The Problem With Tasters

We’ve never been keen on asking for tasters, mostly because of we have a powerful aversion to making nuisances of ourselves, though we do understand all the arguments in favour of the practice. On our recent trip to London, however, we saw a kind of worst-case scenario played out, which only increased our antipathy.

A solo barman on a quiet afternoon was approached by a party of five, all of who wanted to taste everything before making a choice. Way more than a pint of (expensive) beer was given away while a queue of thirsty punters grew and grew, getting more impatient with every further request the party of tasters made: “Can you tell us which hops are the Kernel again? And what was that first one? Kelly, you should taste that first one Dave and I tried before you choose.”

We can’t see any way the barman could have wriggled out of this situation. Saying “Right, you’ve had enough tastes, now just choose!” would have seemed rude. He might, perhaps, have suggested serving a couple of other customers while they decided, but then what if we’d started asking to taste everything, too? The traditional publican’s response would be a passive-aggressive sign: “POLITE NOTICE: it would be appreciated if customers could refrain from asking for excessive numbers of tasters at busy times”.

Tasters work well when customers are suitably cooperative and community-minded — that is, when they have a couple of tasters rather than ten; and when they pay attention to how busy the bar is — but then that’s true of lots of aspects of pub culture.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe we should have made this is a You’re the Landlord scenario? How would you have handled it if you were behind the bar?

The balance of power

An only semi-relevant picture of some delicious, delicious Kölsch.

It’s not necessarily the case that people hate big, successful breweries; just that they cut new, small breweries a lot of slack.

It’s hard not to get excited when new breweries open, reading  breathless tweets announcing the arrival of kettles and fermenters, or the success of test batches. We’re illogical, emotional creatures and can’t help feeling a sentimental warmth towards the underdogs.

Sometimes, though, things are bit rocky to start with. As craft beer consumers, do we have a ‘duty’ to turn a blind eye to exploding bottles and off-flavours? No, but we don’t mind doing so for a  while because, in most cases, we understand how hard it is. We want them to succeed and enjoy being along for the ride.

When a brewery gets established, achieving regional, national or even international distribution, we start to feel less sentimental. They’re big boys now and ought to be able to take a bit of constructive public criticism. It’s probably at this point, too, that we stop repeatedly trying their beers hoping to find a good one. Frankly, there are too many good beers out there for us to waste our hard-earned cash on those that have already burned us, and drinking every beer twice is hard work when there are more than 4000** of them in the UK. We’ve done our bit, now we want them to do theirs. (As Pivni Filosof put it rather bluntly, “get your shit together or close down“.)

When a brewery gets really big — i.e. monolothic and powerful — the gloves are off. It’s not personal, it’s just that they’re no longer juveniles, and are subject to the law of the land like any other grown-up. We, the consumers, become the underdogs, the little guys in this relationship, and can surely no longer be expected to make any allowances for bad recipes or quality control problems.

Coincidentally, Alan at A Good Beer Blog has just posted on a related subject. Great minds, &c..

** Estimated figure based on 900+ breweries in the UK each brewing 3-5 beers.