Don't expect to order tasting flights while breweries operate under covid restrictions.
Effective tomorrow, Friday, June 12, bars are allowed to re-open in San Diego County, which means brewery taprooms can pour beers again, regardless of whether they serve food. However, beer fans should expect a few post-pandemic changes to taproom culture. For example, limited capacity may make reservations necessary to spend time drinking at your favorite brewery, and the beer may be served in disposable cups rather than glassware. Arguably the biggest shift is the absence of sample sizes and beer-tasting flights.
Tasting flights, four- or five-ounce sample sizes, and courtesy “splashes” — usually a one-ounce pour — of beer have been a major component of customer education and choice throughout the history of craft beer in San Diego. Beer drinkers are accustomed to sampling small amounts of beers, either to determine which beer to order in larger volumes, or to experience a wider selection of beer styles in one sitting.
Nevertheless, even at one of the county’s oldest breweries, AleSmith Brewing Company, tasters have been suspended indefinitely. Seating has been spaced out, and beers are served at minimum in eight-ounce pours. The same goes for Second Chance Beer Company in Carmel Mountain and North Park, Eppig Brewing in Vista, and more, as many cite the suspension of tasting flights as part of the “new normal” for brewery tasting rooms.
“Our decision for now is to help limit time and exposure [customers experience] in line,” says Eppig co-founder Stephanie Eppig, “and reduce touch points.” Eppig’s Vista brewery, meanwhile, has plenty of space to allow open seating, but its Waterfront Biergarten in Shelter Island is popular enough that reservations are required, particularly on weekends, to arrange a 90-minute seating. “At this time,” notes Eppig, “we've decided to reduce capacity to help reduce crowds and exposure in lines.”
In order to resume service, breweries must adapt to state and county guidelines intended to reduce contact and exposure to contagion. While these restrictions do not regulate sample sizes or glassware directly, individual breweries are voluntarily making changes.
Brian Mitchell, owner and brewer of Pariah Brewing Company in North Park, explains the decision to eliminate tasters and splashes has to do with discouraging prolonged and frequent interactions between customers and staff. “Sadly, splashes and tasters proved to be the biggest encouragers,” he says, “We love engaging with our guests and talking beer, but it felt inappropriate.” Pariah’s small tasting room is one that have started serving beer in disposable cups, rather than reusable glassware.
“It kinda breaks my heart, but we're probably going to be dealing with disposable glassware for at least the short term,” says Kelsey McNair, cofounder and brewer of North Park Beer Company. As he readies his neighborhood brewpub for the return of guests, he laments the move away from glass more than discontinuing tasters. “We’re not doing tasters for the time being,” he notes, “I’m contemplating removing them indefinitely.”
With the exception of coordinated tastings, tours, and beer pairings, McNair sees dwindling value in tasting flights. “I get that consumers like to order a flight of beers and tasters,” he says, but unless it’s a guided, educational experience, he suggests customers who rely on tasting samples are missing out. “The sample size doesn't really give you the full experience of the beer.”
People sip back and forth, he contends, corrupting their palates as they switch from beer to beer, enjoying them less on the whole. “People don't enjoy tasters as much as larger pours,” McNair offers, citing evidence from a popular web app that aggregates customer beer reviews on a rating from one to five. “Go on Untappd and drill down into the breakdown of ratings for any beer from any brewery,” he points out, “tasters usually rate .2-.4 points lower… I call it "the taster effect.”
Darrel Brown, owner and brewer of Savagewood Brewing Company in Scripps Ranch, says his tasting room will consider resuming pre-set tasting flights after four to six weeks under the “new normal.” However, he vows a policy of, “No more splashes permanently.”
Prior to the pandemic, he says, customers would routinely request several courtesy “splashes” to taste several beers, only to order a four-ounce pour, and would even express anger when they couldn’t get a free taste. “In the current state of affairs,” he says, “we have enough sanitation protocols to deal with that we cannot go through 4-6 glasses to let someone decide what they want.” Will he eventually reconsider? “It's a real tough call,” he says, “But for now, we are doing 20 oz disposable cups and that's it.”
For the most part, however, the changes we see now should not be permanent. Glassware, taster flights, and even splashes should return to most breweries in time. As Virginia Morrison, cofounder of Second Chance, explains, “Splashes are important to our guest experience… [they give] our beer tenders opportunity for education and engagement.”