Suggestion: Stop Drinking New Beers All The Time
My wife and I were sitting in a brewery taproom, having a lazy lunch. We were on vacation, first a family marriage in an area new to us, followed by a tour of the region. Our starters arrived as I finished my beer…and another one appeared almost immediately, cold, fresh-as-flowers, and utterly captivating.
We chatted about the wedding, did some people-watching, ate the cheese and pickles we’d ordered, and drank our beers. Cathy finished hers…and another appeared almost immediately. We got our lunch, and enjoyed the view, talked about the huge gay pride march we’d have to cross to get back to our hotel…and beers continued to appear almost magically at our table.
A few of you may have guessed where we were, and I’ll confirm it: Cologne, or Köln, as we properly called it. We were at the Gaffel am Dom taproom, directly across from the soaring Kölner Dom, the cathedral, on a gorgeous June afternoon. I’m not doing a travelogue, though; there’s a point to this story.
The point is this: there was only one beer for sale in the place. Gaffel kölsch, of course. No one complained, everyone was happy, and every beer we had was of absolutely top-notch quality: fresh, aromatic, and a perfect pour. I knew what every beer cost, exactly how much I was going to get, the glasses were perfect for the beer. There was no better place on Earth to get a glass of Gaffel that day.
There was no staff training needed to explain what the beer was, staff training was 100% focused on efficiently serving a perfect pour of that beer. We had a personable waiter, though as things got busy, he got a bit short on interaction. The beers, however, continued in a constant, perfect stream of delivery. I’m not overusing the word “perfect.” They were flawless.
Compare that to the state of affairs at way too many places back in the USA. Twenty or more taps, rarely with any indication of how long the keg’s been on. BeerBoard’s software and screens do make this easier for the bar owner, but it’s not free. Staff often doesn’t know much about the beer choices, or whether they’ve changed recently. Glasses are a Duke’s mixture of branded sleeve pints or whatever the bar got a deal on: maybe new, maybe worn, hopefully not chipped.
I paint the worst possible picture, but some of that’s because in the past week I’ve experienced a great bartender with a beautifully curated set of 16 taps…and a clueless server with a mess of 20 taps, who served me the dregs of their last keg of Guinness along with my Bell’s…which I’m pretty sure was Two Hearted, but she couldn’t seem to confirm that.
What’s even more disheartening is that I’ve recently experienced beers that probably shouldn’t have been brewed in the first place, poorly formulated or executed. It only helps a little that we’ll probably never see these one-offs again, but then they’ll never get a chance to improve.
And that’s the heart of my radical suggestion to improve service, improve beer quality, improve everyone’s drinking experience…
Stop making new beers all the time; stop drinking new beers all the time.
Oooooo!! I can hear the screams now. ‘You hate hazies/sours/glitter beers!’ Or maybe it’s ‘We have to make new beers, it’s what customers want!’ Or the ever-popular ‘Old man yells at cloud!’
It’s just a suggestion, okay? But think about a few beers. Sierra Nevada Celebration. Allagash White. Black Butte Porter. Bell’s Two Hearted. Cigar City Jai Alai. Victory Prima Pils. There are hundreds more, standards that get made year after year. Your local brewpub probably has one, or maybe a handful.
Ever had a bad one of those? Would you change them? Don’t you kinda want one right now?
I’ve been drinking some European classics lately, something I used to do a lot more. Rochefort 10. Schlenkerla Urbock. Spaten Optimator. Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. They’re great, and they’re consistently great, because they’ve been making those beers for decades. Do something for decades, and you get really, really, REALLY good at it. If you do something for decades and you sell it for decades, it’s probably because it IS really, really good.
It’s not just me, either. The following statement from Pat Berger of the Kaiser Tiger bar in Chicago (as quoted by the estimable Kate Bernot, in Beer & Brewing) has been getting some wide circulation lately. “We’re rotating less,” he said. “If a beer is doing well, and it’s coming in fresh and it’s high-quality and tasting good, then I’m just going to leave it on and build an audience for that beer… I’d like to see more of an emphasis on making better beer, rather than just making a new and different beer.”
