photos by Amy Goodfellow
EVEN THE MOST CAREFUL malt-friendly operator has seen it happen in his place; a customer sends back a pint of beer complaining that it tastes strange, “off,” or just plain bad. With a proliferation of brands and beer styles emerging at a record pace, not every beer is destined to please consumers. Occasionally, dissatisfaction simply means a customer didn’t understand what he or she ordered. But in other cases, the beer drinker has recognized unpleasant flavors that most of us would find disagreeable, or even repulsive.
Experienced bar managers know it’s best to offer the beer drinker another beverage potentially more to their liking and to count the cost of the offending brew as waste. If a new brand receives enough complaints from customers, it’s likely the remaining stock will be sent back to the distributor with a robust note of complaint to relay to the brewer.
But brewers are not always responsible for “bad” beer that bears their name. It happens to well-established brands as well as beers from untested breweries. In the increasingly competitive U.S. beer market, a growing concern for many on-premise businesses is how to guarantee that beer served to patrons is in optimum condition.
For most operators, handling the beer at point of service becomes a well-practiced routine, since flaws at service–dirty glasses, poorly poured draft–are most likely to generate complaints. More difficult to master is the proper care of beer before it reaches the front of the house.
FIRST IN, FIRST OUT
Many restaurant and bar operators maintain a fresh beer inventory by establishing an in-house policy on shelf life. “In general, I try to make sure I can turn over the stock in 30 days,” says Maurice Coja, owner of Brickskeller in Washington, DC. For the Brickskeller, a beer haven that stocks up to 800 different beers at any one time, that means keeping track of a huge list of bottles by individual sales figures.
“It’s important that you have a program for monitoring your through-put on each beer–to know how much you’re selling and buying–so you can rotate stock,” he says
Sam Samaniega, owner of The Stuffed Sandwich in San Gabriel, CA, takes extraordinary measures to ensure a well-maintained stock of both bottled and draft brews, an idea he picked up long ago. “I used to work for a beer distributor before I got into running my own place, so I knew people didn’t always handle their beer well,” he says.
Samaniega’s inventory system records a different shelf life for different types of beer on a bottled list that currently has 750 selections. He admits that system imposes a substantial burden on his time but says it’s necessary. “You can promote beer like the fast food end of the business or like the fine food end of the industry, but then you have to pay for it.”
Part of the reason some bar managers set their own criteria of shelf life, independent of a label’s freshness code, is the absence of a beer industry standard. Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch has made the freshness issue a prominent part of its beer marketing business with its “born-on” dating system for Budweiser. This strategy is in part a response to beer-freshness issues raised by the craft brewing segment of the market years ago. Boston Beer Co. began printing “consumer-friendly” freshness dates on labels of its Samuel Adams brand in 1988. The freshness labeling in A-B’s system is based on the bottling date rather than a predetermined expiration date.
While freshness dating addresses one component of beer quality, it does not help control the environmental factors responsible for beer degradation. One of the main environmental conditions responsible for quicker spoilage than the freshness code indicates is extreme temperature. Most beer drinkers know the taste of beer that has been left in a hot car too long. Despite the common experience, however, temperature control is too often ignored by those handling the beer. “I’ve seen people who should know better stack cases right up next to a heater,” says George Gray, owner of Andy’s Corner Bar in Bogota, NJ. For its part, A-B, like other brewers, specifically recommends a proper storage temperature; 40o to 70o.
Andy Klubock, owner of two Taco Mac franchises in Atlanta and Snellville, GA, is so rigorous about making sure he isn’t forced to store beer under questionable conditions that he’d rather run out and eighty-six some brands for the night.” “You have to be prepared to run out of product so that your customers can enjoy the beer the way it should be.”
Klubock also quizzes his distributors and brewers specifically about the shelf life of their products and whether a beer has any special storage requirements. “We go to the breweries themselves to determine what the shelf life of each brand is. And we work those numbers into our inventory system.”
In addition to temperature controls and stock rotation, it’s important to protect bottled beer from exposure to shorter wavelengths of light. The light-struck character in beer is easy to recognize; think “skunky,” a result of a photochemical reaction affecting some of the components of the hops in beer.
