In the last hours of 2016, I had dinner at an upscale gastropub in Cleveland’s Lakewood neighborhood, a bustling section of town full of millennial catnip and all the signifiers of conscientious consumption. The place fairly hummed with artisanal bona fides, from the painstakingly noted origins of its produce and meats to the local-heavy draught menu to the obligatory Edison bulbs hanging pendulous above us.
Perusing the draught list and not coming up with much, I settled on my favorite Ohio IPA (Jackie O’s Mystic Mama, incidentally) from among the bottles and cans. “Is this a popular one?” I asked our server, and she nodded vigorously. Definitely, she said, Jackie O’s was one of her favorites, she’d recommend it to anyone. “So you sell a lot of them?” I went on, to her visible puzzlement. “Yeah, I’d say so,” she affirmed. I ordered, still reluctant.
Reluctant because ordering a beer best consumed fresh — and we will consider momentarily what those are, and why — from a bottle or can menu can be a dicey proposition.
Our drinks came and our affable server poured my Mystic into a clean pint glass. After she’d left, as I raised the glass I knew immediately I’d made a mistake: I could smell the malt primarily, with a faint trace of old hops, an aroma in combination with slight oxidation that I think of as “cooked” or “honeyed.” As my lady friend and her family made conversation, I checked the date on the bottom of the can: the beer was almost five months old, sixty days beyond its shelf life.
She looked at me aghast and offered sincere apologies.”
Attempting to make as little fuss as possible, when our server returned, I said diplomatically, “Hey, I’m sorry, and I really don’t mean to be a pain in the ass — but this beer is expired. Would it be alright if I ordered something else?” She looked at me aghast and offered sincere apologies; I reassured her, continually, that there was no problem, and I had zero desire to make trouble for her.
She checked with the bar, and they rotated stock; they had much fresher cans of the same beer just a few beyond the one I’d ordered, and she promptly brought a fresh can and another clean glass to the table. It was pungent, juicy, and delicious. I thanked her profusely, and the GM who came by the table later to follow up. We chatted about Jackie O’s, and beer, and everything was lovely. They handled my complaint splendidly.
I offer up the preceding as what I hope to be a decent example of both how to make an informed beer selection, and how to respectfully address a bad beer experience. I work in beer, so issues of freshness, selection, rotation, curation and presentation are hard to separate from my experience as a consumer. But these issues affect anyone trying to get the best beer for their buck, especially at a bar or restaurant.
I’m notoriously cheap, and will often default to inexpensive yet consistent standbys if I get a sense that I won’t get my money’s worth — why gamble on a $6 can of potentially ancient Two Hearted at the corner bar when you know exactly what that $2 bottle of High Life is gonna taste like? Beer is goddamned expensive nowadays, especially when you’re out on the town — so why shouldn’t you be particular?
To get the best beer for your buck, think about what you want: is it, as statistics tell us is more than likely, an IPA? If pungent, bitter goodness is your desire, you need to think strategically.
Draft options will be your best bet; unless their draft beers are a total afterthought (or their draft lines are dirty), the craft beers on that tower are almost certainly moving faster than the ones tucked away in the cooler.
Faced with a plurality of IPAs, my triage method goes something like this: 1) Desirable, 2) Nearby, 3) Well Known. If there’s a hoppy beer on there you know to be limited, rare, or extremely popular, there’s a good chance you know it’s fresh. Of course there are exceptions to this (beware the Hopslam on draft in July), but it’s a good starting point.
If nothing sticks out immediately, consider geography: drinking local has its own hazards, especially as regards IPAs, but if they’re coming from reliable and well-respected breweries in your home state, there’s at least a chance they’re fresher than the average keg. Lastly, consider the brand: even in a corner sports bar, for example, with a limited draft lineup, a Stone or Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada IPA is probably going to do pretty well, just by dint of it being recognizable and — in both the average consumer’s mind and our shared reality — reliable. If they keep the beer on constantly and it turns consistently, it could be fresher than just about anything else in the joint.
Package beer — that is, beer in bottles or cans — is a good bit trickier. In the modern barscape, the draft system is the showpiece and, as any representative from MicroMatic will admonish you, the “moneymaker.” Margins are higher on draft beer, and consumer attention is duly directed to what’s on tap, with package selections playing second fiddle in most contemporary bar and restaurant settings. In the vast majority of scenarios, draft beer just turns faster than the cans and bottles behind the bar.
In the modern barscape, the draft system is the showpiece and, as any representative from MicroMatic will admonish you, the 'moneymaker.'”
So if you’re after something best fresh — that local IPA, a hoppy pilsner, crisp kolsch, or mellow blonde ale, for example — the draft lineup should be your first stop. If you must order these beers from the package menu, do so judiciously: if there are many (say, more than three) IPAs on that list, you can bet that the majority of them are majorly aged, so gently inquiring with your server or bartender which is the most popular may steer you toward the freshest of the bunch. If you’re faced with a Sophie’s Choice, perhaps better to opt for a high gravity Belgian (Duvel is clutch in these situations) or strong stout, either of which will have been dealt a softer blow by the vagaries of time.
So what if you’ve done your due diligence and still ended up with a subpar pint? It is perfectly reasonable to send beer back. Let me say that again: it is absolutely in everybody’s best interest to send back a beer you feel to be past its prime or in some way flawed.
It’s good for the brewer, who wouldn’t want an inferior version of her product reaching the hands of the consumer; it’s good for the retailer, who may not even realize she’s losing sales due to the issue; and it’s good for the next guest, who may not be as savvy as you and would otherwise determine that she just doesn’t like that particular beer, not because it’s old, but because it’s not good, or not to her taste.
That being said, sending a beer back can and should be a delicate undertaking: it’s not the time to be pedantic, or entitled, or to grandstand. Nobody likes the guy who, exulting in his superior knowledge, gleefully points out someone else’s shortcomings. Be nice about it. Tell your server or bartender that you believe the beer may be past its prime, or that it’s not to your taste — they’ll almost certainly be happy to get you something else, or take a look at the dates on the product. Sometimes, as in my opening anecdote, it’s simply a rotation issue — freshest product to the back of the cooler, please.
The incredible proliferation of choice is a wonderful thing for the beer consumer, but not without its pitfalls. With a bit of consideration and thoughtfulness, you can get the beer experience you want and, hopefully, deserve.