"Oh, just about every kind, sir"

<< 2005-10-02 21:10 >>

One thing I've always found shocking as a beer drinker is the level of knowledge about, and, even worse, interest in, beer among the people who make a living serving it. That is, waiters and bartenders. A general rule is that only in (let's say) 1 out of 10 cases will you actually get the full list if you ask what beers are available, and very often the menu won't have the full list, either, if they even bother to list beers on the menu. In most cases some persistence is required in order to actually find out what's on offer, and in some cases a lot.

Today we had another of those episodes, which is what inspired this entry. My girlfriend and I went to Lorry, a well-known restaurant in Oslo, which is very proud of serving 130 beers. Their beer menu is the most extensive in Norway, if not necessarily the best. I like the place a lot, both for the beer selection and for the athmosphere; it's a very old place, and a favourite among local artists and actors. It's also very popular, which may help explain what follows.

We sit down, have a coffee, etc, and when the time comes to order beer I ask what beers they've got from Haandbryggeriet, a new Norwegian micro. The waitress says they don't have any. I tell her the brewery's home pages claims Lorry does have, as do many other web sites. She then asks me if it's in the menu, and I say no, but that that doesn't matter. The discussion goes on for a long time, with her disclaiming all knowledge of this brewery, saying the guy tending the bar doesn't arrive before 1700, etc etc, and me persistently refusing to be satisfied by this. I mean, how hard can it be? You look in the fridge, and you see if it's there. It seems to me the minimum of service one can expect, especially as if they stock the beer it seems fair to assume they want to sell it. Eventually I give up and go back to working on my paper in disgust, and she disappears.

The good thing is that 10 minutes later she returns, saying the guy tending the bar arrived early, and he told her they have the IPA and the weissbier. I order the weissbier, and everything is fine. Or almost. Most places in Oslo which have beers from this brewery have two weizens: the Bavarian Weizen and the Dunkelweizen. So when going to the bathroom I pass by the bar, thinking I'll see if they have the Dunkelweizen as well. And, sure enough, in the fridge I see three kinds of bottles from Haandbryggeriet with yellow, orange, and red labels. I can read the first two, but the red one is turned away so I can only see the colour.

I wait for the bartender to tend to me, and when he does I ask him what's in the red bottle. He first offers me the orange one (the IPA), and I have to keep at it for a while before he can bring himself to turn the third one. At one point he even tells me he doesn't have time for this as he has other guests. Hello!?!? Three bottles are standing next to each other and it's too hard to turn the third one slightly so an interested customer can find out what beer it is? He eventually does, and I go back to my table, ask my girlfriend to order it, and go off on necessary business. (No, not what you think. I had to park a bike.)

When I come back my girlfriend tells me she tried to order the beer, and that after four attempts she thinks the waitress got it. However, the waitress then comes over and checks if it's really Erdinger Dunkel I want. Well, no, it's not. I stay calm and tell her they have three beers from this brewery, one orange, one yellow, and one red, and that I want the red one. That works, and a while later I have it. The waitress is quite nice about it, though, and when we get our bill she smiles and says she learned a bit about beer from our visit. That made me feel better, though not enough to not write this.

I have a long list of stories like this one, with waiters betraying various degrees of ignorance and disinterest. Going through all of it would make for a book rather than a blog entry, though, so I'll keep it short.

A real champion in the category "clueless waiters" was a guy at T.G.I Friday's at Dulles International in Washington D.C. In response to my usual question of "what beers do you have" he offered "oh, just about every kind, sir", which struck me as very funny. I knew there was just no way this could be true, but when I said "oh, come on" he stuck to it. After admitting that they had no Belgian beers, and no German ones either, he changed his story to "just about every American beer". When I told him the Brickeller stocked 400 US brews he gave up and actually gave me the list, which turned out to be 7-8 mainstream beers.

