Sunday, 5 November 2017

13 Reasons Why Working Behind the Bar is Entertaining

For 20-plus years I have remained firmly on the customer side of the bar at pubs, bars, clubs and festivals. In 2017 I decided that it was about time I experienced the other side of the bar. I volunteered at some beer festivals and also signed up for a four month stint of two shifts a week at the Hop Locker. These combined experiences have been fun, educational, tiring and frustrating, but on the whole rewarding.

After reflecting on my experience this year I have some things to say about both volunteering within the beer industry and working behind the bar but before I do that I wanted to share 13 of my favourite moments of customer interaction at The Hop Locker. For context I was mostly based at the summer pop up bar situated under the Hungerford Bridge, right on the Thames with a lovely view of Big Ben. In other words, it was a tourist location.

The view from within and without

 1. A 5% lager

Customer scans the taps on the lager side of the bar (10 taps on each side of the container with lager, cider, wine on one side and ales on the other side).

"Haven't you got a 5% lager?"
"Sorry, no. We only have a 4% lager on at the moment."
"That's a shame because I prefer a 5% lager."
"Oh, well if it's just a high ABV beer you want we do have a 10% imperial stout on?"

To this day I remain baffled at the idea that someone would select a beer using ABV as its defining feature.

2. An ale that's like a lager

"Can I have an ale that's like a lager?"
"Would you prefer an actual lager? Because we have one of those."
"No. I want an ale."
"Which one?"
"One that's like a lager."

I served this person an APA or session IPA, whilst the whole time thinking that all parties concerned were being done a disservice by this transaction.

3. Northerners can't drink halves

"Neck Oil please"
"Is that a pint of a half?"
*incredulous splutter*
"A half? Northerners can't drink halves!"
"That's not true. You can drink whatever you want."
"Nah. Can't drink halves!"
"Ok."

This was a recurring theme but one which could easily have been avoided by customers saying 'A PINT of Neck Oil please." Because if you don't state what measure of beer you want I cannot read your mind and I will have to ask you if you want a pint or a half. Because if I assume you want a pint and start pouring one, you might say, 'Oh, but I only wanted a half' and that could lead to wasted beer. So, you know, one to think about when ordering a drink - if multiple measures are available perhaps state the one you would like.

4. It's bizarre that Norwegians make ales

"I don't want anything that's 6 or 7%"
"Ok, so maybe Lucky Jack? That's only 4.7%."
"No. That's Norwegian and it's bizarre that they make ales."

Presented without comment.

5. Flavoured ciders

"Do you have any flavoured ciders?"
"No. We just have an apple cider."
"But is it apple flavoured?"
"It's apple, yes."
"Flavoured?"
"Ummm... made of apples."
"But is it real apples or flavoured?"
"All cider is made from apples."
"But you know that Stella just made one that's flavoured?"
"Uhhhh"
"You know? Some are just flavoured?"
"..."
"I'll have a pint anyway."

6. Rose and 7-Up

"What's your rose like? Is it sweet?"
"Not really. It's more dry. Did you want a taste of it?"
"Yes please"
*tastes wine*
"Yeah, so I'll have a glass of that with 7-Up please."
"It's ok if you blend them yourself if I give you another glass?"

Another similar exchange concerning wine:

"Do you do cocktails at all?"
"No, but there is another bar above this one which does."
"Nah, we're down here now. Do you do any spirits?"
"Yes, we do gin, vodka and rum."
"Great, can we get two JD and coke then please?"
"I'm afraid not because we only do gin, vodka and rum."
"Ok, what about cider?"
"Yes, we have a cider on tap. Would you like to try it?"
"Yes ok."
*sips cider, screws up face*
"..."
"Just give us two red wines and coke then."
"In the same glass?"
"Yes."
"Here's your red wine, your coke, and another glass for you to blend them at your leisure."

After this one I was informed by a beer friend that red wine mixed with coke is 'a thing' in Spain, similar to how beer and coke is a thing in Germany. See, I told you this gig was educational for me.

