is sexism a problem in craft beer? Yes, because craft beer exists on planet Earth. Second: Just how serious was his actual beer crime, and what form of redress is the victim justified in seeking?
I myself wouldn’t have said anything about the matter, but that’s based more on personality than philosophy. I just don’t like getting into it with service workers when I can avoid it. But I agree with Lauter that it’s a gross move, so I confess to being a bit of a free rider on her activism. I don’t want a scummy faucet touching my drink, but I also don’t want to engage the bartender on the matter; lucky for me there are more proactive beer warriors out there looking after my interests. Anyhow, when I see that particular infraction, I cringe a little bit, drink away the evidence as quickly as possible and then either A) leave the bar if it’s somewhere fancy and expensive to the point where I’m not just a little grossed-out, but legitimately offended; B) switch my next order to packaged beer or whiskey if it’s a middle-of-the-road place; C) shrug it off and ask the perpetrator to keep the $3 Schlitz coming if it’s that kind of joint.
But enough about me (for a minute). Would another body be justified in refusing the beer and requesting either a do-over or a refund? Sure. Even if you’re unlikely to taste anything wrong with a faucet-fouled beer, watching the illegal contact go down before your very eyes can turn you off to the idea of paying for the result. Other things can go wrong along the trip from your lips to the bar god’s ears and back to your lips, so I’ve assembled the following guide to when it is — and when it is not —permissible to return a beer to the sender.
Sure, send it back. Over the summer, I was out with a friend who asked for a “Del’s” (Narragansett’s Del’s Lemonade Shandy) and got a “Dale’s” (Oskar Blues Dales Pale Ale). Those two things have nothing non-verbal in common, so he was well within his rights to point it out, even if the mix-up was completely understandable. You can’t get indignant about an honest mistake like that, even if in a perfect world the server would have clarified if there was any doubt in her mind, but you can politely set your beer straight. I’ve been served the wrong draft beer at least three or four times in the past year; I don’t remember noticing it happen prior to 2015 or so, which is due largely to my increased awareness of what’s supposed to be in my cup. But there’s probably another factor: Service quality seems to be going down, because beer bars (and regular bars with stepped-up beer programs) are proliferating faster than the pool of qualified labor can accommodate. What I’m saying is, if for SOME FUNNY REASON unemployment jumps back up near double-digits next spring, the silver lining will be greater competition for service industry jobs. Yay. What I’m really saying is you have the right to the beer you ordered. Anyone can accidentally pull the saison knob instead of the pale ale one, but a properly educated server will spot her own mistake immediately. If that’s not the case, you should point it out and get what you came for.
You probably ought to ride this one out, unless you’re served an egregiously room-temperature bottle, which can happen if the stock was mis-rotated. But that’s rare, because the bartender can tell the second he grabs it. Warm draft beer generally doesn’t pour right, so an honest bar will notice the problem immediately and suspend sales until the refrigerator repair guy shows up. So we’re mostly talking about beer that’s less than ideal. Bar beer tends to be frostier than recommended serving temperature for most styles, because that’s the way most patrons prefer it, plus the industry has yet to recalibrate from the days when “Ice Cold Bud” was the sexiest flag you could fly. If this is a problem for you, you can either order in advance and let your beer come up to temperature; seek out cask ale; or drink at home. It’s indecent to send back your IPA because it was served at the predictable 38 degrees rather than your preferred 48.
If you’re served an overly heady beer, you have a right to ask for it to be topped off once the dust clears and it becomes apparent that you paid for 16 ounces of beer and only ended up with 12. Foam takes up about four times as much space as beer, and you’ve got every right to have the former replaced with the latter. No need for a full new beer, but it’s fine to request a quick trip back under the spigot.
Tough luck. Unless you get a dated bottle that’s over a year old, you have to understand that ordering hoppy beer is a bit of a crapshoot in this regard. Of course I want my beer to be as fresh as possible, but I also understand that our demand for diversity collides with our collective preference for hop-forward styles in a way that puts undue pressure on bars. We brought this on ourselves. If you see a dozen IPAs on the menu, you know that a couple of them have been sitting for a while. It sucks to get caught with a slightly dusty beer, but remember that pale ale ain’t milk. Hops don’t “go bad.” They just go less good, and you can live with that.
Come on, man, the intro’s the best part! (We’ve been through this; see above.)
It’s frustrating when you don’t get the full theatrical experience of watching your pint go through its paces on the way to becoming what is, flavor aside, inarguably the world’s prettiest glass of beer. But it all tastes the same once it settles out, and it will.
My wife is much better at ordering beer than I am, because she’s smarter than me overall and also because she takes the heretical approach of occasionally ordering a beer she’s previously tried and liked. I’m not into that sort of barbarity, so I often get stuck with a Remember, Local Doesn’t Mean Good Blonde Barleywine while she enjoys her Firestone Walker Luponic Distortion. This makes me jealous, which makes my beer taste even more disappointing. But it’s always my own damn fault, and I can’t expect the bar to save me from myself. All they owe me is the beer I ordered; they’re not responsible for my tactical errors.
Send it back as soon as you notice. If that’s not until you’re two thirds of the way through your pint, a reputable bar will still stand you a full-size replacement as a bit of a combat bonus. Beer geeks disdain shaker pint glasses for a variety of good and bad reasons, but I think the best argument for preferring stemmed glassware instead is that it doesn’t stack, which is a pain in the bartender’s ass but also prevents the sort of clanging around that results in small chips around the rim. When you break a tulip glass, you know it immediately and you toss it.
Depends what it is. It’s gross to find a hair in there, or a bug. But a ten-dollar bill? That’d be great! Wait, no. Money is filthy. But how about a ham sandwich? That’d be fun! Unlikely, though, if you really think about it. Yeah, you don’t really want anything solid in your beer.
OK, that’s enough for now. Remember, this guide isn’t intended to reflect the letter of the drinking law. If you don’t mind being a bit of a crank, you can negotiate for replacement parts whenever you confront any of the above issues. But let’s try to be reasonable and patient out there with each other. If you order a beer and are given a beer, you’re already having a pretty nice little minute, so think twice before you go and wreck the mood.