Frydenlund Bayer

Even this is only enough to earn him second place, however, as a bartender at Explorer Bar at Oslo airport, Gardermoen, emerges as the absolute winner. On being asked the stock question he told me they only had Ringnes. Just behind him, however, were Guinness and Kilkenny taps. I pointed this out, and he added "oh, yes, we have those, too". I then spot the beer menu behind him, which says they have Frydenlund Bayer. So I tell him I want that, only to be told they don't have it. So I point again, and he goes "oh". This guy at least has the sense to look in the fridge by himself, but he emerges from it kind of baffled, holding a bottle and asking me if it's the one I want. He's too far away from me for me to read the label, so I ask him, "well, is it Frydenlund Bayer?". He looks at the label for a moment, then says "I don't know". It turned out to be.

You can see the label on the right, and, well, it's not difficult to tell what beer it is, but for this bartender it turned out to be too hard. If that shouldn't be enough to get him fired, I don't know what would be.

I guess the interesting question is why this happens, and the answer, I think, is quite obvious. For more than 99% of the people who own, work in, and drink in pubs and bars the idea that someone might genuinely care about trying different beers has just never occurred to them. So when someone asks "what beers do you have?" they don't really take it seriously. The result is they only list a couple of beers in response and, as often as not, get annoyed when people are not satisfied with this, or even turn out to know more than themselves about what beers are sold in the place.

Another important reason is probably that waiters and bartenders generally know nothing about beer. Usually they don't know about the concept of beer type, but can (for the most part) read what's on the label. In many cases they have their private names for the more obscure beers. At Internasjonalen in Oslo the staff will consistently refer to Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout as just "Imperial Stout", blithely unaware that this is not the name of a product, but a beer type consisting of more than a hundred products. This is just one example among many. So when someone asks them for "Sam Smith's Imperial Stout" chances are the unfamiliar words will be lost in the noise of your typical bar, and confusion ensues.

Probably the only thing that can be done about all of this is to stay calm and polite and, if given the chance, explain that you really care about beer, so that what they can offer in this regard actually makes a big difference to you. With time, and more people doing the same, maybe bar owners will start to realize that they lose customers by offering poor selections and poor service. Maybe.

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Knut Albert - 2005-10-03 10:55:34

For most bartenders (and bar owners) beer is something that comes from tanks in the basement with capacities of thousands of litres that can be dispensed at great speed and with a nice profit. There seems to be a lot more prestige in having knowledge about obscure South American booze based on sugar cane than on beer. With the good range of beers now available on the Norwegian market, it is easy for anyone to fill a fridge with the best beer from Norwegian micros plus a few Belgian and British beers. You will nver get that, of course. You get the king of beers instead. If restaurants had the same policy towards wine as they have towards beer, they would be out of business!

But we can only try, patiently. And we can seek out the pubs that offer a choice and we can ask again and again for our favourite brews.

Howard - 2005-10-03 20:11:50

My biggest gripe also. Servers know little beyond the major brand beers, bud, millers, millers lite, bud lite etc; I insist they ask the bartender who generally knows a little more about what they have on tap [I rarely drink bottled beer when eating out - I'll order water after going through 5-10 minutes of cross examination of the server about their beers and not finding anything worth drinking].

Lars Marius - 2005-10-03 20:59:36

I agree with you both, and I think a combination of firmness ("I'd really like to know what beers you have", "well, in that case I'll have water") and politeness (so they don't start hating beer nerds on principle) is important.

I also often find myself ordering water if the restaurant has no beers I really want. I find that way I can keep my alcohol quota without having to choose between poor food or poor beer.

Yngwie - 2005-10-04 23:18:04

It's a pity the world is like that. I have almost the same experience with Lorry as you have. I tried to order Haandbryggeriet from two different waiters, but they said they didn't have the beer. I even tried to look in the fridge, but gave up when I couldn't see them. I reconed the information from was to fresh, as I found it the day before, and gave up. Found two of the beers on Beer Palace on Aker Brygge the day after. The same day a friend of mine visited Lorry, and he got both Bavarian Weizen and IPA, and he was told they had the beers for more than a week. Why the h... can't people learn their job? And why the h... can't the managers do exactly that; manage!? Aaaargh!!! What's the point of waitering at Lorry if you don't know anything else than the top 5 bestsellers?

