What beer is this?

<< 2007-07-10 21:50 >>

The same thing seems to happen over and over again: finding out what beers a place serves can be very, very tricky, even after you have been served. It really doesn't have to be that hard, but for some bizarre reason it is. So herewith some griping.

The usual story

Summery beer

The way this usually goes, at least in Norway, is that you look at the menu. In many places, this doesn't actually contain any beers at all. They serve beer, of course, but they don't bother to list them in the menu. Food, red and white wine, drinks, and maybe even soft drinks will be there, but beer is often left out.

So you ask the waiter, right? Sure, but that doesn't necessarily help much. The waiter generally says "We have ... uh ... Heineken, Stella, Corona, and <insert local lager> and ... uh ..." The final "uh" is there to tell you that they also have other beers. So you ask "what else?", because you know that the beers the waiter can't remember are the ones most likely to be something other than industrial pale lager.

The waiter usually gets annoyed with the difficult customer somewhere around this point and asks "which beer do you want?" This is kind of silly, because if I think of the beer I most want, even one I know is available in Norway, chances are 100 to 1 they don't have it. So I ask again. At this point we fork into multiple possible scenarios, like "we don't have any more", "I'll ask one of the waiters who actually knows what beers we have", or "I'll check the fridge".

The last two options are fine with me, but why does it have to be so difficult? You could just list the beers in the menu, you know, just like all the other stuff you sell.

Sally's version

We were in Stockholm this weekend, and had lunch at a decent restaurant in the Old Town. We follow the scenario above, and take the "we don't have any more" fork, and in this case I think they really didn't have any more. So the only beers on offer were Spendrup's (industrial pale lager), Mariestad (ditto), and Heineken. I chose Mariestad, and my girlfriend chose Spendrup's.

The Mariestad presents no problems, since it comes in a bottle, but the Spendrup's does. There are 39 beers all called "Spendrup's Something-or-other", so I ask which Spendrup's we got. The first waiter has no idea. In fact, I think he didn't even understand the question. Most likely, he thought to himself "All Spendrup's beers are just beer (meaning pale industrial lager); nobody can tell them apart, anyway, so why do you care?"

So we ask another waiter when she stops by to deliver the bread. She also has difficulties with the question, but when I ask "is it Spendrup's Blue, Red, Gold, Pilsener, ... or something like that?" she says confidently that it's "Spendrup's Blue". We accept that and move on. Except now I find there is no such beer.

Again, how can this be so hard? I just want to know what beer I was served.

Japanese version

We had a similar experience in Takayama, Japan, but Japan is different in a lot of ways, so there it played out rather differently. This was again lunch, this time in a crowded, local Chinese ramen place, and I was happily surprised to find that they served a local microbeer on tap, from HidaTakayama Brewing.

The napkin

I order it, of course, and when I get it I try to ask them what beer they served me. My Japanese is not very good, and they had no English, so this was a real struggle. In Japan, however, service means really, really doing your best to satisfy the customer, even if the customer, like me, makes somewhat weird requests. So I kept trying to get my question across, but for the longest time we made no progress at all.

Eventually, I wrote up a list of the possible answers on a napkin, with lots of question marks. (See the picture.) At this point the waiter finally gets it, and goes off with the napkin. For the next 20 minutes we can see the staff in heated discussion over the napkin, in between taking care of other, less demanding, customers. Then, finally, they return in triumph, to tell me it's the pale ale.

All the black writing on the napkin is by them, and as you can see, they've transliterated the names of the beer types into Japanese and really worked hard at this. No western waiter would do this for a customer they couldn't even have a conversation with, but in Japan this is normal service.

Today I'm a bit embarrassed by this. I'm sure they had enough to do already. On the other hand, how could I have guessed that this would be so difficult, and that they'd work so hard at it? After all, I just wanted to know which beer they were selling...

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Knut Albert - 2007-08-06 09:54:32

There is another variety as well, which we encountered in London, Lars Marius. This is when you have a pub with a combination of table service and a wide range of cask ale. When you add an anthusiastic Amarican waitress who doesn't know anything about, you never know what you really get. The options then are to walk over to the bar to make sure you get what you order or to switch to bottled beers. We had had a long day of walking and sampling, so we opted for the second choice.

Peter - 2007-08-08 09:30:03

I am from Cologne, Germany. The folks here only drink local beer which is called Kölsch. We got around 35 different kinds of local beer. Of course, there are 4 really famous and good ones and the rest is pretty shitty. Anyhow, you can usually tell right away which kind of beer they serve by looking at the glasses which must have name of the brand which is served. So it is quite simple because most bars and restaurant just offer one specific beer brand. I cannot understand what problems you guys have in Norway. Greeting from Cologne -:)

Lars Marius - 2007-08-08 10:08:04

In Norway, Sweden, Japan, Canada, ... Anyway, I'm glad there exists a place where this is not a problem. (Actually, there is another place: Belgium.)

George Shute - 2007-09-24 06:52:07

I've never encountered that problem. Then again, in Virginia, USA, most of us are drunk bastards, and waitstaff knows what makes them money, drunk patrons. So, they know their beers. I've seen more waitstaff that knew the beers and liquors than the menu. Especially at tap houses.

Also, whenever in doubt, go to the bar. :)

h.molenaars - 2008-03-31 15:04:00

In Netherland too, the menu often lists the beers. It's also custom to write the beers on a blackboard at the wall, and the bottles are often shown at the bar. I think it's the Belgium influence.

Still, I know how you feel because I am a coffee lover. I'd like to know the brand of coffee before I order it. Because most waitors don't now it, I remember the coffeecups. When I see Illy china on a table, I must sit down and order a coffee.

Are you at the Topic Map Conference this week? I'd like to give you a special beer from the village where I live: Elfenbier. It's not made with hop but with gale. This is a weed which grows in wetlands and it can be used to conservate beer.

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