Sunday, 5 November 2017

13 Reasons Why Working Behind the Bar is Entertaining

For 20-plus years I have remained firmly on the customer side of the bar at pubs, bars, clubs and festivals. In 2017 I decided that it was about time I experienced the other side of the bar. I volunteered at some beer festivals and also signed up for a four month stint of two shifts a week at the Hop Locker. These combined experiences have been fun, educational, tiring and frustrating, but on the whole rewarding.

After reflecting on my experience this year I have some things to say about both volunteering within the beer industry and working behind the bar but before I do that I wanted to share 13 of my favourite moments of customer interaction at The Hop Locker. For context I was mostly based at the summer pop up bar situated under the Hungerford Bridge, right on the Thames with a lovely view of Big Ben. In other words, it was a tourist location.

The view from within and without

 1. A 5% lager

Customer scans the taps on the lager side of the bar (10 taps on each side of the container with lager, cider, wine on one side and ales on the other side).

"Haven't you got a 5% lager?"
"Sorry, no. We only have a 4% lager on at the moment."
"That's a shame because I prefer a 5% lager."
"Oh, well if it's just a high ABV beer you want we do have a 10% imperial stout on?"

To this day I remain baffled at the idea that someone would select a beer using ABV as its defining feature.

2. An ale that's like a lager

"Can I have an ale that's like a lager?"
"Would you prefer an actual lager? Because we have one of those."
"No. I want an ale."
"Which one?"
"One that's like a lager."

I served this person an APA or session IPA, whilst the whole time thinking that all parties concerned were being done a disservice by this transaction.

3. Northerners can't drink halves

"Neck Oil please"
"Is that a pint of a half?"
*incredulous splutter*
"A half? Northerners can't drink halves!"
"That's not true. You can drink whatever you want."
"Nah. Can't drink halves!"
"Ok."

This was a recurring theme but one which could easily have been avoided by customers saying 'A PINT of Neck Oil please." Because if you don't state what measure of beer you want I cannot read your mind and I will have to ask you if you want a pint or a half. Because if I assume you want a pint and start pouring one, you might say, 'Oh, but I only wanted a half' and that could lead to wasted beer. So, you know, one to think about when ordering a drink - if multiple measures are available perhaps state the one you would like.

4. It's bizarre that Norwegians make ales

"I don't want anything that's 6 or 7%"
"Ok, so maybe Lucky Jack? That's only 4.7%."
"No. That's Norwegian and it's bizarre that they make ales."

Presented without comment.

5. Flavoured ciders

"Do you have any flavoured ciders?"
"No. We just have an apple cider."
"But is it apple flavoured?"
"It's apple, yes."
"Flavoured?"
"Ummm... made of apples."
"But is it real apples or flavoured?"
"All cider is made from apples."
"But you know that Stella just made one that's flavoured?"
"Uhhhh"
"You know? Some are just flavoured?"
"..."
"I'll have a pint anyway."

6. Rose and 7-Up

"What's your rose like? Is it sweet?"
"Not really. It's more dry. Did you want a taste of it?"
"Yes please"
*tastes wine*
"Yeah, so I'll have a glass of that with 7-Up please."
"It's ok if you blend them yourself if I give you another glass?"

Another similar exchange concerning wine:

"Do you do cocktails at all?"
"No, but there is another bar above this one which does."
"Nah, we're down here now. Do you do any spirits?"
"Yes, we do gin, vodka and rum."
"Great, can we get two JD and coke then please?"
"I'm afraid not because we only do gin, vodka and rum."
"Ok, what about cider?"
"Yes, we have a cider on tap. Would you like to try it?"
"Yes ok."
*sips cider, screws up face*
"..."
"Just give us two red wines and coke then."
"In the same glass?"
"Yes."
"Here's your red wine, your coke, and another glass for you to blend them at your leisure."

After this one I was informed by a beer friend that red wine mixed with coke is 'a thing' in Spain, similar to how beer and coke is a thing in Germany. See, I told you this gig was educational for me.

7. Stick something fruity in my DIPA please

"I want a beer. A fruity beer."
"Ok, maybe try this one and this one."
"Yes, that one will do. A half."
*pours a half of Beavertown Lupuloid*
"Ok, this is fine but can you just stick something fruity in it for me?"
"Like what? Did you want a wedge of lime in it?"
"Do you have any fruit juice?"
"Yes. Orange or cranberry?"
"Cranberry"
*adds shot of juice*
"Yes, that's better."