Magni - 2005-10-05 22:31:10

We went out for lunch in Grimstad this summer. This is, for those not aware of it, the town of Nøgne Ø. This means that there are actually 2 - two - places that are claimed to serve beer from Nøgne Ø (even though Grimstad isn't a big city, it has quite a few pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants). We went to one of them, and asked what kind of beer they had.

"Uhm, pils. CB and Ringnes."
"Do you have any darker beers?"
"Do you have anything from Nøgne Ø?"
"Oh, yes!"
"Good, which one?"
"Eh... the orange one."

"The orange" is about 4 different beers, all available either in their local supermarket or the local Vinmonopolet. They turned out to be having both "an orange" (bitter) and "a violet" (porter) - both served way too cold, of course (even for me).

It's also quite sad when I go to the local microbrewery and asks what the bartender can recommend me today, and he offers me a pilsner. (I suppose he'll remember me well enough to come up with something more creative next time.)

Alex - 2005-10-06 01:20:26

I think Lorry comes down to when *you* come to it! Some waitors there have had the most incredible knowledge of beer, both in their inventory and what's available. We were shooting a movie (In the claws of the night, Noure-Edhine Lackmari, fun project) that all happened at night, so after shooting we went down to Lorry, always after 5am. The people there at that stage were fantastic! One lady could pinpoint a local Czech Prague beer I once had on vacation there, and give me an estimation about which beer in stock would roughly match it. And she was damn right!

It comes down to this; sometimes you're lucky, and other times you're not. But don't blame the place, please; most beer-nerds are out drinking the stuff, not serving it while staying sober. :)

Per Chr. Jorgensen - 2005-10-06 14:24:46

Funny story. I've fortunately been luckier, the few times I've been there in recent years. What usually struck me as new about "new" Lorry was that the waiters were willing, eager even, to come back to take additional orders.

I remember moving to Oslo in the eighties. Then you got the first round to the table fairly quick, but then you never saw a waiter again. In fact, there was a bit "Soviet-ish" service there. Of course, slow service was probably a blessing for some of the core clientele, at least their livers, but still...

Alan - 2005-10-08 18:43:31

That is a very good point. We don't have too many beer bars in Canada so the staff tends to know what they have - though once I was a bit shocked when I was asked what "flavour" of beer I would like. I was more taken by yur reference to Frydenlund which I used to drink in the late 80s when my old home province of Nova Scotia's Liquor Commisssion bought one huge shipment of it making us all Norwegians for a few months until it sold out.

Paul Boddie - 2005-11-08 05:45:37

Well, after some pretty dreadful service at Lorry earlier in the year, I'm not inclined to go there ever again. I certainly don't envy anyone who has to serve alcoholic beverages to large numbers of impatient punters, but my impression was that the serving staff were fine-tuning the art of conspicuously ignoring tables of guests patiently waiting to order their first round of drinks.

anders - 2005-11-28 02:04:10

Thank God i'm not out there drinking beer with you lot. With all that arguing about beer there will be no time to drink. You must be a waiters worst nightmare...

Mike - 2008-07-16 23:44:14

We have a good bar/restaurant in Allston, Massachusetts (a borough of Boston, so to speak), Called Sunset Bar & Grill that has a large selection of beer, somewhere near 300 varieties, from all over the world. Of course, there are more obscure New England beers than say, lesser known Norwegian beers. Regardless, each week they reprint their beer menu, and the wait staff is given a presentation of any of the changes that are made at the beginning of the week. After reading this post, I'm sure they're not aware of everything that is actually in stock, but they at least go and check for you before a definitive 'yes or no'. Locally, it's where I tread to try new beers.

Erik - 2008-07-30 08:48:05

Anders, you don't seem to care much about what you drink. Do you have the same opinion regarding food? If you try to order fish at a restaurant, and the waiter then just start to explain that they do have food he just don’t know exactly what is. Everyone should be graceful to be served a burger and shut the f*** up.

A Porter is something completely different to a pilsner; I don’t even like the flavor from most Norwegian pilsners. Is this more difficult than the person who wants fish on his plate?

Olle - 2009-02-05 18:10:30

Not to complain but if you are ever in Trondheim drop by "den Gode Nabo", they have more that 130 types of beer (though it varies), and for the most part everyone who works there knows their Beer

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