Monthly Archives: July 2010

On Bartenders

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.

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Beers in L.A. (6/29-7/2) pt. 2

Now that you’ve had time to ruminate on Chuck Norris’ supraphysical abilities, maybe you’re ready to hear about some more beer. Good. So the last post got us through basically the first day of the trip. And the rest of the beers I had on my last night in L.A. at a bar/restaurant called Morels in The Grove Mall in West Hollywood. At least I think it’s in West Hollywood. I’m not much of a navigator.

My brother was working, so I had some time to kill and figured I’d do some ‘research.’ When I sat down at the bar, I asked the bartender which of two beers (a porter or blond ale) he’d recommend. He said he’d have the blond (insert zing! here) because it was hot out that day. (To be clear, it was about 75 F at best and humidity was off work that day, so hot, I don’t know.) So I did. Have the blond ale.

The beer was Grand Teton Brewing Co.’s Au Naturale Organic Blond Ale. And although I haven’t exactly had great things to say about blond ales in the past, this was a good one. Maybe the best blond ale I’ve had. This beer was clean and light tasting, which is to be expected, but it also was very light on carbonation, which I didn’t expect. It seemed to give off about as much of a hop flavor as a Kolsch would. I’d say that this is one blond ale that I’d definitely get again, especially if the day was actually hot (even though I know it’s relative. To be fair, the bartender, I found out later, was originally from Canada).

After the blond ale, I had a Fuller’s ESB (in the bottle) and it was just fine. It’s a beer I’ve had before, and it’s a good example of a British ESB–smooth, low carbonation, and a good balance of malt and hops. If you can find it, Fuller’s London Pride is a superior beer, I think. And when you have it from the tap in England, where they pull it from a pump tap, it’s one of the better and simpler beers I’ve ever had.

So after the ESB, I figured I’d try the other of my first two choices and ordered the porter. The Eel River Organic Porter. With, similar to the blond ale, light carbonation, this beer went down smooth. There was just enough bitterness at the end to balance out the coffee-like taste of the beer. People seem to tend to associate porters and stouts with coffee, and rightly so, but this beer seemed to downplay the coffee taste in a way that I think paid off well. If you can, get it.

So aside from the beers I’ll be writing about in coming-soon Drinking It All posts, that’s it. I know it probably doesn’t seem like much, but I didn’t have much time either. Forgive me. (Also forgive me shifting from present tense in pt. 1 to past in pt. 2–I’m too lazy to go back and fix it now.)

Other noteworthy points in my beer drinking:

At a semi-Mexican place called Fred 42 (I think), I got Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in a paper cup. When I seemed surprised, my brother basically said that that’s fairly common. So, ok, I guess.

I got a can of PBR at the first restaurant we went to (Barney’s Beanery from pt. 1). That’s it. I just like getting PBR after I order fancy beers. (The one touristy thing I made myself do is take a picture with some stars on Hollywood blvd. Particularly Dennis Hopper’s, and while I wasn’t drinking a PBR at the time, I at least wasn’t drinking a Heineken.)

Bars that have beer only in bottles are like restaurants that have wine only in boxes.

Beers in L.A. (6/29-7/2) pt. 1

This week I went to visit my brother in L.A. for a few days. It was my first time in California, and since they’ve such a wide variety of good craft beers, I was excited to do some research during the trip. So over Tuesday, Wednesday, and yesterday (up until my plane left at 12:55am), I tried to maximize my intake of beers Californian and/or unavailable here at home. It wasn’t much time to try as many beers as I wanted to, but, let’s be honest here, it just never is.

Of the beers I tried, half will be discussed as Drinking It All pieces (one a possible video installment), and the other half, I’ll talk about here after a little more introduction. I finally kept somewhat adequate notes in my, admittedly hipsterish, Moleskine notebook (which I have more than one of and sometimes write in but always carry around), so I’m working from pretty sparse comments and memory.

Soon after I got to L.A., my brother and I went to lunch at a bar called Barney’s Beanery (which is somewhat of a misnomer considering their menu doesn’t focus on beans, Mexican food, or coffee) and had some good fancy beers and pizza.

First, I got a Racer 5 IPA. This beer is brewed in California, and my brother tells me it’s also one of his good friend’s favorite beers. Being an IPA, it is substantially hoppy. And by substantially, I mean holy-shit hoppy in only the best way. It’s bitter and tastes like what I want my own IPAs to taste like. If you run into this beer, and you like hops, it is in your best interest to drink it–it might punch you in the ear if you don’t.

After this fairly strong beer, I asked the bartender what she’d recommend (which is something I’m fairly bad/good about when I’m faced with myriad beers I’m not familiar with (and also it’s a kind of litmus test as to how good I consider the establishment, but that’s a different, forthcoming story)), and she let us taste a big, high gravity beer I can’t remember the name of (something made by local firemen, as strange as that probably sounds). After the IPA, and since it was only like 2pm, I asked her for something lighter and got Lagunitas’ Ale

So the second beer, Lagunita’s Ale, I think was a pale ale even though the color is uncharacteristically dark for a pale ale. But it tastes like a pale ale. This beer is made in L.A., and it’s a good solid pale ale. After the Racer 5 IPA, though, it had a hard row to hoe.

That night, I picked up a 6 pack of Tap Room No. 21 Pale Ale at a nearby grocery store so we’d have something to drink at the apt. This pale ale is, for brevity’s sake, disappointing. If I remember right, it was fairly inexpensive, but not so much as to cause concern. The beer itself has just enough of a mild hops taste to be maybe considered a pale ale. Otherwise the beer just isn’t good. Think of a more hoppy Miller Lite, which would be fine for $5 a 6 pack, but not $9. Also, the beer commits a somewhat major offense in my book by not providing any information about the beer itself or brewer on the label or carrier. Can’t trust a beer that withholds information about itself–it’s like it doesn’t look you in the eye when you shake its hand.

There are a few more beers I tried, but since this is a longish post already, I’ll stop here and tell you about the rest tomorrow.

In the meantime remember: Chuck Norris can stop time for up to two hours by thinking about pineapples. (I had some serious time to kill in a bookstore last night).