I enjoyed this one because the customer knew what they wanted and asked for it. Maybe I wouldn't choose it myself but they liked their drink and went away happy.

8. Candy Crush

On a quiet Saturday shift early on a guy wanted to try lots of different beers and chat about them - which is great. He started telling me about an app.

"So there's this app for beer..."
"Yes?"
"Yeah, one of my friends uses it all the time. It's kind of like collecting beers."
"Oh yes, is it called Untappd?"
"I don't know. But it's a bit like Candy Crush for beers. He's on it all the time."

This reminds me of a similar exchange I had working at the original Hop Locker just after London Craft Beer Festival.

A party of three order a selection of different pale ales. Two of them go off to browse the bottle shelves, the one who's paying starts talking about a BBNo beer they had at LCBF. I say that I liked that one, but preferred another beer of theirs...

"My mate is really serious about his beer *indicates friend browsing bottles* like REALLY serious about it."
"Yeah, I like beer too."
"He's got this app where he records all of the beers he's tried."
"Oh, do you mean Untappd?"
"Yes. He's got like 300 beers on there!"
"What, is that like in a single week?"
*laughing*
"He's got 300 beers."
"Yeah, I kind of stalled at about 2000 and something."
*he speaks very slowly and clearly*
"No. I'm talking about beers he's actually tried himself."
"Ok."

9. Perfumy beers

"Do you have anything like Kronenbourg?"
"The closest thing we have is a pilsner from Lervig. Did you want to try it?"
"Yeah."
*tastes*
"Nah. What other pale beers are there?"
"Well, there's a Kernel Pale Ale? It's not a lager, but it's pretty light and refreshing..."
"Oh yeah, I'll try that."
*tastes*
"Yeah, I'll give that a go. It smells the same as Kronenbourg anyway."
"Does it?"
"Yeah, because they're both perfumy."

10. Which one of these is the easiest to drink?

Presented without comment.

11. Scottish people only drink pints

See also number 3

12. Snake Bite

An American man asks to taste a 10% imperial coffee porter.

"Yeah, so I'll take a half of that and a half of apple cider."
*pours one half of the porter*
"No, I wanted them together."
"Uh"
"In the same glass."
"A coffee porter and an apple cider?"
*struggles to imagine what that could taste like*
"Yeah sure"
"Look, is it ok if I give you them separately and I'll give you another glass to mix them in?"

*some time later same man returns to bar*

"Hey, master blender, how was your drink?"
"Great. I've come back for another."
"So is this drink common where you come from?"
"Oh yeah, definitely. It's a Snake Bite."
"Oh, I thought a Snake Bite was cider and black, or sometimes cider, lager and black."
"No, cider and stout is a Snake Bite."
"Oh. I never heard that before."

We were so curious about this one behind the bar that we did a bit of research. We already knew that champagne and stout was a Black Velvet (less than the sum of its parts if you ask me). But apparently a 'poor man's Black Velvet' is cider and stout (again this sounds bloody awful to me but each to their own).

However, I maintain that an imperial coffee porter and apple cider is NOT a Snake Bite.

13. So many people don't know things these days

An American man and his daughter were hanging out at the bar drinking a few different beers on a Monday night.

"Can I try the imperial porter?"
"Sure."
*tastes*
"Hmm. So what is the difference between a barleywine and a porter anyhow?"
"Well, a barleywine is a strong pale ale. This particular porter is an 'imperial' meaning it has a higher ABV than is usual for the style. You would usually expect a porter to be lower in strength, maybe 4-6% kind of region. Also, porters are made with darker malts, so you get other flavours there like dark fruits or caramelised sugar flavours like toffee..."
"So would the yeasts also affect the flavour?"
"Not so much I don't think, because both styles have a relatively 'clean' fermentation character. Yeast is not a prominent feature in the flavour profile of these styles. For the porter maybe it would depend on house yeast strain, British and American porters would likely have differences from using different yeasts but nothing major I don't think."
"Oh. Ok, thank you. It makes a change for people to know things. So many people don't know things these days."


