No one wants to be That Guy. But if you’re handed a beer that tastes off, feels lukewarm or smells like...buttered popcorn? You’re fully within your rights as a bar-goer to politely ask the staff for a switcheroo.
If you, like me, tend to do all sorts of social gymnastics in order to avoid confrontation, sending a beer back can feel intimidating. The good news is, most quality beer bars want you to enjoy the beer you’re drinking, because sticking you with a beer you don’t like is kind of like letting someone leave a salon with a botched haircut: no one’s happy and no one wins. Whether you’re picking up some weird off flavors in your pint or you just don’t love that funky cask ale as much as you thought you would, your bartender or server will most likely be happy to accommodate you. Keeping a few etiquette tips in mind will make the whole exchange a little less fraught for everyone.
Two important pointers: First, it helps to be specific about why you’re sending your beer back, so the staff can respond accordingly—more on that shortly. Second, as a general rule, don’t be a jerk about it. As in, if you spring for a $25 rare Belgian beer on a packed Friday night and decide you just don’t like it, perhaps consider simply ordering a different beer next time rather than demanding a do-over. Remember that in almost every scenario, any good service staff will be ready and willing to accommodate you, even if they’re in the weeds, so to speak. Especially if you’re being polite and considerate about it.
As for the reasons you’d want to send a beer back, there are several, and each situation may call for a slightly different approach. I sat down with Dan Fontaine, a certified cicerone and the beer manager at the famed Brick Store Pub in Decatur, Georgia, to discuss a few of them, as well as how to best handle each situation.
A duo that turns everything flowing through the line into a sort of Orville Redenbacher kombucha.”
There are many, many weird flavors that beer can develop at every point in its lifecycle, from brewing to storage to pour. The most common reason for one of these occurring at a bar is the result of keg lines being cleaned irregularly or improperly. Fontaine says this will manifest in two bizarre flavors: Butter and vinegar, usually at the same time. This is the notorious diacetyl, combined with acetic acid buildup, a duo that turns everything flowing through the line into a sort of Orville Redenbacher kombucha. The tricky part is, this isn’t something a bar can quickly fix on the spot. Fontaine says this might be a scenario best handled by reaching out with a call or email the next day, rather than dropping this bomb on the staff in the middle of their shift, and in the meantime, perhaps consider switching to a different beer—such as a bottled one—for the rest of your visit. Fontaine also adds that if you only pick up diacetyl without the vinegar, there’s a chance it happened in the brewing process, before the beer even made it to the venue.
Oxidation, which happens when a beer sits around for way too long, is another common one. Fontaine says it usually makes the beer tastes papery or like wet cardboard. “The more a beer oxidizes, the more flavors it takes on...if you get a really oxidized dark beer, you might get soy sauce, umami, even roasted tomato,” he says. Again, it’s up to you whether you handle this on the spot, but my guess is that few bars would take umbrage at a guest politely letting them know that a beer tastes oxidized and would be happy to swap your beer out for a less cardboard-y one.
Let’s say you’re visiting a high-volume beer bar on a slammed Saturday evening. There’s a chance that, if they’re cranking out hundreds of beers every hour, yours might get overlooked and hang out at the service bar for a few minutes longer than it should. While not every beer needs to be ice-cold, Fontaine says that most lighter styles like lagers and pilsners are ideally served around 38 to 41 degrees fahrenheit, while imperial stouts are usually in the 50-degree range. No one’s expecting you to whip out a thermometer and measure the temperature of your Urquell—please do not do that—but if your beer is room temperature or noticeably warm, that’s something a bar can and should easily fix with a quick replacement. Just be sure to do your homework: If you order a cask beer from a cellar, which is typically kept around 55 degrees, don’t expect it to be as cold as your “when the mountains turn blue” Coors Light.
Different beer styles have different levels of carbonation. But if a beer comes out totally flat, that’s a problem—one usually caused by CO2 issues or by storing the beer at too cold a temperature. “Carbon dioxide dissolves in beer at different rates,” Fontaine explains. “And the warmer a beer is, if it stays at a normal carbonation through your draft system, it’ll get foamy. So if your keg’s at 45 degrees, it’ll be much foamier, and if it’s at 33 degrees, it’ll be less foamy.” In any case, if your beer is served flat, you should have no qualms about politely asking for a different one.
You just don’t like it
Let’s say you, a lager aficionado, decide to mix it up and order a Bell’s Hopslam. And, surprise! It’s bitter. Are you stuck with it? Fontaine says no; most bars will help you swap it out for something you actually like, but keep in mind that it’s not exactly ideal for a bar to toss a perfectly good beer just because you ordered way outside your comfort zone. The best way to avoid this, he says, is to chat with your bartender before committing: He or she will be able to tell you more about the beer, explain how it tastes, offer you a sample and guide you toward something you actually like instead of pouring an entire pint down the drain.
Pro-tip for the non-confrontational
Not jazzed about the idea of sauntering up to a crowded bar and asking for a different beer? Fontaine shares this handy tip for a more subtle way to approach it: “I've asked servers and bartenders here [at Brick Store] how they send beer back. Most people, if they get something they aren't happy with, they just set it aside and order another one.” A good server or bartender will almost always notice the conspicuously untouched beer next to you and ask about it. That way, you can low-key point out the fact that your wheat beer tastes like movie popcorn, without doing so in front of an audience.
Main image by Brandon Morreale, Good Beer Hunting