(Just to clarify – for the purpose of this post I am encompassing a lot of different roles as “Bar Worker” to make things easier. I am more than aware that there are numerous roles with various titles within the industry and those that work in pubs and bars.)
The other week I was stood at the bar of one of my favourite pubs vaguely watching one member of the bar team with interest. He was bouncing from table to table, glass collecting but also taking the time to speak to each group; compliment somebody’s shirt, talk to them about the wine they'd just had, regale them with the same story of his new hat that he’d already told everybody.
Amused I turned to the manager and asked “What on earth is he doing?” They glanced at their member of staff, sighed deeply and said “I think I just pay him to chat to people.”
Though this may not sound desirable, each table or group left in this worker’s wake were vsibly happier; probably more likely to stay for another drink. He is well loved and rightly so. Despite the manager’s wary exhale they know that he is actually a terrific asset.
There is so much more to working in a pub than beer knowledge.
As a regular pub visitor I have, on occasion, come across service that I have perceived as poor. There have been various reasons for this conclusion; shortness, a dismissive attitude or lack of engagement. Sometimes my automated reaction will pass judgement immediately and if it is a place I am visiting for the first time then this may affect my extended view of the pub.
Still, leaning against bars or sitting alone in pubs, I can’t help but pick up on staff. It can be a very difficult job but there are many traits that make for truly terrific bar workers.
There is the rapport with the regulars. This doesn't refer to preferential treatment and queue jumping. It relates to the affinity with the knitting group, folk singers, tea time crowd and the last orders wanderers. It is creating an environment where customers will aim to come to the bar on certain days or at certain times just to be served by their favourite bar worker, lamenting the days when shifts have been changed or holidays are being taken.
At the same time they can work with new faces with politeness and/or enthusiasm. They can also juggle the large groups who all order different drinks, one at a time. They can do this with controlled smiles. And that group might not order a single beer.
On top of that there are basic cellar skills, stock control, cleaning rituals, perhaps orders of food to negotiate. There could be knowledge of different measurements, different decriptions used by different customers, different glassware and the preferences of some for certain styles. Some will be placing orders, taking deliveries and sorting invoices. I could go on. There's a lot it.
All this on top of a certain amount of knowledge of the products being sold, just in case questions are directed by people who aren't sure what they actually want to drink.
More and more I am seeing this as the focus of criticism from people existing in a small Beer Bubble. Bar workers at establishments across the country are being criticised for not having perfect knowledge of every single beer and brewery in the country.
There will be reasoned argument that it should be part of the job to know the products you are selling but this is poppycock. Yet still I see these posts of outrage and attempted affirmation from others on social media. "Tell me I'm wrong but I'm in a pub and asked about a beer and they didn't know the answer - how can this possibly be?"
This sort of viewpoint isn't applicable to specialist beer bars or brewery taps, where the product on sale is the focus. Here one would expect the bar workers to have a reasonably good knowledge of the beers, perhaps even detailed. But in a humble pub or bar setting that might offer a variety of different services, this needn't be the case.
Worryingly, many of the complainants I see seem happy to exchange good customer service with decent beer knowledge, as if bar workers should be judged on such.
My three worst experiences with bar workers stick with me due to how shoddy they were. One was at a brewery tap in Liverpool, one at a well known Craft Beer house in Manchester and one at one of a chain of beer bars in London, the latter being five years ago and inspiring a rant about the increase in surliness behind new beer bars acrossthe country. Not one of these incidents had anything to do with the knowledge of the beers available. I'm sure every employee involved could have told me about the products on the bar in great detail.
Would people really rather people had that knowledge rather than a decent attitude towards work?
Do these people even spend times in pubs?
I imagine a time when that older group in the pub, who come in specifically on a Tuesday afternoon for two halves, a G&T and a pot of tea served by their favourite member of staff, find that they are being served by a splenetic beer expert unwilling to engage with them. Their previous favourite staff member has been dismissed due to a poor Trip Advisor review from a disgruntled beer advocate who was furious they couldn't discuss the alpha acid levels of Ahtanum or hadn't had time to learn the back-story and beer styles of a new brewery never seen before in the pub.
I can only assume that the attitude sometimes comes from newbies and kids, introduced to beer through craft beer and railway arches, used to places where the beer is the focus. They take that experience into every pub that offers a range of modern beers expecting the same levels of knowledge. But being a great bar worker involves so much more. There are so many other great qualities in the very best. Yet we wonder why more aren't choosing it as a career path whilst simultaneously expecting them to know everything about everything.
I wonder how many of those kids expect the same bar workers to know all about the 40 gins, 60 whiskies or 80 different spirits behind some bars now. If that expectation level is not the same then realise you are blinded by your own passion for beer. If the expectation level is still the same then re-evaluate how you look at the industry.
I've also no doubt that some of these comments are derided from the Xander Harris experience of bar work -
"We're the future of this country and you keep the bowl of peanuts full."
"We're the future of this country and you keep the bowl of peanuts full."
None of this is to say that poor attitude to beer does not exist. My least favourite phrase I come across in pubs is "I don't know, I don't drink the stuff." It is ignorant at best to not learn the basic styles or colouring of beers to offer some form of weak guidance - or at least offer tasters. I'm also not doubting that there are some amazing bar workers out there who manage to do it all, including having clear taste profiles of everything on offer. "Well in my local pub there's this great person who..." Yes, yes. Have a day off.
For others, there are still analogies one can make if still unsure. I don't walk into Tesco and ask the very first employee I see to tell me about the ash content and origin of their own brand cat food. I don't scold them for not having that information to hand. Likewise, in my day job we have a range of speciality products and individuals don't have knowledge of them all. As a team we do. Expecting technical advice on specifics from everyone you meet is not how the majority of industries work.
There will be some reading who are still sure that they don't look down on bar workers ("I worked behind one as a student, wah, so how could I possibly, wah.") There'll be some who expect expertise and knowledge of every brewery and every beer from the other side when, as somebody who spends much of their spare time with their head in the industry, I only know about 10-15% of those things myself from this country alone. I implore the rest, who can take five minutes to try and think of others, to understand how much more there is to this job. There is so much more to the pub than beer. There is much more variety in the pub clientele than beer drinkers. It is time to step out of your personal bubble and start recognising that.
That particular bar worker I was observing at the beginning of this post doesn’t have extensive beer knowledge. He has been known to direct people to me if they have a particular question about a beer that he isn’t too sure on. This is not to his detriment. For many, he is the reason they return to the bar time and time again. There is so much more to these jobs than extensive beer knowledge.
Pleasant service or beer knowledge - I know which one I choose.