Now, what the hell is possibly wrong with that? Especially when it’s just an option. Not every brewery has to make a new beer every week. Not every brewery has to have a portfolio of regulars. But one of the beautiful things about the success of craft beer is that there are enough places that are smart about selling it that some can be the Old Reliable bars, the Old Reliable taprooms, where people go for their fixes.
Brewers would get dialed in, staff would know that beer and be able to tell you about it, sales would be steady enough to keep it fresh. And you’d have a happy regular pour.
Some restaurants serve a menu that has signature dishes on it, that never go out of style and the kitchen makes just so, perfect for years. The clam strips at Woodman’s of Essex, Mass. The prime rib at the House Of Prime Rib, San Francisco. Harry Caray’s Chicken Vesuvio in Chicago. Versailles’ take on the Cubano, in Miami’s Little Havana. Chicken riggies at Bella Regina in, yes, Utica, NY. Damn. I’d happily have any one of those for dinner tonight, and know it was going to be great.
Why not beers? Think about it. Then go have a beer you haven’t had in a while.
Lew Bryson is the Senior Drinks Writer at The Daily Beast. Contributor to Bourbon+, Craft Spirits Magazine.
Author of Whiskey Master Class, Harvard Common Press (2/18/2020 release); “To enhance your knowledge in the magical world of distilling, my friend Lew Bryson is the perfect place to start.” — Colum Egan, Bushmills master distiller
Another great whiskey book I wrote: Tasting Whiskey, Storey Publishing; “Tasting Whiskey is a book that I would have loved to have had close at hand when I first started getting into whiskey.” — David Wondrich, author of Imbibe and Punch
April 7, 2022 @ 4:49 am
Amen, brother! Make a really, really good beer and I’ll drink it every chance I get. Variety is not always the spice of life.
May 9, 2022 @ 9:55 am
I mean, it works for the Germans and the Czechs, right? And NO ONE questions their beer-drinking bona fides.
April 6, 2022 @ 1:27 pm
I could not have said it better!
I think that too many taproom models are going with the “IPA of The Week” because ownership:
a) thinks only that will sell
b) is more interested in making sales rather than dialing in a recipe
c) the taproom can’t run away fast enough from poorly executed, flawed beer.
As for point a, if you have 10 taps and 9 are some version of IPA, how can you possibly know what other style would sell? If the IPA craze ever fades, there will be MANY a taproom that will fold instantly (yeah!) simply because they have no experience with brewing other styles. Gotta take some risks to run a business.
Dialing in a recipe takes time and feedback from customers. Sounds like a lot of bother for a taproom. Thank God the “Founding Fathers of Craft” took their time and developed recipes that I love and drink all the time. They built an industry and have become regional and national powerhouse breweries with varied styles and which will outlast those riding their coattails. I only wish more of them would do like Stone (Sublimely Self-Righteous IPA, Imperial Russian Stout anyone?) and bring back some older recipes.
With online ratings apps (Beer Advocate, RateBeer, etc), the number of reviews/ratings says it all. Tried and true (delicious!) beer has thousands of ratings over a fairly long period and are generally very positive, scorewise, because the beer is GOOD or GREAT! Then there is the “flash in the pan”, a beer with a handful of what might be positive ratings, at best. Often, they are not. So the taproom rushes on to the next “IPA of The Week” to keep the truth from ever getting out.
Just some thoughts from an oldster.
May 9, 2022 @ 9:58 am
I’m not sure I agree — okay, I don’t agree — that there are a lot of brewers doing ‘IPA of the week’ that don’t know how to brew other beers. Many of them do…if given a chance. A lot of times the brewers don’t call the shots, they just execute; and there are those pesky customers. They have to be brought along, shown the light. And even then, they aren’t all going to get it. But…they don’t have to. That’s the beauty of it.