How to Order a Craft Beer: a Socratic Approach

How to Order a Craft Beer: a Socratic Approach

I realize that blowing smoke is a thing to be avoided, but I’ll just come right out and say it: Great bartenders are philosophers and teachers. No, I don’t mean they’re fountains of knowledge, showering a thirsty audience with profound insights. (I suspect most people don’t hit the bar because they’re thirsty for knowledge…) Rather, when trying to help a customer decide on a beer choice, great bartenders do what Socrates did: they ask questions rather than offer answers, and they guide their “students” to reach answers on their own.

That’s at least the way it was described to me by Mel, a bartender at Boulder’s Backcountry Pizza & Tap House. It may sound haughty, but I think he was on to something. Socrates famously described himself as a “midwife” for ideas: he didn’t plant the seed (pardon the image); he merely helped to bring it forth. Great bartenders are midwives for great beer choices. And both great teachers and great bartenders need a willing student.

(MORE: 10 Pieces of Taproom Etiquette)

So rather than create (yet) another list of beer bar “Do’s” and “Don’t’s,” allow me to wax philosophic on the age-old question: which beer should I order?

The short answer is this. If you want the right beer, you must know yourself and seek (and speak) the truth. Too abstract? Let me explain.

Know Thyself

Show up to the taproom with some knowledge of what you like and don’t like. Bartenders don’t expect you to be an expert. In fact, many have dealt with way more “experts” than they care to remember. But bartenders do expect you to have something to say about your own tastes, otherwise, they cannot help you on your quest. So look inward, grasshopper. Almost anything will do.

“Either have an idea of what you want, or at least know what you don’t want,” said Chris Pinns, taproom manager at Powder Keg Brewing Company. “With that info, any half-ass bartender should be able to give you something you’ll find palatable.”

It’s About You

Don’t lose sight of the key words in that last quote: “something you’ll find palatable.” Drinking a beer is about you. So don’t ask the bartender what she likes, because that will likely be irrelevant. Servers who spend years working with beer can develop unique palates, and many will rave about beers that you find utterly undrinkable (mushroom sour, anyone?). Sarah, who works in the Finkel & Garf taproom, explained the matter with admirable efficiency: “I like really crazy sh*t!” You, on the other hand, may not.

How to Order a Craft Beer: a Socratic Approach
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Beginners Welcome

And be completely honest about what you like. Socrates was always chiding his interlocutors for saying what they thought he wanted to hear, even if it wasn’t true. If you don’t normally drink craft beer, just say so. Perhaps the biggest hurdle amateurs face in a beer bar is an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, which results in a fear of being judged. This is plain silly. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know it is rare for servers (or even other customers) to comment on people’s drink choices. They just don’t care. Every bartender I’ve ever met would happily serve pints of “Fuzz Light” or “Nasty Ice” all day, so long as you’re tipping. Speak the truth. Your palate will thank you.

Be Honest

Speaking of honesty, don’t say, “I like everything” when asked what you like. Almost every bartender I spoke with hated hearing this. For one, it’s not true (and falsehoods are so unphilosophical). No one likes everything. More importantly, however, as the guys at Boulder Beer Brewery & Pub pointed out, you’re giving your beer guide no help at all. What beer do you offer the person who likes everything?

Finally, don’t lose sight of the larger cosmic order, man. Drinking a beer is nothing to freak out over. So if you wind up with a pint you don’t like, don’t fret. The search for great beer, like the search for truth, is never over.

To continue your search, check out these tools from CraftBeer.com: