When Matt Whitney is tending bar at South Boston’s Local 149, one thing makes him nuts. “When people ask me to serve them my favorite beer,” says the bar manager. He wants to help, and while he is confident about his own favorites, he’s not sure if you’ll like them.
Walking into a bar and staring at a long list of unfamiliar beers can be unsettling. But think of the bartender as a kind of sommelier: Start by explaining what other beers you like. “Is there a particular beer that you had in mind?” Whitney instructs his staff to ask. With the base knowledge of what the customer normally drinks, a bartender can match a Blue Moon drinker to an Allagash White, or a Harpoon IPA drinker to an unfamiliar India Pale Ale.
If someone doesn’t recognize what’s on the list, says Michael Moxley, owner of Canary Square in Jamaica Plain and Coda and the Salty Pig in the Back Bay, “You have to steer them in the right direction.”
One way is to offer your server key words: “hoppy,” “bitter,” “citrusy,” “funky,” “sweet,” and “sour” might be on your mind that day. “If they really aren’t into bitter,” says Moxley, “IPAs and imperial IPAs aren’t something I want to offer this person.”
“Funky” can steer a bartender toward or away from a particular pour. If a saison or stout is funky, the server should let you know. “You get some people who turn their nose up and say, ‘I don’t want to try that,’ ” says Whitney.
In “The Complete Beer Course,” Brooklyn-based author Joshua M. Bernstein takes readers through various styles with stand-out examples. Knowing the name of a style you like can help tremendously, as is knowing what you dislike. “I often ask people what type of foods they like to eat,” says Bernstein. “Are you a big coffee drinker? Do you like chocolate? Have a sweet tooth? Love fruit? It’s all about providing a drinker with a frame of reference.”
One thing to avoid telling your server is that you like beers of a certain color. “Sometimes when people say, ‘I don’t like dark beers,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I don’t like heavy beers,’ ” offers Bernstein. “Color can tint perception. Sometimes the darkest beers will drink feather-light, while pale brews may sit on your tongue like a sack of bricks.”
If you’re still totally unsure, order a flight. Those three or four brews typically come in small amounts, poured into shot or other small glasses. Trying different beers means you don’t have to commit to a larger pour of a single brew. Any bar should allow you to sample, say industry experts. And don’t feel like you shouldn’t be asking for another taste. “Not liking a beer is perfectly acceptable,” says Bernstein.
When Moxley hits a wall and cannot figure out what a customer wants, he might turn to a couple of brews on tap, like Notch Brewing’s crisp Session Pils or Jack D’Or from Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, a spicy saison with an easy finish. Offering one of these approachable beers may introduce someone to a new favorite brew.
“I’ve seen Jack D’Or work miracles,” he says.