Pouring Beer is About More Than Pouring Beer: Issues Involved with Automated and Patron-based Pouring Systems

Pouring Beer is About More Than Pouring Beer: Issues Involved with Automated and Patron-based Pouring Systems

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Last week learned about how important the head on a beer is to the entire beer drinking experience. This week we investigate the importance of the beer pourer and what happens when you try to eliminate them.

Pouring Beer is About More Than Pouring Beer. Beer slingers don’t just pour beer. They are the most visible and interactive part of the patron-brewery experience. They have to know their brewery’s beer and be able to discuss it in as much depth as needed, but they also have to know the guest beers as well (if there are guest taps). The changes that occur on their days off have to be overcome quickly, so most pourers do some tasting before their shift begins. When a patron remarks about a certain flavor or texture, the good server will pour a short taste and engage the drinker in their own views on the subject. The people behind the bar are what tie the drinker to the brewery.

Even when they aren’t pouring beer that very second, their job is vital and difficult. Probably the most amazing part of their skill set lies in knowing how to approach customers – who wants more information and who wants less. Is this a person who knows beer and wants to interact on the zen of tasting? Or is this someone looking to get their buzz on and just wants to know what’s on special regardless of the unique ingredients and brewing techniques? Walter is an easy drinker, she’ll ask questions, but she knows that pourers have other things to do. I’m a bit more difficult. I ask for large flights to be poured all at once so that I can taste things cold and then warmer. I want to know their feelings on some bit of brewing and serving minutiae for an article I am thinking about writing… I’m the reason we tip well.

When an entire table gets beers, the pourer does take into account how each beer pours and tries to modify the pour so that everyone gets about the same looking beer. One glass with much more foam at a table of once inch collars might make one person think they are getting gipped. Photo credit: Brickhouse Brewery

The perfect pour with the perfect head isn’t always the goal. Many servers I spoke to about this say that they read the customer as well. Some people will care less about the head, but are more concerned with the glassware choice. And there are those patrons who are most concerned with volume; if they pint a pint, they expect a pint (see this post). And even reading the individual customer isn’t all there is to it when pouring.

Both Josh at Redemption Alewerks and Shannon Stone at Brugge Brasserie said that proper head is less important than consistency when delivering a table full of beers. They want everyone’s pour to look the same, despite the fact that they may be different types of beer and pour different types of heads. Consistency in appearance helps the customers know they are being treating equally, no one is getting shorted. More educated drinkers might realize that the head might be a bit different on a nitro stout, wit, or pilsner, but it is better to err on the side of consistency, so Shannon will pour the one with the most foam first and let it rest before presenting table with beers that look exactly the same. If pourers discern a more beer geeky attitude at the table, perhaps pours that don’t look exactly alike because of different collars will be OK. See, your beer slinger is thinking about more things than you realize.

Alternative Pouring Systems. If the pouring of a beer takes technique, is style dependent (see last week’s post), and depends on reading the customer, then wouldn’t it be best to leave the pour your individual server? You might think so, but some places are taking the pour out of the specialists’ hands. Automated systems are coming on line that put the customer in more control of the pour or are intended to standardize pours.

Whether it’s a response to increasing minimum wages in some states, increasing healthcare benefits costs, a need to pour beers quicker for large audiences, or just an effort to increase profit, many bars and a few breweries are removing or limiting the staff involvement in pouring beer. This reduces staff, may reduce “keg waste” in some cases, and leads to greater profits (or perhaps lower beer prices, although we haven’t seen this affect). There are decent automated systems with a true place in the market, and then there are those that just make no sense beer wise – although they might make plenty of sense profit wise. First let’s look a system that has merit in my opinion, although it took a while for Walter and I to appreciate it.

The Bottoms Up System injects beer from the bottom of the cup and have magnets in the bottom that can be used for advertising or coupons. Of course, you’re then putting something in your pocket that was just covered in beer. Photo credit: psfk.com

Bottoms Up. Produced by a company called Grin On, the Bottoms Up pour system uses custom cups with holes in the bottom to inject beer from below into the glass. There is a metal ring in the cup bottom that holds a magnetic disc in place, creating a beer-proof seal. When the “pourer” places the cup onto the serving machine, the disc is displaced and a preset volume beer is injected around the sides of the disc into the cup. When the worker lifts the cup off the machine, the magnetic disc seats itself on the metal ring and creates a seal.

Walter and I first saw this system at the Indiana State Fair in 2016. The advantages for the people selling the beer are many – very little waste, faster pours (up 57 pints/min on a dual tap system), advertising and coupon opportunities on the magnetic discs that the patron gets to keep, and no glassware to wash (although I think there are in fact glass Bottoms Up glasses available). Our first experience wasn’t too great, the head of the beer was almost nonexistent, but as we have gained more experience with this system, we have seen that they can be set to pour a rather nice head consistently on a beer.

Indiana On Tap uses the Bottoms Up system at its Tasting Society Marketplace member events, so Walter and I have seen the system used properly. Guest brewers are adamant that a proper head be poured, and once the apparatus is set up, they can pour a beer and talk to the patron at the same time without worrying about getting the head correct. I have to admit that at first I was not the biggest fan of the system, but have grow to see its place in the market.

Fast pours can be had on the Bottoms Up system, and while this reduces time between pourer and patron, reduces the pourer to basically unskilled labor, and reduces the number of overall pourers employed, there are times when these are necessary and useful – like big events. Sporting events in large arenas or stadiums where the pourers are often volunteers from local groups using it as a fundraiser, massive concerts where plastic has to be used anyway there are many activity based events could really benefit from a system that can pour a good beer and minimize the time and experience needed to do it. But I don’t think many brewery taprooms will be adopting this system, it just doesn’t fit the vibe of most taprooms.

