Here’s an experiment:
Find a frozen caveman. Thaw the caveman out. When they are conscious and alert, offer the caveman a Coors Light or a local IPA. He”ll choose the IPA. Studies show that 9 out of 10 recently-frozen-cavemen prefer IPAs to domestic lagers.
The point of this fake experiment and fake study is to point out that most everyone in the beer drinking world is developing new preferences when it comes to beer. And breweries continue to expand the beer styles they offer. Changing tastes and expanded offerings in beer is a big reason why it’s important for bars and restaurants to train staff on basic beer knowledge. Staff must keep up with the evolving beer market. So let’s dive into the basics of beer training for bar staff and servers.
Why Spend Time on Beer Training for Staff?
As mentioned above, the beer market is an ever-changing, mercurial industry. Trends peak and diminish, tastes change. But there is consistency when it comes to beer. And there are standards and styles that are worth understanding so you can communicate with guests to inform and sell.
Money to Make
- Profit margins on beer can be high. Draft beer costs run on average between 15% – 18% of draft beer sales. And bottled beer comes in a little higher at 24% – 28%. Comparatively, industry benchmarks for wine show average costs running between 35% – 45% of wine sales.
Build Customer Relationships
- For bars, it’s important to build strong customer relationships. One of the best ways to do this is offering guests a great experience by being knowledgable about the bar selections. Quality of service is the second most important factor for guests when judging a restaurant or bar experience.
Reduce Staff Turnover
- The industry turnover rate for restaurants was 73% in 2017. Losing employees is one of the biggest challenges that restaurants face. Training is a great way to keep employees engaged and feeling like they are getting value from the job outside of income.
State of The Beer Industry
Before we dive deeper, let’s serve a reality check to craft beer. Though 997 craft breweries officially opened for business in 2017, an average of over two-and-a-half new breweries per day, craft beer only made up 12.7% of all beers sales in the U.S. in 2017
In what seems like a slap to the grizzled face of craft brew lovers, 2017 marked the first year that the top 3 selling beers in the U.S. were all light beers. Bud Light led the way, followed by Coors Light, and Miller lite.
With that in mind, it’s important to remember that many drinkers still prefer light and mass produced pale lagers. This is important when considering how to train servers and what to train them on for beer.
Training for Beer Service
- Strip away condescension – Knowing the small market size of craft beer, it’s safe to assume that despite the growth of craft beer, many people are not regular craft drinkers, and may prefer a bud light to a megadeath-hopped IPA. Being unassuming when dealing with beer drinkers new to craft goes a long way to making them feel comfortable and helping them find a beer that they enjoy. Teaching staff to be patient and open minded is key to stripping away pretension.
- Ask Questions – If a customer is unsure of what to order, the best practice is to ask questions to determine their preferences. Make the experience about the customer, not your own preferences or what the newest, hippest beer on tap is . Leading with questions puts the guest in charge and allows them to make their own decisions.
- Give Tastes – Tasting is important for deciding on a beer. Especially if you have a large draft beer selection. Training staff on how to handle giving out beer tastes is important. Limit tastings to 1 or 2 per guest, and make sure that there is a standard pour size for tastings. A taste should lead to a sale, not a free round.
Beer Basics for Training
Ale vs Lager
One of the most fundamental elements of beer knowledge is the difference between an ale and lager. It’s helpful for identifying certain characteristics of a beer and what traits you can reasonably expect from a beer without actually tasting it.
The type yeast used and the traits of that yeast is what yields the majority of differences between an ale and a lager. The yeast used for ales ferments from the top down, while the yeast used in lager ferments from the bottom up.
The different types of yeast used in the two basic beer styles will handle alcohol differently. Ale yeasts can survive in an environment with a higher level of alcohol than lager yeast can. Which results in ales having typically higher rates (or at least the option for higher rates) of alcohol by volume than lagers.
Lager yeasts can survive at colder temperatures than ale yeast. The colder the fermentation is, then the slower the fermentation process, and the clearer the beer will be. Additionally, lagers undergo a period of cold storage, which separates solids so they can be filtered out, adding even more clarity to the beer. This results in lagers having a lighter color compared to ales.
These are popular ales in America, and this list will focus on American styles of these beers. Some of the notes on color and taste have been aided by the the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines.
India Pale Ale
Color: Gold to copper colored. High alcohol IPAs, or double IPAs, can be darker.