One of A-B’s nationwide television advertising campaigns makes certain that large population of beer drinkers have heard about the phenomenon of “skunky” beer, although the general public doesn’t learn from the ads what causes it. Few bar operators report ever having a customer refuse a beer specifically because of skunky aromas, but it is still a risk many would rather avoid. “I put ultraviolet shields on all my fluorescent lights in storage,” Coja says.
Freshness and shelf life are terms most often associated with bottled product rather than kegged beers, but a growing number of bar managers are also beginning to worry more about draft beer hygiene. Draft beer accounts for a major portion of on-premise beer sales, but many brewers complain that bar managers often overlook the importance of storing and handling kegged beer properly.
Keith Symonds, a brewing consultant and former senior brewer at New England Brewing Co. in Norwalk, CT, finds that dirty tap lines were most often to blame for off-flavors in kegged beer. “I have had kegs returned to me as ‘bad,’ but retapping them at the brewery with clean jockey boxes, the keg showed no problems,” he says. Only the largest breweries offer draft line maintenance services, he adds, which means that bars taking keg orders from smaller breweries need to attend to the time-consuming task themselves. Unfortunately, some bar managers ignore the cleaning routine because it is cumbersome, he says.
Cleaning tap lines has become a ritual for many bar owners. Mike Yorton, owner of The Blue Tusk in Syracuse, NY, hires a service to clean and maintain his 65 regular tap lines and two English beer engines weekly. It is important to clean the entire system thoroughly, he says. “I’ve got a guy who comes in and even takes apart the faucets for cleaning.” The parts of the spigot assembly are often overlooked in cleaning taps, he adds, but those need to be scrubbed thoroughly as well. “It’s expensive at about $5,000 a year, but it’s important if you want to serve the beers right.” The extra effort pays off by removing residual flavors from a fruit-flavored beer when changing a line over to a more traditional ale or lager, he says.
In addition to cleaning tap systems, some bars install special gas systems to push their beers through. “We put a gas blender on our system so we can put a nitrogen blanket on the beer to protect it,” says Klubock. The system also allows him to adjust the gas mixture for different styles of beer. “It’s an expensive system, but it’s important for a place like ours where we have more than 100 drafts.”
William Loob writes regularly about beer and brewing for Cheers and other specialty publications and is an exam-qualified beer judge.
DEGREES OF BEER
One innovative way to ensure a better standard of beer handling and service is being developed by the Craft Brewers Guild, a beer distributor in the New York City area. The company is implementing a plan to issue certificates to off- and on-premise operations that demonstrate a commitment to maintaining a high quality of service in beer. “We don’t know of anybody else in the country who is taking this kind of approach,” says vice president Jim Munson.
Customers in a metropolitan area the size of New York can’t always know whether a particular retailer, restaurant or bar takes proper care of their product, he says. An accreditation system associated with an easily recognized certificate or plaque displayed on-premise could help customers recognize the top beer outlets in the city and provide a way for beer-friendly operations to distinguish themselves.
The idea was inspired by a national Belgian system for certifying cafes, restaurants and retail stores that attain a high standard of beer service, Munson explains. To gain the seal of approval from the distributor, a beer retailer or on-premise operation will be rated on a number of criteria; a commitment to selling a variety of brands and styles and demonstrating an ability to maintain good storage conditions. The knowledge level of the staff will also be a major consideration.
The Exploitant Diplomé, the certificate issued by the Office Belge du Service de la Biére (BSB), is only valid for a limited period, so that businesses need to demonstrate a continuing level of competence to be renewed. “The Belgian certificate is valid for one year,” Munson says, “but for our seal of excellence, we are deciding to allow a little more time, maybe two years before re-certification.”
Most brewers would rather see their beer served correctly and know the customer is enjoying the product. It is up to retailers and bar staff to make sure that storage and handling doesn’t affect the beer so the customer gets what the brewer intended, Munson says.
For the meticulous bar operator, proper beer husbandry goes beyond maintaining a professional standard of excellence. Taking care of the beer is also a matter of respect for the brewer, Coja says. “If your customer buys a beer from you and doesn’t like it, you’ve hurt the integrity of the brewer