Blowing Your Credibility As a Beer Expert

By Ray Daniels is happy to host guest blogger Ray Daniels, who shares a little pep talk to the beer service industry.  As creator and director of the Cicerone Certification Program, Ray is probably the last person you would want to serve a beer to—talk about some pressure! This was the plight of a few unlucky servers at gastropubs in the Chicago area, who could learn a lot from this little rant.  Discover the importance of proper clean glasswear, pouring technique and overall presentation from the expert who wrote the book, literally.

Heard about the latest trend toward gastropubs? It’s all the rage in my city (Chicago) and, from what I hear, in many other places too. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t getting it right. The key to a gastropub is that they feature beer and beer cuisine–often with a Belgian theme. When you feature beer, you necessarily lay claim to expertise in that area. But some of the new efforts are blowing their credibility with silly mistakes in beer presentation and pouring. Read on and see if you can spot any of these server faux pas the next time someone pours you a beer.

While I will admit that I can be hyper-critical, anyone who has studied beer for a bit knows you can ruin a beer experience a lot of ways, from dirty glassware to untrained staff. Mind you, when I’m visiting my neighborhood pub that offers a few good beers in addition to an extensive wine list and signature cocktails, I’m not one to turn my nose up at a clumsy presentation. But the gastropubs ballyhoo their beer chops with esoteric listings and bottle prices that frequently top $20. Thus, I hope to find the beer they present both highly appealing and very drinkable.

First, let’s talk about the challenge of clean glasses. Beer rats out a dirty glass like no other beverage. Bubbles stuck to the side of the glass show where residue of the previous drinker’s beer (and who knows what else) still clings to the glass. Serving a glass with bubbles stuck to the side matches the insult of serving a glass of wine with a lipstick imprint still on the rim. It’s unappetizing, unprofessional and probably unsanitary! Despite this, I’ve had dirty beer glasses served at my table routinely at gastropubs. Maybe as many as one out of four glasses arrives bearing the obvious bubble marking.

I’m not without sympathy on this issue: the shapely glasses often used for specialty beers present hard-to-clean curves and cleavage. But that doesn’t change the reality or the effect. When I see a band of bubbles clinging to the bottom inch of a glass, I know there’s junk down there that I’d just as soon not drink.

Now, in addition to presenting the consumer with a clean glass, you need to give them an appropriate glass. Despite my serious credentials as a style geek, I don’t expect every beer to be presented in the one single appropriate glass for that style or brand. Both at home and at the pub, acquiring and keeping all the different glasses you might need would be a huge challenge. The last thing I want is to keep a beer from being served because the right glass isn’t available.

So what’s the key to beer glassware? From my point of view, shape comes second. The most important issue is volume. Responsible beer service dictates that you not serve 12-percent abv barleywines in pint glasses. On the other hand, there’s no sense serving a 3.8-percent ordinary bitter in a 5-ounce snifter.

With draft beer, you can easily match up alcohol and intensity with volume for pleasant, appropriate consumption. Bottles present additional challenges when they have yeast at the bottom. Ideally, you’d like to open the bottle and pour all of the clear beer possible without turning the bottle back to an upright position. Doing so disrupts the yeast cake on the bottom, stirring it into the remaining beer. Thus, when possible, you’d like the glass or glasses being served to be big enough for the entire contents of the bottle. Sometimes this simply isn’t practical, but that’s the general idea.

I recently had a gastropub server recommend Brasserie Dupon’s “table beer,” Avril, at 3.5-percent abv, noting that it was a great session beer–you know the kind of thing you drink right down to slake your thirst.  He brought the 750 ml bottle and a tiny 5-ounce glass. Huh? In addition to being a completely inappropriate glass for the low-alcohol beer and the serving (requiring many inversions of the yeasted bottle), the glass was identical to that used for my companion’s red wine. That’s how you blow your cred as a gastro pub!

Finally, we have the pour. While there are some stylistic differences with regard to foam head, you’d generally like to see a beer served with somewhere between one inch and one-half inch of head on the top. People in the trade often measure this by the width of a coin, so somewhere between a nickel and a quarter’s width of foam. A beer-clean glass (those who saw my talk at the 2008 AHA conference know what I’m talking about) makes this easy. For either draft or bottled beer, you begin by tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle and pouring the beer down the side so that it produces little or no foam. Once the glass is one-half to two-thirds full by volume, you tilt the glass upright and finish by pouring down the middle. Voila! A beautiful pour!

But not always. I ordered a bottle of Mikkeller Draft Bear (yes, bear), an Imperial Pilsner, at another gastropub. This too arrived as a 750 ml bottle with two classy footed pilsner glasses–tall and sort of cone shaped. Being as it was a gastropub, the server proceeded to puor the beer and totally blew it. She started out OK, pouring the beer down the side of the glass, but inverted it way too soon (as I cringed). The result: the glass the glass was two-thirds full of foam and utterly undrinkable for several minutes.

Did she apologize and get it right on the second glass? No way. She repeated the exact same pour and, of course, got the same result, sigh.

We are making progress out there. But as the world outside continues to improve, we’ll just have to keep providing a good example with our own brews and beer service at home.

 /> alt=Ray Daniels is a veteran of the US beer industry and president of the Craft Beer Institute.  His background includes experience in nearly every aspect of brewing and beer service. Daniels is the author, editor and publisher of more than a dozen books on brewing and beer. He is a diploma graduate and senior faculty member at the Siebel Institute of Technology. Along with being an internationally known beer judge, he is the creator of the Cicerone Certification Program.