7. Stick something fruity in my DIPA please

"I want a beer. A fruity beer."
"Ok, maybe try this one and this one."
"Yes, that one will do. A half."
*pours a half of Beavertown Lupuloid*
"Ok, this is fine but can you just stick something fruity in it for me?"
"Like what? Did you want a wedge of lime in it?"
"Do you have any fruit juice?"
"Yes. Orange or cranberry?"
"Cranberry"
*adds shot of juice*
"Yes, that's better."

I enjoyed this one because the customer knew what they wanted and asked for it. Maybe I wouldn't choose it myself but they liked their drink and went away happy.

8. Candy Crush

On a quiet Saturday shift early on a guy wanted to try lots of different beers and chat about them - which is great. He started telling me about an app.

"So there's this app for beer..."
"Yes?"
"Yeah, one of my friends uses it all the time. It's kind of like collecting beers."
"Oh yes, is it called Untappd?"
"I don't know. But it's a bit like Candy Crush for beers. He's on it all the time."

This reminds me of a similar exchange I had working at the original Hop Locker just after London Craft Beer Festival.

A party of three order a selection of different pale ales. Two of them go off to browse the bottle shelves, the one who's paying starts talking about a BBNo beer they had at LCBF. I say that I liked that one, but preferred another beer of theirs...

"My mate is really serious about his beer *indicates friend browsing bottles* like REALLY serious about it."
"Yeah, I like beer too."
"He's got this app where he records all of the beers he's tried."
"Oh, do you mean Untappd?"
"Yes. He's got like 300 beers on there!"
"What, is that like in a single week?"
*laughing*
"He's got 300 beers."
"Yeah, I kind of stalled at about 2000 and something."
*he speaks very slowly and clearly*
"No. I'm talking about beers he's actually tried himself."
"Ok."

9. Perfumy beers

"Do you have anything like Kronenbourg?"
"The closest thing we have is a pilsner from Lervig. Did you want to try it?"
"Yeah."
*tastes*
"Nah. What other pale beers are there?"
"Well, there's a Kernel Pale Ale? It's not a lager, but it's pretty light and refreshing..."
"Oh yeah, I'll try that."
*tastes*
"Yeah, I'll give that a go. It smells the same as Kronenbourg anyway."
"Does it?"
"Yeah, because they're both perfumy."

10. Which one of these is the easiest to drink?

Presented without comment.

11. Scottish people only drink pints

See also number 3

12. Snake Bite

An American man asks to taste a 10% imperial coffee porter.

"Yeah, so I'll take a half of that and a half of apple cider."
*pours one half of the porter*
"No, I wanted them together."
"Uh"
"In the same glass."
"A coffee porter and an apple cider?"
*struggles to imagine what that could taste like*
"Yeah sure"
"Look, is it ok if I give you them separately and I'll give you another glass to mix them in?"

*some time later same man returns to bar*

"Hey, master blender, how was your drink?"
"Great. I've come back for another."
"So is this drink common where you come from?"
"Oh yeah, definitely. It's a Snake Bite."
"Oh, I thought a Snake Bite was cider and black, or sometimes cider, lager and black."
"No, cider and stout is a Snake Bite."
"Oh. I never heard that before."

We were so curious about this one behind the bar that we did a bit of research. We already knew that champagne and stout was a Black Velvet (less than the sum of its parts if you ask me). But apparently a 'poor man's Black Velvet' is cider and stout (again this sounds bloody awful to me but each to their own).

However, I maintain that an imperial coffee porter and apple cider is NOT a Snake Bite.

13. So many people don't know things these days

An American man and his daughter were hanging out at the bar drinking a few different beers on a Monday night.

