Photo: william couch, Flickr
Every day, new beers hit the market. And not just the latest take on American lagers like Budweiser or Miller Lite: More likely than not, the newest draft at the neighborhood pub is a craft beer, often times in a style or from a brand that patrons aren't familiar with.
Ironically, drinkers who are already converted craft beer snobs are even more likely to encounter beers of which they have little knowledge. Beer geeks seek out these unique experiences, hunting down a draft from the newest brewery or clamoring to try a non-traditional style so they can be the first to ponder these products' worth.
Most beer drinkers fall somewhere in the middle: familiar with some craft beers and occasionally want to try something different. The question becomes, though, if you don't know exactly what you're ordering, how do you know if what's in your glass tastes right?
How do you know when a beer has gone bad? And how should you handle it?
First, look for obvious warning signs like dirty glassware or a general lack of cleanliness. Unclean glassware alone can ruin a beer. "Serving a beer in a dirty glass is like serving food from a dirty plate," says Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director of the Brewers Association -- a group who's goal is "to promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts." As she points out, dirty glasses "could and likely will affect the taste of the beer."
Another major issue can be uniformed staff. Before ordering an exotic beer, get a feel for who's serving it. Ask the bartender what he thinks of the beer and see if the response sounds knowledgeable. That way, if concerns arise, complaints won't fall upon deaf ears.
Additionally, most bars will let patrons sample beers. If a place seems especially suspicious, sometimes beer lovers can even benefit from sampling something they know. Brewery reps occasionally drop in for a quality control check; there's no rule that says customers can't quietly do the same.
The vast majority of bars are serving all of their beers at the highest level. As a representative for craft beer mainstay Stone Brewing pointed out, serving bad beer doesn't look good for anyone: bar owners could potentially lose customers and brewers certainly aren't getting proper representation for their product. And if a bar has too many warning signs, craft brewers like Stone will simply avoid stocking their products there. For them, reputation is too important.
The number one cause of bad brews being served is simple ignorance. Uninterested owners and staff don't know they are serving an inferior product if they have little knowledge or care of what's being served. The Brewers Association is attempting to attack this issue with education. Last year, they actually published a guide called the Draught Quality Manual with the goal of maintaining draft beer integrity in mind.
"As craft beer has come on the scene and more beer styles have become available so too has an increased importance for proper beer service," says Herz, . "However, I do sometimes encounter bars and restaurants who come up short in proper beer service, proper beer presentation or knowledge and/or proper draught system maintenance."
This fact underscores the need for server education, but the manual doesn't do anyone any good if bar owners aren't reading it, and the kind of establishment that would serve up beer that's gone bad probably doesn't keep guides like this one handy.
So in the end, the only way for beer enthusiasts to guarantee they are getting their beverages as the brewers intended is to educate themselves. "Beer lovers can get to know their beer styles and then they can understand more on the flavors of specific beer styles," suggests Herz.
But just in case, what's the best course of action when encountering a bad brew?
Say something! "Any customer should feel comfortable to address any issue (about their food or drink) with a manager of an establishment," says Herz. "If a restaurant prides themselves on their beer/craft beer selection they will certainly want this type of feedback."