The craft beer education quandary

Jan 24, 2018 at 10:39 am
Against the Grain

More than one person since the craft beer craze descended upon Louisville has told me that craft beer can be intimidating for the uninitiated.

It’s difficult for me to get into that newcomer’s psyche, because I don’t remember not having a basic understanding of beer styles. I’ve been busy watching the evolution. I liken it to someone watching an American football game for the first time — it must look like complete pandemonium, given the different formations and seemingly endless rules, twists and turns. Having watched since childhood, I have no memory of having to learn what the game means.

But I was at my local watering hole, Hilltop Tavern, recently, having a late-ish dinner and a pint as part of a pint night promotion with Monnik Beer Co. I was sipping a Monnik Patient Boy IPA, a collaboration with Derby City Chop Shop. How could I lose, since Monnik does IPAs with the best of them?

The other two options were a Hauk’s Pils, a classic American pilsner and a beer called Bantha Surprise (nice Star Wars reference), a bourbon-barrel stout with currants, plum, ginger, cloves.

I sat there noticing that on this night, I was single-handedly raising the median age in the place astronomically, when a young man over my left shoulder told one of the bar staff, “I think I’ll try the Monnik Pint Night.” The bartender explained that “Monnik Pint Night” wasn’t the name of a beer, but rather just a header.

To which the young man told his friend, “Apparently, you get to pick one of those beers under that.”

At first, I wanted to roll my eyes. But that’s not the appropriate response in that situation — the response is to take the opportunity to educate. The thought hit me too late, but I must admit that the patience of the Hilltop bar staff was impressive. They didn’t flinch, presumably because they hear dialogue like that on a regular basis. In addition, I loved that the guy, who apparently had never been to a pint night before, was ready to jump right in.

But the unfortunate aspect of the scenario is that a busy bartender doesn’t really have time to stop and educate every customer who is in over their head. And what happens when one of those people orders a beer uninformed and gets something that doesn’t fit their palate?

What if a Coors Light drinker orders a Bell’s HopSlam? It wrecks their palate and puts them on a path toward ordering vodka tonics and telling their friends, “I don’t like craft beer.”

Craft beer has something for everyone and that’s part of the beauty. The range of flavors and textures is mind-boggling and I guarantee that on any given night, a place like Hilltop, which features a respectable beer program, will have something on tap or in a can that even the greenest of newcomers to craft beer could appreciate. And that opens the door for more exploration.

A few minutes later, I overheard a young woman who barely looked drinking age (she was, because she had to pull out her ID), say, “What’s the one that the glass comes with it?”

Told the supply of Monnik pint glasses had run out, she backtracked, looked at her date and said, “Babe, you order.”

She was considering ordering a beer strictly for the glass. What if she’d ordered the Bantha Surprise because the name was so cool and her palate wasn’t ready for a bourbon-barrel stout? It would have very possibly been a loss. Maybe she would have loved it, but I wouldn’t call a beer that complex a gateway craft beer.

And if that palate-wrecked person then tells their friends repeatedly how much they hate craft beer, they’ll inflict that unfortunate experience on others on the verge of finding a beer they enjoy. Think of it as being like someone who sees a headline on social media, then shares it without ever taking the time to read the story.

Liberal snowflakes welcome bad hombres to U.S.! Trump supporters believe world is flat!

Fortunately, breweries are set up to educate, with bartenders who know the beer, not to mention special glasses for tasting sessions. But if someone walks into a brewery, well, by default they are there to do the research. It’s there where we stand to lose them... over a beer they aren’t quite ready to square off with yet.

Like politics, responsible craft beer decisions demand research. And tasting beer beats the hell out of making your home page — it’s just a matter of finding a way to connect potential craft beer lovers with the right education.

So, nurture your friends. Know their palates. Inquire. Bring them along slowly, and explain styles and flavors to lead them into new experiences. Encourage them to taste before buying a pint, even if the bar is slammed. Most importantly, be patient. Once upon a time, every craft beer nerd had to taste his or her first Sierra Nevada.