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

IMBC17: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The Independent Manchester Beer Convention (IMBC) is the highlight of UK beer festivals for me. In the same way that some people love Christmas - I count down the days until IMBC and the closer it gets the more excitable I become. Part of it is simply escaping London for a few days but part of it is that I have a soft spot for Manchester. In the early 1990s, when I was in my early teens, I used to visit my sister who was at university there and I have fond memories of trudging up and down Oxford Road in my DMs either heading out for the night or scuttling home in the early hours. In my mind Manchester has always been closely associated with good times involving beer and laughter.  


View from above, room two


In much the same way that a city can be so central to a story so as to effectively become one of the characters in a book, the venue for IMBC is one of the most important features of the festival for me. It is a pleasure and an honour to be able to spend time in such a beautiful location as Victoria Baths. To contrast it with a venue like Olympia (used for GBBF) which is effectively a giant box, is like comparing a lump of wood to a diamond. As well as three large rooms, the baths has outdoor space and a warren of smaller rooms, plus the upper levels which are fantastic for people watching. But my favourite feature has to be the rows of little changing cubicles in rooms 1 and 3 where you can take a secluded seat behind a curtain or door and enjoy some time out, away from the tidal flow of festival goers. If you spot someone you want to talk to you can just throw out an arm and catch them as they pass by. It makes me happy just to sit on my own with a beer and take in my surroundings. Call me easily pleased, but I'm not sure what other entertainment is really required from a beer festival. 



Who Needs a Beer List Anyway?


A couple of years back we all loved sitting there with our pastel-coloured beer lists and our IMBC pencils, circling the beers we wanted to drink. The lists were reasonably accurate but sometimes beers would run out, or never arrive in the first place, and beers might not appear at the specific session they were slated for. I can understand that it's impossible to know in advance which beers which will be finished in a single session so the 'fluidity' of the beer list was never a serious problem to me. 
This year there was no hard copy of the beer list available to punters, instead we had an app. We are all so used to checking our phones for information rather than a piece of paper that it seems reasonable to do away with the beer list, doesn't it? I confess I didn't even look at the app before I got there. In fact I only looked at it twice while I was there and one of those times was in an attempt to inspire myself to physically get up and go into another room. But it seemed like a functional app to me and I didn't hear any complaints about it while I was there.  
  
But I have a confession to make. The beer list isn't really my priority at IMBC. To provide some context - if I go out for a beer and a bar has one of my favourite beers on (e.g. Cannonball, Axe Edge, or a Kernel pale ale) I'll happily drink that same beer all night. I'm not fussed about ticking and I'm rubbish at checking beers into Untappd. There's a multitude of reasons for that (enough for a post in its own right) but the key point is: I'm not hunting for novelty or trying to get a high score. 




DIPAs and Sippers


What I did at IMBC for the most part was drink beers that I was already excited about: the aforementioned Kernel pale and IPA, Burning Sky Cuvee, Buxton's crazy ice cream beers. But I'll admit that I'm also keen on a well-made DIPA. I know what I like and I'm quite fussy about it. I'm not even talking about faults here (although I'll admit I did drink one poorly made DIPA while I was at IMBC which I was unable to finish), I'm talking about design and technique. There's more than one way to brew a great DIPA but not all of them will produce beers that I would choose to drink. 

For example, I love Other Half beers (that's why I volunteered to pour their beers at two UK beer festivals this year) and I know what to expect from them. But I think that at IMBC I had maybe three OH beers over the whole festival, even though they probably had four times that number available over the weekend. That's because I wasn't at IMBC to drink as many different beers as humanly possible, even if they are amazing beers which I would I know I'd enjoy. 



Social Work


So if the beer is not that important then what is? Well, I already explained how important the venue is to me. But the other key ingredient is the social element of IBMC. It seems like it is impossible to go more than a few yards without bumping into a friend or acquaintance, or spotting them from across the room or whilst looking down from above. It's also great to see friends of ours who started out as homebrewers now pouring their own beers at IMBC (e.g. Elusive, Torrside, Affinity). We are pleased and proud for them. 

There are always loads of people we want to catch up with at the festival. In too many cases this gets limited to a quick 'hey, how are you?' - because one or both parties are already in the process of going somewhere else to do something else at the time.  

