The Importance of Afternoon Drinking and Why All Bar Seats Are Not Created Equal
Walter and I just returned from an extended beercation – a big enough trip to hit 64 breweries in 12 states in just 15 days. We had some so-so beer; we had a lot of fantastic beer. However, the thing that always impresses us most is the universal willingness of breweries, beertenders, and managers to help people out with behind the scenes hints on beers, history of the people and equipment, and in explaining their philosophy of beer – if they have time.
It would be nice if someone with extreme beer knowledge was at your beck and call from the moment you walk in the front door, but it just isn’t possible. Even if Walter just has to know whether a brewery reduces its ABV’s a bit because it is located 8000 feet above sea level, there might not always be someone available to ask. True, tasting a lot of beer and going to a lot of breweries means that we can work out some issues on our own. But on the other hand, traveling to many breweries and drinking a healthy volume of beer also leads to some questions that might not occur otherwise, like how using a cave for a barrel house affects the time that beers need to stay on wood (Blue Blood Brewing in Lincoln, Nebraska) or if using date infusion in a dubbel requires reducing the amount of candy sugar in the base recipe (Perennial Artisan Ales).
This isn’t to say that the answers are always enlightening. Walter and I noticed that there is a Midwest fad right now for lactose IPAs. This follows an east coast trend in 2015 that we thought had died off quickly and finally. Yet we had a lactose IPA at the Noblesville Beer Fest in September, and then two in succession at Crown Brewing and Devil’s Trumpet in early October. We asked about this trend; one brewer said he had some lactose left over from a previous beer and just threw it in this batch, another said he thought it added a good mouth feel but wasn’t aware that anyone else had ever done one.
What’s the take home message here? Not everything about a brewery can be learned from just drinking the beer. To really know a beer list you need to talk to the people making and pouring it. The beer is as much a reflection of the personalities of the people in the brewery as it is the product of a recipe.
While on our recent trip, Walter decided to keep track of the conditions that lead to good discussions with brewery staff and owners. We learned that several things lend themselves to getting questions answered, learning about breweries, and enhancing the brewery experience. While many items make a difference, one is primary – go drinking in the afternoon. In brewery terms, 1:00-4:00 is the sweet spot.
The afternoon is the time when it is most likely to find the brewers, the owners (if different from brewers), and the general managers in the building. I can’t tell you how many times Walter and I have shown up early to a brewery and inhaled the sweet smell of spent grain and wort. Walking in on that fragrance means we will likely have a good discussion that day. The other point is that afternoons and early evenings gets you beertenders that really seem to know beer (it isn’t a full proof plan, but it’s close).
Now that we, and the people we most want to talk to, are both present, the next point is to engage them. So sit at the bar – when you’re at the bar you contact the greatest number of people. For one thing, your beertender can only get so far away from you, and they will likely pass by several times every few minutes. Proximity is a great conversation facilitator. Plus, most people that want a beer or who are returning a glass will come up to the bar. This is an opportunity to talk to locals who tend to know things and are willing to talk – sometimes too much.
Please be aware – not all seats at the bar are equal. If you sit at the end of the bar, your beertender will spend more time far away from you, and unless you happen to guess which end is closest to the brewhouse door, you will see less of the brew crew. To maximize your interactions with the staff, sit toward the middle of the bar, but not right behind the taps – nobody can see you there, even if you are tempted (like Walter) to stick your mouth under the overhead taps at the Schlafly Bottleworks (see picture). Plus, at the middle of the bar, you are less likely to be near an area where the bar area is wider (like a sink or other work space). This puts you in closer contact with more people more of the time.
Even if you have the optimal seat – don’t just sit there. Walk around to look for competition medals, stickers from other breweries, and most definitely stroll over to the brewhouse. All these short walks help you understand the brewery, help you formulate questions, and show that you are interested in more than just drinking alcohol. By this time you should have your beer or your flight, so say something nice about one of the beers – not gushing, but nice. Try to stay away from comparing their beer to someone else’s (unless it is positive, not effusive, just positive), just make a comment that tells them that you know something and are willing to learn more. In a similar vein, don’t talk down their competitors. If you talk disparagingly about other people’s beer, your beertender/brewer will wonder how you will talk about their beer at your next stop. This will make them less likely to offer information and will lessen your experience.
Along with this, try to ask a question. Not a thousand questions and not a, “Why don’t you….” question – just ask something that shows you are genuinely interested in what these people do with water, barley, hops, and yeast. Walter usually asks something about their IPAs or stouts, because those are the beers she loves. She has a great palate and will relate what she tastes and see if the brewers agree. I might ask something about a how they decide to can or bottle or if how their system works for lagering, since it takes more time. One question will lead to stories – and if they are willing – additional topics for investigation. For example, a simple question about a smoked IPA with brewmaster Jack Owen at Buckner Brewing in Cape Girardeau, MO led to a long discussion of different smoked malts, their effects on beer, and a tour of the brewhouse to smell some cherry wood smoked malts and some mesquite smoked malt that can apparently make you crave BBQ. Not knowing where your conversation will go is half the fun.
Finally, it sometimes helps to carry stickers from other breweries. Some places will put these up in visible places, while others put them on cold room doors or on the support structures in the brewhouse. We use stickers to help spark discussions of breweries we have found that have similar philosophies or beer styles – have they heard of Brewery So-and-So? This worked well at Duel Brewing, an all-Belgian style brewery in Sante Fe/Albuquerque. We gave them stickers from Taxman and Penrose Brewing (St. Charles, IL). The general manager was very interested in hearing about good Belgian breweries (we didn’t have a sticker from Brugge but mentioned them as well). Likewise, an Upland sticker sparked discussions with the folks at Crane Brewing in Kansas City. Their sour program is extremely strong, and we suggested that they would be a great addition to the Midwest Sour+Wild+Funk Fest for 2017.
The suggestions above will help the average craft beer fan better enjoy a brewery visit if they are looking for more than just beers to taste. Unfortunately, there is sometimes more to the formula. The other half of the equation is that the people you get to converse with need to have the information or backstories that you crave. There are two related factors that will increase the chance that Walter and I will have to fend for ourselves in learning about a brewery: 1) new or undertrained staff, and 2) it’s a Sunday or Monday.
We realize that not everyone is going to know the beers as well as the person who has been there from day one or the brewers who brew them. This means that not everyone you talk to will be able to help you learn more about the brewery – it’s not evil, just real life. And when are you more likely to encounter the new or under trained beertender? Sunday or Monday.
Sundays are rarely beertenders’ favorite day to work. Fewer people may come in, so there will be fewer tips (except maybe during football season), and if people do make the trip to the brewery, they aren’t going to drink like it’s a Friday or Saturday night. Therefore, Sunday shifts tend to fall to the newbies and people who are trying to work their way up. Plus, fewer brewers, owners, and managers will be around on Sundays – on average. Add to this that many breweries are closed on Mondays for brewing – and this seems to be a universal problem with sparking great discussions about beer.
On our recent trip, Walter and I planned the longest driving days for Mondays, just because most places we wanted to visit weren’t going to be open anyway. True, brewpubs are much more likely to be open on Monday, yet the same rules seem to apply in our experience – brewers may be there but they are busy, and the staff tends to be less experienced. Therefore, follow the tips we outlined above AND…. visit on a Tuesday or later. This plan, Walter and I have discovered, gives us the best chance to have a really great tasting session and learn about that individual brewery.