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LGM Beer Talk: Rules for Beer Bars

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Rather than talk explicitly about a brewery this week, although I will do that a bit at the end, I wanted to link to this discussion of 5 beer menu rules that all good bars/breweries should ascribe to.

1. Offer a beer list that isn’t 75-percent IPAs.

IPAs are the most popular and arguably most exciting style of craft beer right now, with tons of variation within that category. Boozy and bold, sessionable and crisp, tropical and fruity, dry and effervescent—a bar could put together a tap list of all IPAs and still offer a range of flavors. This doesn’t mean it should.

Remember malt-focused beers? Remember lagers? Sour beers? Dry stouts? I had a delicious amber ale on draft the other day and couldn’t remember the last time I’d had one at a bar. I know businesses need to serve what sells, but oftentimes I think they’re missing out on potential customers who are shoehorned into choosing from one of the four non-IPA options on a menu of a dozen beers. Mix it up.

This gets into a favorite criticism of beer culture from LGM readers. When I read the comments on beer posts, a lot of the complaints about IPAs seem to actually be “I wish beer was more or less like it was in 1974.” But there is something to be said about the need for a wide variety of beers. Now, with breweries this might not quite apply. Although I think most breweries would want a relative broad selection of beers, given the tastes of the brewers and the market niche they are trying to fill, they might well make mostly IPAs. Or sours or Belgians or German-style or whatever. But for beer bars, there’s no question that most are going to want to have a broad selection. And despite the stereotype, they mostly do. I link again to the current taplist of my favorite beer bar, Bier Stein in Eugene, which isn’t quite a beer nerd bar (that’s what 16 Tons is for), but is a very popular place with a very good and constantly rotating selection, plus a huge bottle selection. As you can see, the first few beers are all IPAs, but then the rest of the taplist has a huge variety. If you don’t see at least 5 beers you want to drink on that list, you probably just don’t like beer.

2. List the beer’s style, not just its name.

I might want to order Local Beer Company’s Electric Kitten Revenge, but that name alone—absent any kind of description about the beer—doesn’t give me anything other than a hunch about the drug preferences of Local Beer Company. It’s hard for me, let alone a beer newbie, to stare down a beer menu that only lists a beer’s name and decipher what I might like.

At the least, I’d like to see the beer’s style—German pilsner, American IPA, barrel-aged stout—and an ABV. For those not super familiar with beer styles, a brief, one-sentence description can go a long way: “Local Beer Company Electric Kitten Revenge pale ale, 5.2 percent, is an easy-drinking pale ale hopped with Citra and balanced by bready malts.” Hey, sounds great, count me in.

I guess I don’t know any beer bars that actually commit this crime. If they do, it’s stupid and easily fixed.

3. Offer a range of ABVs in the beers you sell.

Standard American lagers fall around 4-5 percent ABV; a lot of common craft beer styles are in the 5-7 percent range; and some of the most exciting, specialty beers hover around 7-10 percent and higher. But a higher ABV does not mean a tastier beer.

For those of us interested in spending a few hours at a bar and still riding our bikes home afterwards, even beers in the 6-7 percent area can start to add up. I’d love to see more bars embrace beers below 5 percent, which also means there need to be breweries producing delicious, low-alcohol beers. (They do exist!)

Let’s see a British mild on a draft list, or a radler, or more pilsners, or a refreshing Berliner weisse squeaking under 5 percent.

God, yes. I think this has improved a lot in the last 5 years. In 2013 or so, it felt like most beers were at least 7%. Now, there are going to be plenty in the 3-5% range. The rise of sours, which are usually low alcohol, has helped with this. So has the realization that there is more to drinking beer than getting smashed. I may well want to drink 3 beers, not because I want to get drunk, but because there are 3 beers on tap I want to try. It helps a lot if they are 5% as opposed to 9%.

4. If possible, offer different-sized pours.

This is mostly a hallmark of better beer bars with multiple types of glassware, but I love the option to order a half-pint of a stronger beer, or a taster of some weird new fruit-flavored concoction I’m not sure I’ll like. I know beer flights can be a lot of work for bartenders, but even offering half-pours would be great to see more frequently.

I also thought this went without saying, but this past fall I was served a full pint of barleywine at a bar: stronger beers generally belong in smaller glasses like tulips or snifters. Sorry, barleywine-by-the-gallon crew, I really don’t think that’s advisable.

Yep. I find that this is a bigger problem in smaller towns that aren’t beer centers. A personal story on this. A few years ago, in the fall, my wife and I went out to what passes for a decent beer bar in this terrible town where she has been living. She liked pumpkin beer and especially the Southern Tier Pumpking. Personally, I hate that beer because the idea of drinking liqueified pumpkin pie does not appeal. At all. And mercifully, it feels like the wave of pumpkin beer every fall has crested and is in recession. Anyway, it’s about 9%. My wife had a hard week, was tired, and wanted a beer. So she orders one. It’s easy drinking, if you like the style anyway. So it was served in a full 16 oz. glass and she drinks it down real easy and pretty fast. Then she wanted another. I expressed some concern that this perhaps was not a good idea but was told to stop bossing her around. So I said OK and she got another. The aftermath was, uh, not great. But if it had been poured in a 10 oz glass, as would have been appropriate for a beer of that power, this would not have happened. Now, if you are careful, you can use this to your advantage. This bar still hasn’t learned so if there’s a high-test beer you like and you plan your evening around it, you can get a big one for a small amount of money. Not bad. But as a general rule, high powered beers should be served in small glasses. So should sours, which is not something I usually want 16 ounces of. Also, if everything can come in a half-pint, you can taste more beers.

5. Don’t sacrifice quality for locality.

I’ve left my most controversial opinion for last: Serving a beer that’s local even if it’s not very good does everyone a disservice. It boggles my mind when I ask a bartender about a local beer I haven’t heard before, and they give me a knowing “Some people like it, I guess.”

This does the drinker a disservice because you’re pouring a beer you can’t enthusiastically recommend. They might not like it either and be turned off from that brewery for a while. With so many beer choices out there, that customer might never give the brewery a second shot.

It also does your bar a disservice. Now I’m questioning how and why you put certain beers on in the first place. Shouldn’t I trust that you’re serving the best possible beers you can?

While I like a good local beer and think it’s fun, if they are bad, and in lots of the country, they are, it’s better to have the Sierra Nevada or Stone on tap. At least you know that’s going to be good.

I spent the last week in New Jersey, as my wife had a research trip and I used the opportunity to have a temporary base to travel around. So I went to two breweries. The one worth a mention was Twin Elephants in Chatham, NJ. It was really quite solid. I had a nice flight with 5 of their 6 beers, heavily weighted toward IPAs and Belgians. Didn’t try the brown rye, as I don’t really much care for malt-forward beers anymore. The flight is the picture at the top of the post. It makes me thirsty just looking at it though. I do have to use the opportunity to make fun of something though. Here’s the beer list and descriptions:

Some of this is so over the top that it’s obviously taking the piss. And I can’t complain about any beers named for Talking Heads songs. But the overall culture of beer descriptions have gotten completely out of control, to the point of complete ridiculousness. Part of what I always hated about wine culture was the snobbery and foolishness (hints of leather!) in how people talked about it. Now that has infected beer culture. I find it unfortunate and a barrier to people interested in trying new beers. Making people feel stupid is never a good way to get them interested in what you are doing.

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