But there's another reason we don't manage to chat to as many people for as long as we'd like to and that's because I have a problem with extended social interaction. If it goes on for too long without a break I find myself completely drained of energy. I feel physically and mentally worn out. 

I experience the same effect after teaching or tutoring, or doing voluntary work/public speaking, or working behind the bar. I enjoy all of these activities and I am good at them - otherwise I wouldn't do them - but I really do need to unwind and decompress afterwards. As an introvert I need to put a bit of effort into performing and the energy I expend in being 'switched on' requires me recharge my batteries when I'm done. Luckily, this is as simple as sitting on the sofa without having to interact with anyone for a couple of hours. 


View from the within the changing room, room one

In the first couple of sessions at IMBC I have a great deal of enthusiasm for interaction with people. But as time passes that energy wanes and I begin to feel too 'tired' to cope with any extended conversations. Hopefully, I haven't offended anyone I like and actually wanted to talk to with my fatigued demeanour. 

I am aware that sometimes a hangover can manifest itself as a kind of existential dread which brings with it an awful anxiety. I won't deny that I've been there a few times. But I have to say that I didn't have a single IMBC-related hangover this year, which is probably the one thing which made it clear to me that I have an issue with extended socialising that isn't directly caused by the effects of alcohol. 

I also want to be clear that I don't think I suffer from social anxiety disorder. I would describe myself as shy, antisocial and introverted. None of these things stops me from being a friendly social person when I have the energy or desire to be so. But the trouble is that I don't always have that energy available. 


This year's experience has been a bit of an eye-opener for me in terms of self-awareness. I need to learn my own limits. As much as I love, you IndyMan, it might be that attending all six sessions isn't the best thing for my mental health. It's not you, it's me. Honestly.  

 

Friday, 25 August 2017

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter


What’s this?

“What do you think of this?” As I arrive for my shift behind the bar my colleague hands me a small pour of a hazy, pale amber beer. His face is expressionless. Is this a test of some kind? I take a couple of sniffs of the beer and say, “It smells like vanilla? Like cream soda?” I take a sip of it. “Urgh. It’s so sweet. What is it? It tastes like artificial sweetener. It’s gross. What is it?” I hand it back. He names the beer. I recognise the name, it’s an IPA from a British brewery. I’m not 100% sure I’ve tried this specific beer before but I know no IPA should smell or taste like that.

The following week I taste a DIPA and immediately an epic battle commences in my mouth between BITTERNESS and OVERWHELMING SWEETNESS (not just sweet but sickly too, like artificial sweetener). It’s unpleasant to the point of being unenjoyable. Later on I ask some friends what they think of the same beer. One confidently says, ‘yeah, that's got diacetyl'; the other agrees, adding ‘it’s so buttery’. 

After this particular exchange I am approaching the end of my personal Journey of Realisation - that I’m not immune to diacetyl after all. I just perceive it differently to pretty much every other person I’ve ever discussed it with over the years.

While I'm getting my head round the idea that my vanilla =  everyone else’s butter a couple of previous episodes of ‘funny tasting beer’ come drifting back, where pale ales and IPAs tasted of vanilla to me but not to anyone else. I even know someone who won a medal for a homebrewed saison that tasted like cream soda to me. I knew it didn’t taste right at the time but I couldn’t have said what the specific fault was then (other than saisons shouldn’t taste of cream soda, obviously). But I could now.

Until this day nobody had EVER mentioned vanilla to me in relation to diacetyl. I had even asked a couple of brewers, specifically what could give rise to vanilla as an ‘off flavour’ and nobody knew. When I tweeted about my recent experience someone tried to tell me it was a commonly used descriptor for diacetyl, but I have never seen it before. Once I got home I started going through the brewing library. Luckily Dr George Fix came to the rescue (1). While discussing the preference some people have for beers with prevalent diacetyl he notes that:

“The vanilla tone, which is often confused with caramel flavoring, definitely adds to the smoothness of beer.”

Ah, so it's not just me then. Well, that's a relief.



Special Relationship


At this point I should mention that before I switched to a career in biomedicine I used to work in a QC/chemical analysis lab at Yoplait Dairy Crest where I was known as a bit of a vanilla super taster - I am very sensitive to low levels of vanilla. Part of my role was tasting products to check they matched their specification, to detect if there was too much or too little flavouring in the final product. If you were lazy you could cheat and judge visually for flavours like strawberry or cherry but because vanilla yogurt is white you can't tell by looking - you can only tell by taste.

