With big-named beer companies purchasing the distribution rights of smaller breweries, there is a larger selection of beers in bars and liquor stores. Pubs with “around the world” drinking clubs offer participants a special mug or placard in the bar for trying 100 different beers. While it is a noble effort by these establishments to encourage more people to buy beer and they usually provide an in-bar guide to where the beers come from, how can you tell whether or not you’re going to like the taste of a beer from a picture on a tap handle or a label on a bottle? If you’ve ever been surprised when you ordered a pale ale and it turned out to be darker than a light beer (doesn’t pale mean it’s a light beer?), then this blog is for you.
As a former bartender and manager of a British pub and now as a business traveler who sees the beer selection in hotels and local bars, I have become an amateur expert on the subject of beer. I find a pub in every city I visit, try new beers and talk to bartenders, managers, and beer distributors. I try the recommendations of my fellow beer drinkers and host beer tasting parties for my friends. I subscribe to distributor newsletters, read beer reviews online, and even watch “Three Sheets” on TV as another way to stay immersed in beer culture. In 2009, my husband and I began to brew our own beer with the help of Al from Brigadoon Brewery.
Where everybody knows your shame
If you’re a regular at a bar, you love the feeling of docking your butt into the groove of your favorite barstool as the bartender plops down your “usual” drink in front of you. You don’t have to order because they know you here; just like you know the bartender’s names, schedules, and cell phone numbers. The crowd at the bar is the same too. The TV is always tuned to the game and you know how to get the guy sitting next to you riled up every night. You love this place. You’re one of the lucky ones who can leave your jacket at the bar one night and know that it will be there waiting for you the next time you come in. That drink in front of you is as good as a card from the owner that says, “Thank you for your patronage.” In the time it takes you to order up another round of validation, the rest of us are going to close out our tabs and try some new beers in new bars.
The secret to finding a good bar is admitting that you have a problem – going to the same convenience store and buying the same 12-pack of beer every Friday night. The next step is finding a place with a wide selection of beer – be that a liquor store or a pub. If you can count the brands of beer that you’ve tried on one hand, then you have no idea how challenging this exercise can be. To find a new bar, search the internet for words like “beer pub” for the city or area where you live. Sites like citysearch and pubcrawler.com are also great resources especially when you’re out of town as they include reviews of bars and other information like whether or not they serve food and what kind of people hang out there.
Not ready to go into a bar alone just yet? That’s OK. Take a small step. Start drinking beer by changing what you drink where you eat. When you go to an Italian restaurant, instead of a bottle of red wine, start out with an Italian beer like Peroni, and at a Japanese restaurant, ask for an Asahi or a Sapparo instead. You’ll soon learn that most countries export a light-colored lager that is cold, crisp and refreshing, which is a perfect way to start out the night even if you do decide to follow it up with a glass of red wine.
When you’re ready to venture out, perhaps on a business trip when you just can’t bear to order room service for the third night in a row, then it’s good to have some basic bar vocabulary under your belt. What distinguishes an icehouse from a bar is an icehouse typically only has cold, domestic beer kept in tubs of ice while a bar has a selection of liquor. What distinguishes a bar from a pub is that a pub has a wide selection of beer. So, if you’re interested in drinking beer, then you should always look for a pub. You may find an Irish pub, a British pub, or a Scottish pub but wherever you go, you’ll find quite a few beers on tap. When you’re in a new place, ask the bartender for a pint of the most popular beer they serve. It’s rarely the same brew at every bar and it takes the initial guesswork out of what to order. If the bartender needs more information, just tell him or her to give you a lager. If they don’t know what that is, then this is not the bar for you.
Never having to say you’re sauced
The disadvantage to the responsible draft beer drinker is that there’s no bottle to read so you can keep an eye on the alcohol content. When trying new beers, you don’t want to go into it thinking that you can put back as many of the new beers as you did of the domestic bottled beers you used to drink. Most big-name-light beers are below 5% alcohol by volume and while a Belgian ale may look light in color, read the label to see that most of them start out at 8%. A good rule of thumb for draft beer is to treat each pint like two bottles of your regular beer.
In Texas, a bartender is not allowed to serve you to the point of intoxication even if you say that you’re not driving, so know your local laws and don’t be a jerk about if you get cut off. A good beer bar is hard to find, so when you find one, trust your sober bartender when they tell you that you’ve had enough. You only get banned from a bar if you act like a drunken fool trying to prove that you’re not drunk. If they’ve decided to cut you off, pay your tab, tip them well, and drink a glass of water while you’re waiting for your cab.