Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“What’s the etiquette when you know more about beer than bar staff? They’re probably passionate about beer, about craft. Maybe they’re younger and hipper than you. Sometimes they think that because they behind a bar they’re experts on beer, but drop clangers like telling you that Ekuanot is a brand new experimental hop rather than a rename of Equinox. What do you do? How do you communicate that they’re wrong about something without being boorish?”

Brendan, Leeds

This is an interesting question, although more about etiquette and human interaction than something to which we can give a definitive answer. But we’ll try.

Short version: let it go.

On a couple of occasions we’ve found ourselves in pubs with a veteran beer writer and watched them come up against the kind of bar person who not only doesn’t know much about beer, but exhibits their ignorance with enormous arrogance.

How does the guru handle it? They say, ‘Oh, interesting — thanks’; they smile kindly; and they walk away.

Unless it will result in you losing out somehow (e.g. being overcharged, or ending up with a beer you won’t enjoy) what’s the point in starting this kind of argument? It can only be ego, surely.

Take the high road.

Let it go.

* * *

OK, short version over — now let’s dig into this a bit more.

The flipside of the situation Brendan describes is the difficulty for bar staff of dealing with experts, or at least people who think they’re experts. We asked on Twitter what people who’ve worked behind bars think of ‘know-all customers’ (leading language, but there you go) and here’s a selection of the comments we received:

“Personally I love when I get a customer that knows more than me. It rarely happens though, not to brag.”

“There is a contingent of generally male cask ale drinkers age 50+ who simply cannot accept that someone in their twenties can know more about beer than them. Despite the fact they know very little.”

“Spent years being ‘told’ how to pour Guinness. These days if they keep annoying me I may casually mention my [beer writing work]… They are there to have fun. It’s my job to help. If they are showing off and it’s jovial I’ll tease them about anything they get wrong.”

“Geeks who are just sharing their excitement – go for it, I like talking to guests like that. Know-it-all asses? Not so much.”

“All power to em, if it’s the one bright spot their otherwise moribund existence then let em have it. Hardly worth the grief getting wound up.”

“I liked people to tell me how they wanted things served, rather than those who expected me to know and complained after.”

“Obviously, I also have the disadvantage of being female, and below the age of 30, so I think I may have had a more concentrated experience…”

“I’ve experienced two kinds of ‘know-all’ customers. Some love beer and just want to talk about it and they’re obviously pleased when they find knowledgeable staff. They’re the awesome customers that you can wax lyrical about hops with and share favourite beer facts. But then there’s the ones that want to lecture you. Normally middle aged men who like proving they know everything about beer to anyone in ear shot.”

“I’ve been that person myself; desperate to get the approval of the bartender. As long as nobody is rude, no harm done.”

One of those comments came from Suzy (@lincolnpubgeek) and we asked her to elaborate — how should a customer in Brendan’s situation handle it?

When I was a fledgling beer nerd [working behind a bar] this happened every now and then and I’d just refer to what I did know or ask a manager… But then that was in a bar without a beer focus so it wasn’t a common issue.

If that’s happening somewhere that does have a focus on beer then that’s simply bad management. In my old job some of the staff weren’t as knowledgeable and they’d often refer to me or a manager which can works too so long as they at least know the basics.

There was a bar in Lincoln where some of the staff had zero training and didn’t even drink beer. It made ordering a very slow kerfuffle but they were apologetic and polite about it, it was definitely a management and training issue.

Staff need to know what’s going on in the cellar and need basic tasting notes for all the products as a bare minimum. Customers need to make it known that beer knowledge is a big plus, with their wallets when it’s not there, and their voices when it is.

We asked the same question to Susannah Mansfield who runs the Station House micropub in Durham:

Usually the people who genuinely know more are people who are happy with how we do things because they know why we do it, and it’s conversational, or suggestions to improve that I either may not have thought of, or have good reasons for not doing, or old tricks of cellaring that are less well known…

I’ve never pretended to know everything, but equally, I know a hell of a lot more than the average punter, and I tend to find that those that have that greater knowledge themselves are far less proud of themselves about it.

What comes out of all of this, is a fairly clear, quite obvious set of rules that really boil down to basic social skills. If you absolutely must have it out…

  1. Don’t be blunt, loud or aggressive. Getting something wrong is embarrassing and being corrected can be humiliating, so gently (and quietly) does it. It’s not a point-scoring exercise…. is it?
  2. Consider that you might be wrong. Of course you think you’re right — you’re sure you’re right — but if you think back a few years you can probably bring to mind ‘facts’ you clung to and parroted because you’d read them in one book you now know is rubbish. (We certainly can.)
  3. If the bar staff haven’t been trained well, it’s not their fault. If they start floundering and looking uncomfortable or unhappy, change the subject, and resist the urge to CRUSH THEM WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.
  4. Don’t go on, and don’t lecture. Make your point but if you’ve been talking for more than, say, 30 seconds, wrap it up.
  5. Ask yourself: am I assuming I know more because I’m older than them? (And/or a bloke.)
  6. Don’t, for goodness sake, trot out your credentials. There is no way to do this that doesn’t make you sound like a buffoon: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ If it gets to this stage, we refer you to our initial advice: let it go.

Thinking about it, some of those rules probably work the other way across the bar too.

Breaking out of the Rut

Illustration: moody London pub.

