I’ve written a fair amount about beer on this site. Obviously. But I haven’t addressed many things that’re just related to beer. Whether the relation is tangential, integral, or something like a by-product (which could also be tangential, I’m slightly less than good at math), you won’t have found my indisputable and groundbreaking opinions of said topics in the posts before this one. Before this one.
There are many ways to drink beer: from a 12 pack of cans while sitting on your couch watching [insert favorite sport]; through a rented picnic tap while being suspended upside down above a keg by two, hopefully, strongish frat guys (aka a keg stand); and/or out of a 6 pack of expensive, though not necessarily good, beers at a party (stuffy or not) thrown by colleagues.
Or you might drink a beer at a bar. Where it’s been pulled through the appropriate apparati from a keg. Where a bartender prepares you a draft beer. Where you get a beer the way it’s meant to be gotten–drawn from a big barrel and poured into a glass (but not a chilled glass, please). Draft beer is necessarily poured by a bartender, and this bartender, same as a fish monger and/or butcher can affect your fish and/or cuts of meat, is someone who can seriously affect your beer-drinking experience . So let’s consider the bartender.
(Forewarning: This post will probably get long–relative to my other >700 word posts. So if you need to go get a beer, know that I had to do the same while writing it. Nobody’s counting.)
Also, with regard to this blog’s focus, we’ll only consider bartenders’ roles in bringing beer to the patron. But obviously bartenders have multiple other duties and drinks to deal with. Actually, we’ll mention some of these other factors later but only in as much as they relate to the beer.
Every bartender should, at the very least, be able to bring you a beer in a clean glass. But good bartenders can do quite a bit more. Good bartenders can tell you about the choices of draft beers and help you pick the right one. They can also recognize patrons interested (or not) in conversation and talk to them (or not). Good bartenders can take care of other duties, such as making mixed drinks, but still make sure that you’ve got a beer on the way when your glass is close to empty. And they will always ask if you’d like another/different beer, just in case. Or in the case of regulars, they will have the usual beer on its way when a regular sits down at the bar.
One of the most helpful qualities in bartenders is their knowledge of the draft beers and willingness to tell you about them. And to be comfortable telling you which one they like and why. This type of bartender will have tried all the beers on tap–like a good restaurant server will have tried all of the menu and can explain different items. It’s extremely disappointing to ask a bartender about a certain beer, or which beer they’d recommend, and get the all-too-familiar sounding response: ‘Oh, I don’t drink beer.’ This seems comparable to asking a car mechanic which tire is best and being told that the mechanic doesn’t drive cars. And it’s always nice, even if some patrons don’t consider it, when bartenders can tell you about a certain beer, whether they like it or not, and why. You can trust that even if you don’t like your choice, you at least weren’t led to it dishonestly.
Good bartenders are also either naturally, or through practice, very good at social interaction. When someone is alone at the bar, bartenders should be able to either engage the person in conversation or fairly quickly realize that the person would rather be left alone. Just because someone or a group of people are sitting at the bar doesn’t mean they’re interested in talking to the bartender, and the body language and/or signals usually make patrons’ interest in talking pretty obvious.
The last essential quality of good bartenders is the ability to juggle all their other drink orders, server questions, food orders, ice bucket refills, and inventory while making sure that the patron with an almost empty glass has the next beer of choice soon on its way. This implies a couple of things: (1) that the bartender is aware of the patron’s beer glass and makes sure the patron doesn’t have to wait on the next beer (or check, if the patron’s leaving) and (2) that the bartender asks what beer the patron would like next. Not everyone always drinks the same beer for the duration of the visit–I usually don’t order the same beer, so it’s always nice when I’m asked what I’ll have next instead of having to stop the bartender before he/she gives me another of the same. And good bartenders recognize regulars and, given a certain type of regular, will have that regular’s usual beer on its way to the regular’s seat as he walks into the bar. You’ve doubtless seen this happen in the presence of a good bartender (or you’ve probably seen Norm walk into Cheers on TV)–the patron walks in and the bartender automatically grabs, say, a PBR, opens it, and puts it out in front of the patron as he/she is sitting down.
The most important underlying quality of good bartenders, which I haven’t explicitly mentioned, that you could call a theme of my argument, is the understanding that patrons come into a bar for a good drink (in our case a draft beer) and a comfortable place to enjoy it. Whether that means conversation or silence. Three of the same beers in a row or three different beers or two of the same and one different.
Very good bartenders, and I’m sure you’ve got one in mind, are able to develop a connection or agreement, even with a one-time-only patron, that produces or sets up a comfortable environment for a patron to enjoy his/her beer of choice. These types of bartenders enhance the patron’s experience at the bar and, more often than not, will determine whether the patron decides to come back to the bar. Any bar can usually get the same group of beers on tap, but good bartenders, really fucking good bartenders, don’t just fall off the beer truck.
Now, this argument obviously focuses on what I think makes a good bartender. I have never actually been a bartender, but I have spent my fair share of time in bars. Talking or not talking to bartenders. And my good friend, Ben, happens to be one of the best bartenders ever. So, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about the subject.