30 Mar Now More Than Ever, It’s Important to Recognize the Beerslingers We Look Forward to Seeing
Note: I had started this piece before the shutdown, and had considered holding off on it until everyone could get back into the taprooms. But on second thought, I realized that it’s important that we keep in our minds and hearts the people that pour our beer and listen to our troubles during this time when they are sidelined. Tip well is a rule, but please tip especially well now on your delivery and carryout.
Just as everyone has their favorite beer at a brewery or favorite dish at a restaurant, there is probably a bartender/beerslinger that stands out in your head as the best in our fair state of Indiana. It’s just as subjective a choice as whether you love or hate smoked beers, or whether a server draws a smiley face on your bill (supposedly that really does help tips).
Traveling around the state and drinking at every brewery and most every craft beer bar on at least a semi-regular basis, I have still developed almost no idea whatsoever as to what it takes to be a great beer slinger. There are very good servers who are quiet and perhaps a bit shy, but there are just as many great ones that are snarky and sarcastic. It all depends on how authentic they come across, and to me, if they know what they’re doing and respect beer.
It’s important that a bartender can talk to you at the level you wish, but figuring that out when they’ve never have seen you before can be difficult. It’s a skill and a talent, and perhaps something that can’t be taught. A new beer slinger can learn about the beer styles and the story of this or that particular brewery, but many don’t take the time to internalize that knowledge and build on it so it comes out more like conversation and less like reading from a card.
AJ at Ellison Brewing in Indianapolis has had alot of years behind the bar, and she knows the beer as well as anyone. She’s got a big personality and you always know when she’s in the room because some kind of wisecrack is always on the tip of her tongue. This works so well that people almost love to be verbally poked by her and they always know they’re going to have a good time when she’s bringing them their beer. But even more important, this isn’t a one-note song for her. If I appear to be deep in an article or thinking about something else, she knows to give me a bit of room and space. It’s a subtlety that is lost on some servers.
If I’m really looking to talk beer, I’m looking for someone like Austin Eichhorn at Deer Park Irish Pub in Fort Wayne. He’ll tell me about the beer, about the brewery, about the people who sell for them, about the thickness of the aluminum in the can if we go there. Importantly, how he talks to me about beer is different than how he talks to others. He meets them at their level and is happy to stay there. Remember, he may teach you all you know about beer, but that’s not all he knows about beer.
For a long time, Amanda Wallace has been recognized as one of the best in the business around Indianapolis. She was at Centerpoint Brewing from day one and now calls Black Acre Brewing home. I particularly like Amanda because she 1) doesn’t take anyone’s crap, and 2) brews her own beer. This gives her a lot in common with Amanda at The Guardian Brewing Company, another of our favorite beer slingers.
Walter and I have developed a good list of people we look forward to seeing when we are out and about, so if I don’t mention them all here, it’s from mere oversight or lack of space. Close to home we always like talking to Sarah and Cheryl at Bier Brewery and Jess, Chelsea, Josie and everyone else at Blind Owl Brewery.
Farther away, people with really outstanding personalities include Ashley at Tin Man Kokomo – she knows her regulars so well that you feel like you’ve known her forever. There’s Theresa at Wedgewood Brewing in Middlebury; she goes out of her way to get the patrons what they need. Shannon at Crasian Brewing has a smile that invites people in to talk, as did Melinda Staup when she was at TwoDEEP – boy do we miss her.
Christy Mae at Floyd County Brewing in New Albany is always ready to stop and talk even though she has a million things to do, and Jordan at 2Toms Brewing in Fort Wayne is apt to shout out a hello across the room when you enter the place. I like JJ at Moontown Brewing in Whitestown because he’s always looking learn something new and asks about things so he can, while Sampson never asks if he can help, he just does. Finally, DJ and Casey at Hop Station Craft Bar in Mishawaka are willing to talk soccer, beer, or anything else you want to jaw about. It’s not a surprise their place was named best craft beer bar in Indiana this year.