It’s easy to end up drinking the same beers, and going to the same pubs and bars, and feel miserable about it. But there are ways to break free.

1. Walk down a new street or visit a new town and go into the first pub you walk past after a certain hour. (Don’t cheat.)

2. Or go to every single pub in a neighbourhood, town or village, however weird or unpromising.

3. Buy an old guide book and visit the pubs it recommends, or take on a famous historic crawl.

4. Drink your way through a list of beers from a book or listicle.

5. Get someone else to choose beers for you.

6. Drink every beer you can find in a particular style, from a particular region, or that meet some other criteria – ABV, colour, Christmas themed…

7. Critically revisit beers you know you don’t like but haven’t tried in years. After all, they change, and you change too.

8. Spend a month drinking things other than beer, but with beer in mind.

There are lots of other ways to go about this kind of thing. The point is, like writing poetry using restrictive rules, or cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats, it should be sort of pointless… But not really.

You might hate all the new pubs you go in and beers you taste, or you might find new favourites you kick yourself for having missed out on for so long. Even the duds will teach you something.

QUICK ONE: (A Comically Small Portion of) Food for Thought

Auguste Escoffier in pop art colours.

In 1973 the food critic Henri Gault published ‘The Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine’, crystallising the new movement then sweeping French gastronomy:

  1. Thou shall not overcook
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products
  3. Thou shall lighten thy menu
  4. Thou shall not be systematically modernistic
  5. Thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown and white sauces
  7. Thou shall not ignore dietetics
  8. Thou shall not cheat on thy presentation
  9. Thou shall be inventive
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced

(This is the translation given by Paul Freedman in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, 2016. There are many subtly different versions around.)

From this side of the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine is a bit of a joke — huge plates, tiny amounts of silly food, very expensive. What yuppies ate. But that list made us think about changes in beer that were taking place in the same period with the rise of micro-brewing and ‘alterno beer’.

Of course some of those commandment don’t directly map (overcooking, sauces) but how about if we rewrite them a bit?

  1. Thou shall not stew good hops.
  2. Thou shall use fresh, quality products.
  3. Thou shall lighten thy beer.
  4. Thou shall not be industrial.
  5. But thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you.
  6. Thou shall eliminate brown beer (UK) and yellow beer (US).
  7. Thou shall be transparent about the strength and ingredients of your beer.
  8. Thou shall not prize marketing over quality.
  9. Thou shall be inventive.
  10. Thou shall not be prejudiced.

Of course there are a million exceptions to each of those ‘rules’, as there were in Nouvelle Cuisine as actually practised, but that doesn’t feel to us like a bad summary of where — in the very most general sense — people’s heads were between about 1963 and, say, 2015. (We say 2015 because, in very recent years, something seems to be changing. But that’s just a gut feeling which we’re still probing.)

This feels like a connection Michael Jackson, Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver or even Sean Franklin must have made at some point but a quick Google (time is short this morning) doesn’t turn anything up. Pointers welcome in comments below.

To finish, here’s another quote from Freedman:

Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1970s… had two missions that have since gone separate ways: to exalt primary ingredients simply prepared, and to advocate variety resulting from breaking with tradition — new combinations such as Asian fusion.

That sounds a bit like the break between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’, doesn’t it?

QUICK ONE: Overlooked

Here’s an interesting question, in the form of a Twitter poll, from @ThaBearded1 who works at Twisted Barrel, a brewery in Coventry:

He is no doubt going to write or do something interesting himself based on the responses so we won’t get too involved in the specifics of this particular case but what he’s expressing does seem to be a common anxiety: that the next city over, or London specifically, is getting more than its share of attention in the national press or on prominent beer blogs.

We’ve written pieces relating to this on a few occasions, most notably here where we said…

…if writing about beer is London-centric, and it might be a bit, it’s partly because London is bothering to write about beer.

More recently we suggested that in 2017 what people mean specifically when they make this kind of point is, ‘Wah! Why hasn’t Matt Curtis written about it/us/here!?

We say, once again, that if you think your region is overlooked, you should make the case. Write a blog post or ebook, or put together a Google Map, showing where a visitor to your region can find local beer, the beer-geekiest bars and pubs, and give some suggestions for how they can get from one to another. Your target audience here is people on weekend breaks — why should they visit your city rather than, say, Sheffield, or Manchester, where there is so much interesting beer that it’s hard to know where to start? But also, by extension, bloggers and journos looking for advice on where to start.

‘But we’re not like those obnoxious Londoners/Mancunians/Leodensians — we don’t like to shout about ourselves because we’re so humble and unassuming,’ feels like a response we’ve heard several times in this kind of conversation, and that’s a bit… pathetic. It’s probably better to boast than to grumble, and wait for someone else to do the shouting for you.

And, of course, writing critically is good too — it’s a sign of maturity in a scene and can add credibility to your guidance. If a visitor follows your advice and ends up in pubs that are merely ‘meh’, drinking bad beer, they’ll think less of your scene overall.

We used to have a page here collecting links to town, city and region guides and pub crawls written by beer bloggers, but had to scrap it because they weren’t being kept up to date and too few new ones were appearing. It would be nice to revive that, or at least to know that there’s a guide out there to Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, or wherever, that we can point people to when they ask us, which they do from time to time.

Note: if you’re interested here’s what we wrote about Birmingham and the Black Country last summer.

QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.