The recent passage of AB 1014, a bill initiated by San Diego’s own Nathan Fletcher, will make life a lot easier for the individuals behind our county’s craft-beer tasting bars. It also ensures that the already extensive cadre will continue to grow now that such institutions no longer have to meet inappropriate restaurantesque guidelines. From now on, they’ll be governed in much the same way as winery tasting rooms, and it’s about time.
It’s also high time we defined what tasting bars are and, more importantly, what they’re not. Given San Diego’s status as America’s craft-beer capital, the magnitude of misconceptions surrounding tasting venues is incredible. First off, a tasting room is not a bar. Some offer pints and a nice place to hang out, but their primary purpose is still what it’s always been — to showcase and provide a central location for consumers to check out a wide variety of the styles produced. Contrary to popular belief (and despite breweries that stretch the mold), tasting rooms are not built for several solid hours of downing suds with your buds.
It would be foolish to deny the mind- and behavior-altering qualities of beer — it’s usually what first piques our interest in the medium — but getting drunk is not what tasting rooms are about. Depending on the types and volume of what you drink, you’re going to feel it to a varying degree, but as the name suggests, you’re there to taste. You want to become an informed consumer so that you know what a given brewery has to offer. And you don’t have to be a beer geek to get it that, like any public venue, tasting bars have their own etiquette.
Walking into a tasting room and asking for “the hoppiest, highest-alcohol shit you’ve got” says a lot about a person. It shows no grasp of or respect for where you are or for the people behind the bar, and little understanding of craft beer. No wonder such individuals are regarded as pariahs by the craft-beer fans who make up roughly three-fourths of the patronage at a tasting bar.
Craft-beer drinkers can’t stand the clown draped in false bravado who barks at the tasting-room attendant for a two-ounce pour of 12 percent ABV imperial stout, or 10 percent double IPA (India pale ale), then proceeds to down said high-octane brew as if it were a shot — before promptly demanding another. Again, you’re supposed to be tasting. Shotgunning a beer like it’s your last night as a bachelor (or one of many as a sophomoric collegiate) is the antithesis of tasting, what you do when something is so vile or harsh on the palate you want to bypass your taste buds.
Stop and savor the artful nuances of roastiness, cocoa, coffee, and spice in that stout, or the subtle hints of grapefruit, lemon zest, and herbaceousness in that IPA, much as you’d spend time and afford respect examining a six-year-old Napa cab. If some spring-break refugee hell-bent on obliteration charged into a winery tasting room acting the fool, he’d be regarded as such. Well, news flash, you Animal House wannabe, there’s no difference between a wine and beer tasting room.
When approaching the bar, come armed with patience. With a few exceptions, tasting rooms don’t generate the type of revenue that makes it feasible to staff them as robustly as most brewery owners would like. In spite of this, the majority of tasting-bar attendants are happy to answer your questions or guide you through a drawn-out and enjoyable sampling experience. Don’t be afraid to put yourselves in their hands, especially if you’re new to craft beer or a particular brewery. That said, don’t be too needy. If there’s a big crowd, refrain from asking too many questions, especially when there’s a chalkboard on the wall that will provide information about what’s on tap, the styles, alcohol content, tasting notes, and ingredients and methods used to make the various beers.
Aside from needing to take care of high volumes of customers, most tasting-bar workers (some of which are volunteers…hey, I can get behind the will work for beer philosophy) have multiple duties, from filling growlers to taking phone calls to changing blown kegs, or, in the case of Ballast Point’s Linda Vista tasting bar, located in the corner of Home Brew Mart, helping shoppers while dishing out advice on brewing methods, supplies, and ingredients. They might not have time for excessive hand-holding, interrogation-style questioning or, worse, flirting. That Belgian-style strong ale you’re drinking may make you think you’re Don Juan, but few objects of desire in any vocation want to deal with buzzed come-ons and advances at the height of the workday rush. Of course, if it’s a slow day, and the individual pouring your beer is as hot as a habanero-infused Sculpin IPA, go for it. Just remember, you’re at somebody’s workplace.
Minding your Ps and Qs (pints and quarts, if you ever wondered what that referred to) is good form in a tasting room, as it is anywhere. Many local breweries produce numerous beers that are 7 percent ABV or higher, so mix in some water. It fights beer’s dehydrating powers and keeps you from transforming into that blithering idiot who becomes the brewery’s local legend. The Lost Abbey jokingly bottles San Marcos tap water and labels it with their Celtic cross logo and the moniker Holy Water.
Another method for keeping from drinking too much too fast is to take one of the brewery tours offered by tasting rooms affixed to operating brew houses. Walking the line of sobriety isn’t the only reason to partake. Seeing how the beer is made heightens one’s appreciation. It’s an extension of the educational aspect of the tasting-room experience. (Note: If you’re visiting a tasting room with friends and want a tour, call a few days in advance to make sure they can accommodate your group.)
No matter what, for God’s sake, don’t drop your glass. If you do, you’ll be showered with a chorus of hearty booing from every one of your formerly fellow imbibers: it’s part of the craft-beer culture’s unspoken code. It’s also a pain to have to clean up or step around, though you can expect the efficiency of a Wimbledon ball-fetcher if such a travesty occurs. Another reason to leave a good tip. The keepers of the tasting room will remember you in a positive light; besides, it’s the right thing to do. ■
Photo by Ryan Lamb