All these great people (and more) are doing good things for beer in Indiana right now, which makes it weird to point out one in particular. However, Walter and I really love what Mike Abrego is doing at Indiana City Brewing in Indianapolis right now. We call him Muttonchop Mike because of his prodigious sideburns (named for General Ambrose Burnside, a Hoosier BTW), but it’s really his manner and beer acumen that make him stand out.
In our minds, Mike is near the top in his field for many reasons. He’s funny for one, which is hard to do with people who most of the time don’t know you. The humor is sometimes topical, sometimes poignant and sarcastic, and sometimes out of left field, which again is hard to pull off consistently. I know this is true because I’m funny – even if most people don’t realize it when faced with it.
Abrego knows his beer, though he doesn’t lord it over you. He lets you lead the conversation when it comes to the beer, but he is always handy for a suggestion or a good question about what it is you might like. That’s important – Mike engages the patron and finds his place in their world. People tell Mike things they might not in other situations – and no, it’s not the beer talking, he puts people at their ease. Mike is genuine in his desire to hear what other people have to say on any subject.
I talked to Mike to get some idea of his background and how he approaches his job. He’s been around breweries for about ten years, which is a good amount of time to learn the job and about people in general. He’s been a server, a straight beer slinger, and a cellarman in the brewhouse, so when he talks about getting beer to the public, you should listen.
As an example, do you realize the physical toll that being a beer slinger can take on you? Mike says that one of his least favorite parts of the job is the physical toll – moving kegs can wrench a back easily, standing for hours can do things to the back and legs – it’s a tough job on the body. On the other hand, what he really likes about legging beer is the social aspect. He said, “I like when regulars come in and there’s a sense of family. I like when people who have never been to our spot come in and I help “take them on a journey” of our beers. I like when it gets really busy and loud and I’m slightly in the weeds. I like that I can entertain customers, make them laugh, and hopefully send them home with an experience they’ll remember… not just because of the delicious beer but also the experience and vibe in the room.”
Mike told me that it’s important to have a love for your product when selling beer. He said, “you are the ‘face of the franchise’ when you’re behind the bar. If a customer is unsure or doesn’t know what they’d like (it can be a little overwhelming when there so many options) I ask them what they’re into, what would you drink at home right now, and then I take that info and make educated choices for them. When they enjoy the selections I’ve made, I like to give them smile and say ‘see what I did there;’ its always good for a laugh and makes the next person feel at ease with their choice.”
Mike told me that one of the most important part of being a slinger doesn’t even directly link to the drinker, but is very important indirectly. He said, A good beertender to me is someone who can control traffic and get the people what they want in as timely a manner as possible. Sometimes situations dictate that people may have to wait, but a simple courtesy nod, or easy ‘I’m coming back to help you in just a second’ goes a long way to the customer experience.”
I asked him how he knows how much interaction a patron wants. He said, “There are always social cues. Physical and facial cues will always prove to be telltale signs on how to approach each individual customer and situation. It’s very easy to tell when they want to engage or would rather have a quiet pint with just them and their phones.” Mike says that part of this being easy is because he is a social person himself, so he is always paying attention to the other people. He added, “I also like to catch peoples names. It’s a small gesture, but I feel it helps people feel more at home.”
Mike’s final thought “People have a lot of craft beer options and I try to make their time at ICB one they’ll remember both because of the beer and because of how that guy with the sideburns just wouldn’t shut up.” It’s conceivable that Mike doesn’t even think of beer slinging as a job, or if he does it doesn’t show. He looks to be having fun, despite making sure that everyone at the rail isn’t neglected and has what they want when they want it.
Muttonchop Mike, as well as all the people we talked about today appreciate the customers. They appreciate the craft as well as the business. And all the time, they’re at ease and put you at ease. What more could you want late on a Thursday afternoon when your job has you down and the weekend still looks like a dot on the horizon? Be sure to remember them at this time, and let us know on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter who you appreciate.
banner image: Sarah and Cheryl from Bier Brewery – Bier Brewery