Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Tell me about it

Ghost Drinker has recently been complaining that the expansion of availability of interesting craft beers in Leeds pubs and bars has not been matched by a corresponding expansion in staff knowledge. Now, he has a point, but I can’t help thinking his expectations are a little unrealistic.

If you are running what is presented as a specialist outlet, then it’s reasonable to expect a good level of product knowledge. In a cheese shop, it wouldn’t be acceptable for a member of staff to say “No idea, mate, I don’t really eat the stuff.” In a pub like the Magnet in Stockport, customers would expect the staff to be able to say something about the guest beers on offer. However, once you get out into more mainstream venues, that level of knowledge and enthusiasm will inevitably be diluted. Plus many bar staff, however hard-working, are only doing it for a short period in their lives.

It’s entirely reasonable to expect staff to be aware of the main regular products and which categories they fall into. For example, surely all bar staff should be familiar with the expected response if a customer just asks for a “lager” or a “shandy”. I’ve had several experiences over the years of bar staff responding with bafflement when I order something clearly displayed on the bar.

But how far should they go beyond that? The average pub stocks over a hundred different varieties of alcoholic drinks – are they expected to be able to give a broad description of all of them? Many pubs have a wide range of malt whiskies, but surely nobody would expect a Polish girl on a three-month contract to be able to explain the difference between Laphroaig and Bruichladdich.

This is why, if you’re offering unusual or specialist products, it makes sense to provide tasting notes, chalkboards etc to give customers some information about them, without requiring a detailed level of staff knowledge. The knowledge will improve over time, especially if some products become regular fixtures on the bar, but it’s never going to match the dedicated specialist bar.

I also can’t agree that a coffee shop worker should be expected to be a coffee drinker. Coffee shops sell plenty of products apart from coffee, just as pubs don’t just sell alcoholic drinks. That’s no more reasonable than expecting all bar staff to be drinkers of alcohol. There are plenty of pub licensees, never mind just bar staff, who are teetotal, and even some who are practising but tolerant Muslims. It doesn’t prevent you from doing a good job provided that you are familiar with the products available and have a positive, enthusiastic attitude. “Meh! I dunno!” is never a good response in any circumstances.


  1. Every one that gets a job at Tesco ought to be given a week long training program in Beer to understand what bottle conditioning is, why lager is chemical fizz, who is or isn't ignorami. My company can provide such training.

    Maybe it should be drilled into people at school so they can take it into life.

  2. Won't be any Polish girls on three month contracts if you lot get your way - it'll be back to the good old days of peripatetic Aussies and local spotties on dodgy training schemes...

    There's also the question of what happens when you take something back, which I guess is less of a problem in coffee shops. In Stratford once I was served what was basically a pint of water, from a line that hadn't been pulled through properly; when I took it back the kid who'd served me positively flinched when I offered it to him for a taste, explaining that he didn't drink beer & hence couldn't express an opinion on what it should or shouldn't taste like. I don't think that should happen.

    1. The same scenario is possible, albeit less likely, with any other product sold in the pub, though. The answer is to have a clearly-defined procedure for dealing with customer complaints. And it doesn't take a huge amount of training to recognise cloudy or vinegary beer, which are the main likely faults.

  3. I agree with the article. Regarding Polish girls on three month contracts: there would be a lot more if us lot had our way - just as there are lots of British students spending three months working in Camp America.

  4. Excellent article and quite a few points there.

    First of all, pubs are much more complex now for the beer drinker who's not just going to order a pint of Fosters or Smooth. Taking the excellent Magnet as an example, it's pretty impractical to weight up your options from a cask and keg board in a crowded bar, let alone take in tasting notes/strengths/pricing differences.

    Wetherspoons is now ever worse (proponents of choice would say better). The Spoons in Old Street on Sunday had four different Point of Sale displays for it's craft, which might have been in cans, bottles or keg, but wasn't visible at the bar. What chance do Spoons staff have with their range of drinks of developing product knowledge ?

    Even Sam Smiths have started to confuse me now with their developing drinks range !

    1. Actually I was thinking of Sam Smith's when I made the lager comment. In a pub with Alpine, Double Four, Taddy and Pure Brewed, the bar staff need to be clear what to offer if a customer just asks for "lager". I would have said Double Four, but they didn't seem certain.

  5. Aren't you being aa bit inconsistent in saying that it is unacceptable for a cheesemonger not to eat cheese but perfectly alright for a publican not to drink alcoholic beverages? (But I do remember what Emerson had to say about vile consistency)

    1. I'm drawing a distinction between specialist and mainstream outlets. But it's possible for someone to have relevant knowledge even if they don't consume the product in question.

      If a publican advertised for "keen staff who drink beer" he would get in trouble under anti-discrimination legislation.


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