Sports venues and concerts might be a decent use for systems that pour from the bottom. Most people are more concerned with speed and less with the proper pour. Image credit: Gadjitz.com

Patron-Driven Beer Walls and Such. So that was the good news in automated pouring, now for the bad. There are several systems that are much farther along the road to reducing beer server input, and in most cases the chances for a poorly poured beer is very high. They go by many names, iPourIt, Pour My Beer, Table Tap, Draft Serv, etc. All these systems basically work the same way whether they are mobile or stationary. The patron shows an ID and gives the host a credit card number. In exchange, they receive some means of activating the tap and recording what and how much they have poured. This might be a magnetic strip card or a bracelet, or a signet that fits in the tap reader like Green Lantern’s ring.

The advantages of “pour by the ounce” systems are many for the bar or brewery. They definitely require fewer pourers, so the costs to the provider go way down. A manager from a client bar states on the iPourIt site, “We can service a lot more customers with a lot less staff.” Unfortunately, less staff means less information transmission about the beers, and likely poorer pours. Some establishments put a monetary value on the card instead of a volume limit. If you don’t drink enough beer to use up the money on your card, you have to come back and bring that card back – otherwise, it’s pure profit for the vendor.

Profits are also increased by the fact that there is virtually no waste from the kegs. The iPourIt website says that they can get 106% yield from each keg, because the foam isn’t poured off and bad pours aren’t lost product because the patron pays for whatever comes out the line. What might be a free taste at pourer-served bar is charged at a self-serve bar. The average bill does go up using a self-serve tap systems, but in our opinion, the value of the experience goes down.

The first, and still only (as far as I am aware), bar in Indianapolis to use a self-serve tap system is ReBar on 100 North Delaware downtown, although the Tastings Wine Bar in the Conrad Hotel has used one since 2006 for wine. I visited Rebar a few months ago without Walter. They use the Pour My Beer system with a 32-ounce limit before you have to talk to the bartender. They have 20 taps, and the choices were fairly good the night I visited; a mix of local, national, and European brands and styles.

This is similar to some of the pours I saw people making for themselves at ReBar – just like the brewer intended? This might be exactly how the patron wanted their beer, but I doubt it. Photo credit: muddy mo

The prices for beer ranged from $0.32/oz. to $1.14/oz. That equaled $5.12 to over $18.00 pints, but you wouldn’t know that since they don’t post the per pint price next to the per ounce price. There were only short lines at the beer wall when I was there, but reading the descriptions did take a while, and if someone else was waiting, I felt uncomfortable taking my time. What worried me the most was that they suggested you use the same glass for your entire visit – there were rinse spigots, but who knows if everyone uses them and then they go back to the taps and maybe stick the faucet into the beer?

Two guys next to me each poured a Floydivision #3. One came away with ⅔ foam and the other was more than ¾ foam. They paid for them with nothing said by the bartender. Is this really how we think Three Floyds want their beer presented? I did see ReBar credit someone’s account when she blew a keg during her pour, but beer knowledge from the guy manning the wall was less than stellar. He mostly recommended the beers he liked most, and actually said to a patron, “You might want to try this French one, it’s expensive.”

It’s one thing to use this system for a bar. If you’re a brewery and you sell to a place that uses self-serve taps, then you know what you are getting into. But it is another thing for a brewery to use iPourIt or Pour my Beer systems. This is their one chance to really talk up their beer, but with this system the patron has to learn it all for themselves. I thought that Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne, Wyoming was the only brewery that Walter and I have visited that only uses a self-serve tap system, but I was surprised to learn that Braxton Brewing Co. in Covington, KY has a small four tap Pour By Beer Wall in their event room within the larger taproom. I talked to Tyler Hill at Braxton and was surprised again – they haven’t hooked up the system in the years since their opening. Perhaps it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. Yet, a recent article in All About Beer Magazine indicates that some breweries are choosing self-serve pouring systems, although they are more commonly seen in bars.

Some pour by the ounce systems are mobile or are housed in tables (usually two half barrels) with two taps. The beer wall is probably more common with two taps per selection screen. Image credits: Ellickson and bouncepad

Conclusion. Walter and I drink a lot of beer, that’s no lie. But neither of us are experts in pouring beer, and we appreciate that there are people who are better at it than we are. A good beer slinger knows their system, knows which taps and beers pour a bit different, and can maximize our experience because they have knowledge and expertise we don’t have. Plus, having someone pour your beer increases interaction. Whether you’re talking about beer or just asking how someone’s day has been going, having another person involved in your craft beer experience is more of what the entire world of craft beverage is supposed to be about.

There are times when an automated pouring system can be useful, and we have learned that these systems can pour a proper beer. Therefore, I have come to temper my disdain for situations when a human being isn’t tilting a glass at 45 degrees and hand pouring me a beer with a perfect head. I have had to distinguish in my mind the situations where an automated pouring system makes sense – but I have to say, I still can’t find a place in craft beer for patrons pouring their own beer. Most people just suck at it.

True, you might wait a shorter time for your beer and you might pour the beer more like you prefer it, but these are the only potential advantages to the drinker. You might consider being able to pour any volume you like as an advantage, but in practice it turns out to be a disadvantage for all the other drinkers. Self-serve pouring systems reduce jobs for beertenders, and they don’t present the brewer’s beer in the best light because you basically have amateurs doing a professional’s job. If those aren’t bad enough, the knowledge about the beer doesn’t come through as well because the drinker is working off of pouring descriptions, there is little interaction between staff and patron, you don’t really know how much you’re paying per pint unless you do the math, and the chances for cross-contamination go wwwwway up. There, does that make my feelings plain enough?

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