"Can I try the imperial porter?"
"Sure."
*tastes*
"Hmm. So what is the difference between a barleywine and a porter anyhow?"
"Well, a barleywine is a strong pale ale. This particular porter is an 'imperial' meaning it has a higher ABV than is usual for the style. You would usually expect a porter to be lower in strength, maybe 4-6% kind of region. Also, porters are made with darker malts, so you get other flavours there like dark fruits or caramelised sugar flavours like toffee..."
"So would the yeasts also affect the flavour?"
"Not so much I don't think, because both styles have a relatively 'clean' fermentation character. Yeast is not a prominent feature in the flavour profile of these styles. For the porter maybe it would depend on house yeast strain, British and American porters would likely have differences from using different yeasts but nothing major I don't think."
"Oh. Ok, thank you. It makes a change for people to know things. So many people don't know things these days."


4 comments:

Zak Avery said...

https://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Article/2013/06/20/William-Sharvatt-s-London-Velvet

Presented without comment

Chris Emma said...

Thanks. Incredibly, this one has passed me by.

pp said...


I'm sorry, but your behaviour in 8b) would be objectionable in a social situation and unacceptable in a hospitality situation. Your job is to make the punters feel good, not imply that you're 6.7x better than them, and then decided that the journey they're on is boring anyway. Can you understand what it must feel like to be on the receiving end of that?

You just say "Yeah, I use that app, it's good isn't it?" You bond a little through shared experience, his app-choosing decisions are validated, he goes away feeling better than he did before.

And in the unlikely event that he or his friend ask how many ticks you have, "It's a bit embarrassing, I'm up to nearly 2000 - but a lot of them are just free tasters I get at work. 300 is really good going if you're actually buying your own pints!" That may be a convenient fiction but there's also an element of truth, and delivered with a bit of self-deprecation means that the punter isn't left feeling inadequate.

People feel good sharing their knowledge and experience, even if it is less than yours - so if you wanted to prolong the 8b conversation you ask them what was their favourite out of the 300, again you get them to feel knowledgeable. Your job is not to be a hosepipe, a one-way spray of beer-superiority, but more of a well - unobtrusive but with depths of knowledge that can be drawn on if requested. The 13) customers are great (might disagree with you on the yeast contribution of trad porter though...) but the really good staff can steer a conversation to turn an 8b) into a 13).

Chris Emma said...

Thanks for your comment, pp.

Firstly, as stated in the post the example you referred to took place at the original Hop Locker, which is essentially a small beer tent in a food market. Saturdays in summer get extremely busy. I think it was maybe 32 or 33 C that day and the queues were endless. That is sadly not a scenario which lends itself to engaging with customers in any detail (it can be likened to ordering fast food). The other example, as stated, took place on a quiet Monday evening when we had time to chat at length to customers, hence they were different scenarios (for a number of reasons). So there was zero opportunity to turn the exchange into a longer and more detailed one.

Secondly, when you work in a service role you learn how to cater your response to the end user based on their interaction with you. I have 17 years of experience in my profession, teaching practical laboratory techniques to large groups of MDs, nurses, MSc students, military personnel, lab scientists from all walks of life, with varying levels of spoken/written English and most importantly with varying attitudes. I have, for example, learned how to teach men who do not wish to be taught anything by a female expert.

I also have experience as a tutor, which is distinctly different to teaching because the tutor's role is get the tutee to do the majority of the speaking.

You have a spectrum of responses available as a service provider, from smiling and saying nothing to actively disagreeing with the end user if they cross a line of what is acceptable (e.g. sexist or racist comments - because the customer is not always right, actually). In this particular case the customer did not wish to have an equal exchange with me (which as you rightly pointed out is completely fine). So it didn't really matter what I said in response as he wasn't really interested. I doubt the customer was made to feel inadequate by our exchange because he didn't really listen to me anyway. I could have just smiled and said nothing instead though and perhaps that would have been a more appropriate response.

I disagree that I should outright lie to customers to make them feel happier though. So I'm not going to tell a customer that beers I've 'ticked' are mostly free samples from work because that's completely inaccurate. There is no 'element of truth' to it. Call me old fashioned but I think blatant dishonesty is unprofessional. :)