You’re a beer lover. I can tell that by your rather spectacular taste in blog reading… You are probably always looking for the next new beer and are no doubt happy at the number of beercentric bars and restaurants now found across South Africa. A few years ago, finding a craft lager on tap was a kind of ‘whoop’ moment. These days if a restaurant doesn’t have at least three or four different styles of beer, you probably move onto the next place. But do all of those bars love your beer as much as you do? Here are five warning signs to look out for to make sure you’re in a bar that truly loves beer, rather than a bar that loves cashing in on what it sees as the latest trend.
1. The glasses are clean
At home, I keep my dedicated beer glasses well away from the dishwasher. They get handwashed in the cleanest, hottest water I can bear. They are never dried with a towel and are never used for morning smoothies or glasses of water with lemon slices floating within. I am a bit of a Nazi when it comes to beer glasses at home, and I expect people who work at craft beer establishments to share my glassware OCD. Keep an eye out for ‘nucleation points’ on glassware – it could be something as simple as a watermark where the glasses have dried, or something as sinister as a piece of food that’s been baked onto the inside of the glass when it sat in a dishwasher with a bunch of dirty plates. Glasses washed with coffee cups can become greasy from the milk, while glasses that have not been duly rinsed after cleaning will likely kill all head on your beer if there’s just a smidgen of soap residue. And don’t even mention the UK pub I once worked at where they rinsed the ashtrays in the glass washer. The horror!!
2. The staff can tell you something about the beers available
If you go into a specialist camera store, you expect someone to be able to tell you which model has the most sensitive sensor. If you head to a dedicated hardware shop, you want staff to be able to inform you on drill bits and paint types and which shelves are strong enough to hold your growler collection. And so it should be with a bar or restaurant that specialises in beer. Bar and waiting staff can be a transient bunch, so it’s impossible for restaurants to train every staff member on the ins and outs of every beer, but they should all be able to answer a few basic questions – where is the beer from, which is the most popular beer on the menu, what should you drink if you’re a fan of hop-bombs, what’s the ABV of this Russian imperial stout and perhaps most importantly, which beer do they enjoy the most. Just don’t ask what they have that is most similar to Castle Lite – you might just find yourself with a pitcher of water…
3. The kegs are kept in a fridge
Oh sure your beer is cold when it reaches your glass, but in some cases, that beer is being kept out in the open and chilled at the last possible second using a plate chiller. Now I don’t buy into the ‘beer needs to be treated like milk’ line. Beer – even when unfiltered and unpasteurised – can stand to be out of a fridge for a couple of days. But when a bar with multiple lines is storing kegs under the stairs or has them plonked under the bar next to that fridge belting out a perpetual warm glow, the beer is no longer going to be in top shape when it eventually hits your lips. Beer doesn’t suddenly turn sour when it’s out of the fridge, but it does age more quickly the warmer it is. If a bar really loves beer they will build a cold room that can fit all the kegs (and bottles) they need so that every beer reaches you in its best possible state.
4. Staff know how to pour a beer
If you ever see any of the following things behind a bar, I suggest you politely (or not) cancel your order and seek a better place for a beverage. Either that or ask for a bottled brew.
- A pitcher under the taps being used to decant beer from tap to glass, often due to foaming kegs/incompetent servers
- A row of half-filled glasses waiting to be topped up with fresh beer. Do you want a pint that’s half-fresh, half-tepid, flat and full of fluff or flies that have fallen in while the bartender is waiting for new orders so they can top up their mistakes??
- A spoon. Said spoon is sometimes used by useless bartenders to scoop off foam before topping up the beer either from the tap (if you’re lucky) or that pitcher of tepid, flat beer…
Recognise your establishment in these words? Why not get in touch to book a Beer 101 staff training session?
5. There is a beer menu
It seems rather obvious, but if an establishment is going to serve 10 or 12 or 20 beers on tap (or in bottles), you want to know which 10 or 12 or 20 beers they are. But it’s amazing how many people still don’t seem to see value in a beer menu. I’ve been to places with an amazing beer selection where there are only two ways to know what that amazing beer selection is: you either ask your server and hope that they can remember every single beer, or you head up to the bar to peruse the taps, dismissing the bar staff every two minutes with an “I’m just looking what you have” or an awkward “how much is this one a pint? And this one? And how about this one?…”. Sometimes, choosing a craft beer can be a little intimidating. Not everyone knows that Mad Giant is a brand while wee heavy is a style, and often if you put someone on the spot to order a beer, they will retreat to whatever they know best “Erm, I’ll just take a lager thanks”. They probably didn’t want a lager, but they haven’t had chance to read the menu and pick out something that sounds appealing. Beer menus don’t need to be super-detailed. Tasting notes are nice, but most of the time the name, the style, the ABV and the price is plenty of info.
6. They look after their taps
While beer doesn’t turn sour from being kept out of the fridge, there are things a bar can do that will ruin a perfectly good beer and chief among them is not taking care of the beer lines. A sour-tasting beer could be a brewer problem, but it can also be a sign that a bar is not loving its beer enough. And if you get served a tepid pint – particularly if it’s the first pint of the day (for that particular beer not necessarily your first pint of the day) then there’s a chance that even if the kegs are kept cool, the lines are not. Ask them if they have a water return line (which keeps the beer in the line cool rather than just the beer in the keg). If they say no, just slowly tut and shake your head as you sip your slightly tepid beer…
Got anything to add to this list? Want to nominate an awesome bar? Share your thoughts in the comments section below…