Taste: Bitterness, rounded by some malty sweetness
Background: The India Pale Ale originally started as a British ale, but the common version found in America is a hopped up, ultra bitter version of the Brit’s brew. British IPAs are less bitter, with more malt presence, but still maintaining a dry mouthfeel.
Popular Examples: Dogfish Head 90 Minute, Bell’s Two Hearted
Color: Deep golden to copper or light brown
Taste: Low malt character, resulting in less balance than IPA. Medium to medium-high bitterness, often “piney” resin flavor that is commonly found in American hops, especially California style pale ales.
Background: One of the most popular beer styles, again, originating as a British style. American pale ales are more aggressively hopped than the original British ales. Pale ales, particularly those with less hop character, ie., bitterness, are great beers for drinkers who are used to pilsner and other hoppy lagers.
Popular Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Dale’s Pale Ale
Color: Straw to pale
Taste: Low maltiness, no perceived hop flavor, with a creaminess from the wheat. Some light notes of fruity flavors, and spiced with coriander and orange peel (Belgian style, witbier) , which impart a slight spiciness.
Background: These beers are of Belgian origin. Wheat beers are also represented by German styles like Hefeweizen, Berliner Weisse, and Weizen beers. They are generally cloudy beers that still contain yeast solids from being “bottle-conditioned.” A practice where fermentation is finished while in the bottle instead of prior to bottling.
Popular Examples: Allagash White
Color: Deep copper to very dark brown
Taste: Notes of roasted malt, hints caramel and chocolate aromas. A brown ale tastes like a baked good, balanced by a bitterness from hops.
Background: Another import from Britain. And it hits on another theme, American brewers love hops and bitterness. The British style is much less hoppy, with toasty, biscuit-like characteristics. This is a great fall beer.
Popular Examples: Funky Buddha French Toast
Taste: Coffee notes, roasted malts, some sweetness with hints of caramel and chocolate. Some hop flavor, often a full bodied beer.
Background: Stouts are big, bold beers. They are dark, even black in color. The deep color of stout is why a pale ale is called pale, even though it’s often a rich copper color. In the early days of English ale making, beer choices were limited, and so the comparison between pale ales and stouts was much more clear.
Popular Styles: Founder’s Breakfast Stout, North Coast Old Rasputin,
*A note on Stouts and Porters
These two beers are often confused. And for good reason. There isn’t a big difference between the two styles. The murky origin story leaves us with little insight that feels helpful, but a stout is generally considered a descendent of a porter.
The name stout originally meant strong, or a beer boasting a high alcohol by volume. The same way we use the term Imperial today. The name stout derived from patrons ordering a stout porter, or high-alcohol porter. The only stylistic difference is that porters are often made with unmalted roasted barley, which imparts flavors associated with coffee. Porters are generally made with malted barley.
Lagers are split between two categories: light and dark. Germany might be considered the king of lagers, which is why it’s not surprising that the king of American beers, Budweiser (well, now, Bud Light), is from Anheuser-Busch Brewery, started by German immigrants.
Color: Straw to gold
Taste: Low malt, medium to high hop flavor. Can include citrus and fruity hop notes, noticeable bitterness.
Background: American style Pilsners utilize pre-prohibition styles which use rice and/or corn as significant ingredients. German and Bohemian-style Pilsners have more pronounced malt flavors, with less hop flavor than American styles.
Popular Examples: Victory Prima Pils, Firestone Walker Pivo Pils
Color: Straw to gold
Taste: Low malt, low hops, fruity notes, a dry and crisp beer.
Background: A German style of beer.
Popular Examples: Trillum Sprang, Metropolitan Krankshaft
Color: Pale to golden
Taste: Malt flavor, very lightly toasted, low hops with a medium body
Background: Originated in Munich in Germany to compete with Czech Pilsner’s popularity. More malt and bready-ness than a Pilsner with less hop bite.
Popular Examples: Surly Helles
Color: Light brown to brown
Taste: Low maltiness but it imparts chocolate and roasted flavors without presence of hops.
Background: This beers gets its color and distinct roast flavors from the Munich malt.
Popular Examples: Not a lot of popular dunkel style beers are brewed in the States. Try the Surly Schadenfreude.
Color: Copper to dark brown
Taste: Toasted malted barley, some caramel and coffee flavors, no hop flavor. High alcohol.
Background: These are high alcohol beers, the doppel meaning “double,” like Double IPAs.
Popular Examples: Smuttynose S’muttonator
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