Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?

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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.

9 thoughts on “Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?”

  1. I’m amused that I live in the mir­ror uni­verse to pour­ing-Guin­ness-wrong, where bar staff strug­gle with sparklers and will try and tilt a pint glass under a swan neck.

  2. I let it go. No point argu­ing. When it’s a phys­i­cal encounter. The inter­net is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Though I’m start­ing to just let shit go there, too.

    1. Wut?!? The great Ron of His­tor­i­cal­ly Found­ed Right­eous Wrath lets things go on the inter­webs?

      What’s the blo­gos­phere com­ing to.

      Shock­ing! *mut­ter* *mut­ter*

  3. I can’t imag­ine hav­ing a beer dis­cus­sion with 99% of the peo­ple I know let alone a con­fronta­tion­al one. Hav­ing been both a bar­tender and cus­tomer I am only inter­est­ed in exchang­ing the pay­ment and the pour.

  4. Talk­ing to the bar­tender about beer is a great way to break the ice and start a rap­port since it’s the thing you both imme­di­ate­ly have in com­mon. If a punter wants to car­ry on talk­ing about beer that’s fine and they can usu­al­ly find anoth­er drinker hap­py to talk to them too. Also talk­ing about local pub news and gos­sip is a good one.

    If I get a cus­tomer who wants to show off their knowl­edge or cor­rect me I will let them. I won’t ever cor­rect them but may ask ques­tions such as ‘are you sure about that?’ or even just say ‘oh right, I did­n’t know that, how inter­est­ing’ – even when i know they are wrong. I can have a laugh about it behind their backs with my col­leagues, which is fun.

    I’m there to make them wel­come and to indulge them so it’s no big deal. When work­ing the bar I leave my own ego at the door. How­ev­er, that does­n’t pre­clude hav­ing fun and crack­ing jokes once you’ve got to know some­one, or a group. I often make up facts like ‘this beer has rare Himalayan hops’ and try and get away with it. When I don’t know where a beer is from and some­one asks, I just say ‘Bris­tol’ and that seems to work. These days though I seem to spend a lot of time find­ing out and then explain­ing why the beer is cloudy.

    At the end of the day, it’s only beer, and it’s not the pri­ma­ry rea­son that most peo­ple are in the pub.

  5. I just let it go too except when I am told vine­gar is a built in fea­ture of a beer. That I nev­er let go. Unless the barper­son looks tougher than me of course.

  6. It seems to me that lessons of nor­mal, human behav­ior here can be our guide. When is lec­tur­ing any­one con­sid­ered polite?

    The one wrin­kle in the equa­tion comes when a pub is serv­ing bad beer and you want to send it back. If the publican/server does­n’t know what diacetyl is or how lines get dirty and gross, they may not have any idea what you’re talk­ing about. Not com­mon, but this has hap­pened to me a cou­ple times.

  7. I’m a bit baf­fled by this one. I can’t think of a sin­gle occa­sion when a bar­tender has expressed an opin­ion to me about the beer, oth­er than
    (a) warn­ing me in advance that a par­tic­u­lar beer was extreme­ly hoppy/sour/salty/overpriced/etc
    (b) agree­ing with me that a beer I was tak­ing back was in fact off (“sor­ry about that, some­body’s got to get the last pint” was a line I heard recent­ly)
    or, more prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly
    © telling me that a beer I was tak­ing back was fine and nobody else was com­plain­ing (this does still hap­pen).

    © is a right old pain, admit­ted­ly, but it does­n’t call for a dis­play of beer exper­tise so much as polite insis­tence on a bit of cus­tomer ser­vice.

    If I did ever hear a bar­tender explain­ing how IPAs were brewed to sur­vive the jour­ney to Aus­tralia, or that porter took its name from the Cam­bridge col­lege Porter­house, I can’t imag­ine myself get­ting involved even to the point where I’d need to let it go. But per­haps I’m just anti­so­cial.

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