There’s a pretty good chance that you probably like beer, or at least find yourself ordering it often. And maybe you’ve developed a decent palette, moving on from what you drank in high school, or snuck from your dad's refrigerator. For those of us who've left the world of house parties and keggers behind — with mountains of empty cans receding in the distance — there's a vast landscape of craft beers to explore and, with them, a new set of challenges.
Simply confronting the variety of beers on the market these days can be bewildering. According to the Brewers Association, the number of breweries keeps going up, increasing by 15% from 2012 to 2013 alone. You can chalk that up to the rise of craft breweries and the bars that support the movement — and some of those bars have such prodigious beer menus that they're more dizzying than a sixer of Milwaukee's Best.
As many of us know too well, a lot can go wrong when you're drinking. But now that craft beer culture has all but taken over, your first mistake might strike before you even order.
- Choose wisely
If you're looking for a good craft beer, begin your search with the right proprietor. Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy's No. 43 in Manhattan, recommends doing your research and finding bars that are truly committed to craft beers. If you can tap into a network like New York City's Good Beer Seal, you're off to a good start. But wherever you're drinking, the better craft beer bars will offer a variety of regional beers, interesting collaborations between breweries, and some select imports. "You have to work hard to be a really good craft beer bar," says Carbone. "You don't have to have the craziest imperial IPA, but you should have a really good pale ale or a really good IPA or pilsner."
- Keep it clean
Even if a bar has a great beer selection, poorly maintained tap lines can muddy the flavors of even the freshest local beer. But how can you tell if a bar is cleaning their lines? Carbone says to be wary of bars with a beer-and-a-shot special or a focus on what he calls the lowest point of entry. "If you see a bar with Bud Light, don't buy the draft," says Carbone, because patrons will too often make the safe bet rather than experiment with unfamiliar craft offerings. "Those beers A, aren't going to move, and B, [the owners are] not going to clean the lines or anything. Don't assume because it's on draft it's good." Canned or bottled craft beers are a usually a safe bet, if you're worried.
- Keep an open mind
If you find yourself in a craft beer bar and don't recognize any of the beers on the list, especially if you're drinking out of state, don't get discouraged. "It's the worst when people aren't open-minded about it," says Becca Brown who tends bar at 61 Local in Brooklyn, which focuses on beers from the area. "People get intimidated by what they don’t recognize." Brown says she and her fellow bartenders are happy to describe what's available and offer tastes whenever possible.
- But don't be too open-minded
"Never walk up and say 'What's good?' or 'What do you like?'" advises Arlo Thompson, a bartender at Standings in Manhattan, especially when it's busy or if you're at a craft beer bar with dozens of options. "You have to have at least some idea of what you like. Just give it a little bit of thought before you roll up." If you don’t recognize the beers available, tell the bartender what you like and ask for a recommendation. (For the record, Standings is a sports bar that serves pitchers of Bud Light alongside with a solid range of craft beers and is right above Jimmy's No. 43).
- Ask for tastes
Again, as Brown suggests, it's fine to ask to try draft beers before you commit to a full pour, but be reasonable. Don't think you'll pull a fast one and get a free beer one taste at a time. "I can respect a good scam…if it's artfully done," says Brown, but adds that she doesn't appreciate entitlement. If it's rush hour at the bar and the staff is struggling to keep up, asking for a sip of every beer is a good way to piss off your bartender. And the other customers.
- Please don't be a snob
"I think a lot of people are knowledgeable about beers these days, which is great," says Thompson. "But you don't have to tell everybody you're knowledgeable about it." If you can taste the "mulberry and cascade hops," your bartender probably has too, so don't try to impress them. Keep it to yourself or to Untappd.
- Do not snub the glass
You might prefer beers in pint glasses (or the occasional boot), but sometimes you order a beer that arrives in some kind of contraption (Kwak, we’re looking at you here) or a goblet fit for the other king of beers. Some bars will indicate if they use more unconventional containers with symbols or a disclaimer that you're not ordering a full pint. If you're apt to be self-conscious about it, stay away from the specialty, higher gravity beers or anything else that's typically served at a lower volume. Or just get over yourself. Brown says she often sees guys get offended when they're served a beer in smaller glass, especially if they're with a bunch of "broey friends" who've just been handed pints. "They're like 'Oh man, why'd mine come like that? That obviously speaks to my masculinity.'"
- Drink responsibly
If you're looking for a sure-fire way to order beer the wrong way, just order too much of it. Start with the higher-gravity beers, and lighten up from there. "If you're going to go all night," advises Thompson, "I'd do a pilsner or something like that."
- It should go without saying…
…but don't forget to tip your bartender, regardless of what you're drinking.
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