By Jack Kenny
“Do you have a beer called England?”
“England? No, I’m sorry. We don’t.”
“Then how about Yaegen?”
“No ma’am. But would you like some Yuengling?”
“That’s the one!”
That’s a true story, and so is this. A customer began her question with an apology. “I know this is going to sound weird, but here goes: Do you have a beer called Lingy-Lingy?”
It’s not always that easy to figure out what people want, but with practice and a bit of humor sometimes the truth will out. At other times there’s no hope at all, as in this brief exchange I had a couple of years ago.
“I had a terrific beer last night in a restaurant. I don’t remember what it was but it had two words in the name.”
Sierra Nevada? “No.” Green Flash? “No.” Two Roads? “No.” By now I knew it was hopeless. Lost Cause? “No, not that one either.”
When someone asks, “What does this beer taste like?” a bartender simply pours and offers a small sample. Off-premise, however, the skill of the retailer must come to the fore. Regular readers of this column will recall that I highly recommend studying the beer style guidelines published online by the Beer Judge Certification Program (bjcp.org). Committing the basic details of each style’s characteristics will go a long way to answering metaphysical questions such as that one.
The other day, a young man enquired about the difference between Guinness Draught (which he said as “drought;” many do) and Guinness Extra Stout. For a student of beverages, such a question gives rise to one of the great and beautiful mysteries of life: the activation of the taste memory. Somewhere in the brain whole trains of synapses begin firing, delivering to the virtual palate the distinct tastes of both beers. How this happens is way beyond me, but it’s a great pleasure to experience, and equally as rewarding to talk about.
My answer to the customer’s question, however, has to be fairly simple and relatively free of the esoterica that beer geeks relish. For all I know he’s in the early stages of exploring his developing palate and doesn’t want a bunch of beer code flung at him. So I tell him that the draught style Guinness is quite similar to what he would get in a bar (he nods vigorously in understanding), with a nice dryness to it and hints of roasted coffee. The Guinness Extra Stout, on the other hand, has a bigger body and a stronger flavor, not as much head, a bit of sweetness, and more alcohol. Apparently that explanation suited him, because he thanked me and walked away with a 12-pack of the extra stout.
The toughest challenge, to me at least, that a customer can pose is to ask for a comparable beer. For example, somebody asks for Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium Brewing. I explain that those beers are not yet available in Connecticut; but that the brewer is nearing completion of an East Coast plant in North Carolina and might soon be coming our way. The customer then asks, “Okay, so what do you have that tastes like Fat Tire?”
Maybe wine sales people have an easier time of recommending comparable products, but I find that difficult to do with beer. With any beer. Does Miller Lite taste like Bud Light? No, it does not. (Does Johnny Walker Red taste like Dewar’s White Label?) Maybe I’m peculiar, but I wonder why people want to buy something that tastes just like something else.
If you find it easy to recommend an amber ale that compares well to another one, then more power to you. I don’t. Sometimes, as gently as I can, I explain to people that brewers don’t like to copy other brewers’ products, but rather prefer to make something that tastes different within the same style. Also, what you taste might be different from what I taste; it’s a deeply personal thing. Quite often I get nods of agreement. Then I point out the various amber ales on the shelves and perhaps make a recommendation based on quality.
If you, gentle reader, have some good stories to tell about questions from customers, please share them with me.
Jack Kenny has been writing The Beer Column for The Beverage Journal since 1995. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.