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.

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
    (c) telling me that a beer I was taking back was fine and nobody else was complaining (this does still happen).

    (c) 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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