But even before I had my professional experience with vanilla, I had already come to love it as a child who did a serious amount of baking. In fact, for most of my early teens I thought I was going to become a professional baker of some kind when I left school. I actually used 'cake mix' as a beer flavour descriptor recently because to me it's shorthand for 'smells like a rich, sweet perfumy batter'. Perhaps in future I’ll just learn to say ‘urgh, diacetyl’ instead.

So, yes, I love vanilla but the flavour completely spoils pale ales and IPAs for me.


Utterly Butterly

So what is diacetyl? As mentioned above it is generally recognised as an off flavour in beer, although it is acceptable in certain styles, e.g English bitters, Scotch ales or Czech pilsners. The standard description for the flavour is ‘buttery’, but you will also find ‘butterscotch, caramel, creamy, milky’ mentioned. Diacetyl can also be experienced as a mouthfeel sensation - it can be perceived as ‘slippery’ or ‘slick’.
The commercial use for diacetyl is literally making things taste like butter. Anything which is meant to taste like butter, from margarine to Butterkist, will be flavoured with diacetyl.
Diacetyl is a natural byproduct of fermentation. You cannot eliminate it so the key is to control its presence in beer styles where it should not be evident. Fortunately, yeast is capable (depending on strain) of reabsorbing diacetyl and converting it into more palatable compounds. The simplest way for brewers to avoid diacetyl in their finished beer is to start fermentation with a sufficient amount of healthy yeast and provide the right conditions for the yeast to do its work. Once fermentation is almost complete, raising the temperature will allow the yeast to ‘clean up’ the finished beer. This process is called a ‘diacetyl rest’ and is especially important for lagers.
However, diacetyl it is also produced by species of lactic acid bacteria, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus. So unintentional diacetyl in a finished beer may indicate a contamination issue in the brewery, or in lines/taps at the point of dispense. This contributes to the negative reputation of diacetyl.


So what is wrong with my palate?

Short answer: I haven’t found out yet. I’ve participated in many off flavour tasting sessions, from both sides of the table, and (until now) diacetyl has remained the one major off flavour that I have struggled with. I’ve never been 100% confident that I can detect it in the kinds of beers I like to drink, although I seem to 'get it' alright when using the off flavour kits. When discussing the fault in commercial beers other people have always said they get ‘butter, caramel, butterscotch, popcorn’ and I just go, ‘um...I don’t know...is it really sweet?’ When your answer is different to everyone else’s you tend to think that you’re wrong and you just don’t get it. But perhaps that isn’t always the case.



In Essence

I began to wonder how vanilla and butter could be confused as the same flavour. One is sweet, the other is fatty. One is worn as a fragrance, the other is exclusively a foodstuff. I still can't make sense of it.

As a vanilla lover I have previously explored the differences between vanilla extract (which contains natural flavour from vanilla beans extracted into ethanol) and vanilla essence (which is usually synthetic vanillin). Natural vanilla flavour is comprised of hundreds of components of which vanillin is the most prominent. If anyone wants to get into the science of artificial vs natural flavourings (both vanilla and butter) in a bit more depth then I highly recommend the Kennedy article, linked below (2).

Vanilla has a striking aroma which can be overwhelming when overdone but at lower levels is warm and comforting, maybe even romantic. Do you find a Victoria sponge cake to have a striking vanilla character? Possibly not but it’s definitely in there somewhere and it’s an integral part of its overall cakeyness. In fact, most so-called ‘plain’ or ‘white’ sponge cakes and cupcakes contain vanilla flavouring because it's used as a flavour enhancer - it gives us that impression of naughty sweetness which we desire and expect. 


Answers on a postcard

The purpose of this post was to share my strange experience of finally 'getting' an off flavour after all these years. I have held back the scientific detail on diacetyl and vanilla as none of it really explains why I get vanilla or artificial sweetener instead of butter (but I'll definitely keep looking for the answer to that).

I'm keen to hear from anyone else who has had a similar experience of getting a completely different impression of an off flavour to the one which is cited by almost everyone else they have ever mentioned it to. I feel as if I must have a loose connection somewhere.

Refs

1.Principles of Brewing Science (Second ed.) George Fix. (1999)