Between my job and my social life, I spend a good chunk of time drinking beer in bars. (I was once part of the team that compiled an annual list of the best beer bars in America. I’ve been around.) Some of the bars I frequent now are self-described craft beer bars, with pages-deep tap lists and special glassware for each beer style. Others have peanut shells on the floor. Some of the best have both.
But as craft beer becomes ubiquitous—at airports, stadiums, sports bars, even strip clubs—there are more people than ever before staring at more beer choices than ever before. Even for drinkers who consider themselves in-the-know, the options can be dizzying. In 2018 especially, we need beer menus that are clear, diverse, and designed to help us find our next perfect pint.
I don’t like to slog through pages-long, poetic beer descriptions, and I’m certain you don’t either. I also don’t need to decipher a lineup of esoteric styles few people actually enjoy (sorry, grodziskie, I want to love you). All I want is to drink at bars that give a shit about the details: clean tap lines, clean glassware, knowledgable and welcoming bartenders, a beer list with options for all types of palates.
Most of all, I want bars that are thinking about what we drinkers need to find our next favorite beer. Get us from point A to “holy Moses, this is delicious,” and you’ve done your job as a bar. As an advocate for beer drinkers coast to coast, I propose bars take to heart these five simple rules that will improve their beer menus.
1. Offer a beer list that isn’t 75-percent IPAs.
IPAs are the most popular and arguably most exciting style of craft beer right now, with tons of variation within that category. Boozy and bold, sessionable and crisp, tropical and fruity, dry and effervescent—a bar could put together a tap list of all IPAs and still offer a range of flavors. This doesn’t mean it should.
Remember malt-focused beers? Remember lagers? Sour beers? Dry stouts? I had a delicious amber ale on draft the other day and couldn’t remember the last time I’d had one at a bar. I know businesses need to serve what sells, but oftentimes I think they’re missing out on potential customers who are shoehorned into choosing from one of the four non-IPA options on a menu of a dozen beers. Mix it up.
2. List the beer’s style, not just its name.
I might want to order Local Beer Company’s Electric Kitten Revenge, but that name alone—absent any kind of description about the beer—doesn’t give me anything other than a hunch about the drug preferences of Local Beer Company. It’s hard for me, let alone a beer newbie, to stare down a beer menu that only lists a beer’s name and decipher what I might like.
At the least, I’d like to see the beer’s style—German pilsner, American IPA, barrel-aged stout—and an ABV. For those not super familiar with beer styles, a brief, one-sentence description can go a long way: “Local Beer Company Electric Kitten Revenge pale ale, 5.2 percent, is an easy-drinking pale ale hopped with Citra and balanced by bready malts.” Hey, sounds great, count me in.
3. Offer a range of ABVs in the beers you sell.
Standard American lagers fall around 4-5 percent ABV; a lot of common craft beer styles are in the 5-7 percent range; and some of the most exciting, specialty beers hover around 7-10 percent and higher. But a higher ABV does not mean a tastier beer.
For those of us interested in spending a few hours at a bar and still riding our bikes home afterwards, even beers in the 6-7 percent area can start to add up. I’d love to see more bars embrace beers below 5 percent, which also means there need to be breweries producing delicious, low-alcohol beers. (They do exist!)
Let’s see a British mild on a draft list, or a radler, or more pilsners, or a refreshing Berliner weisse squeaking under 5 percent.
4. If possible, offer different-sized pours.
This is mostly a hallmark of better beer bars with multiple types of glassware, but I love the option to order a half-pint of a stronger beer, or a taster of some weird new fruit-flavored concoction I’m not sure I’ll like. I know beer flights can be a lot of work for bartenders, but even offering half-pours would be great to see more frequently.
I also thought this went without saying, but this past fall I was served a full pint of barleywine at a bar: stronger beers generally belong in smaller glasses like tulips or snifters. Sorry, barleywine-by-the-gallon crew, I really don’t think that’s advisable.
5. Don’t sacrifice quality for locality.
I’ve left my most controversial opinion for last: Serving a beer that’s local even if it’s not very good does everyone a disservice. It boggles my mind when I ask a bartender about a local beer I haven’t heard before, and they give me a knowing “Some people like it, I guess.”
This does the drinker a disservice because you’re pouring a beer you can’t enthusiastically recommend. They might not like it either and be turned off from that brewery for a while. With so many beer choices out there, that customer might never give the brewery a second shot.
It also does your bar a disservice. Now I’m questioning how and why you put certain beers on in the first place. Shouldn’t I trust that you’re serving the best possible beers you can?
Lastly, it does a disservice to all the great breweries out there. Surely there’s another brewery in your state or region making something delicious that your bar could have served instead. And hell, if a crazy-delicious beer comes from all the way across the country or world, I’d really like the chance to taste it.