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Setting aside the cultural, epicurean and economic benefits the craft beer revolution might just herald a larger social good: the extinction of the dead-eyed bartender. Bartending always took an amount of skill, but it increasingly takes engagement. This is pretty true behind any normal bar, but behind the bar at a craft brewery, it is doubly so.
Craft beer drinkers have certain expectations of their taproom bartender. Beyond friendly and efficient, they expect her or him to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but not dismissive or aggressive.
More important, they expect a certain reality from them. It is a responsibility that the bartenders in the region seem to take very seriously. They tend to have an honesty that builds trust. They can appreciate, for example, if you like something they don’t and make the case for why they like what they enjoy.
If you think about it, the best of them are much like old-time-y bartenders, at once psychologists and philosophers.
Meet Joe Bartender
You get that vibe from Donny Jackson, the head bartender at Evolution Craft Brewing’s tasting room. Donny has been a bartender for years, making his bones at Specific Gravity (an upscale pizza place with one of the best beer selections in Salisbury) before he was transferred to the tasting room.
He’s gregarious enough that his constant assurances that everything is cool, good or not a problem are more than genuine, they’re endearing. He’s also chatty enough that he prefers the constant engagement he finds at the taproom rather than the more limited experience at other places.
“At a normal bar, people are there to eat and drink,” he said. “Here, they want to learn about beer.”
Certainly some people just want to hang out and have snacks, but Donny can tell the difference and acts accordingly. He likes people maybe even more than he likes beer, but separating the beer from the relationship is kind of difficult when it comes to Donny.
‘I brought you a beer’
Here’s a fun fact to give a little perspective on Donny’s approach to beer:
You know how sometimes you come home, put your feet up and crack a beer? That’s not really Donny’s bag. He believes beer is for sharing so he doesn’t drink alone. In fact, he keeps some favorites in a backpack when he’s out and about specifically to share with people.
Donny’s a sour guy, always looking to bring another member into the sour beer enthusiast fold.
What we’ve learned about craft beer over the last decade or so, is that if we can talk a person through the taste of a beer, they will be more open to liking it. It doesn’t mean that they will, only that they might be more open.
Someone tasting a sour beer blind for the first time might get the impression there’s something accidentally wrong with it. But, as with Porters and IPAs, once a drinker understands the way a beer is supposed to taste, they can judge it on its own merits. And that’s one of the biggest things Donny has learned being behind the bar: Communication is key.
When he’s introducing a person to the beers Evo has on tap in the tasting room, Donny is always as gentle as he would be when sharing a new funky beer with someone. He’ll chat long enough to get a sense of something they might like, give them a sip of it, and take it from there.
“We have [at least] 12 beers on tap all the time for a reason,” he said. “This is craft beer, it’s not supposed to appeal to the masses.”
It is the rare person that likes every beer. Moreover, though, it is the very rare (and maybe a little arrogant) brewer who believes there is a single beer that every craft drinker will like. Craft beer might appeal to the masses, or at least hold mass appeal, as a category. What Donny was getting at was the need for variety, or at least diversity when it comes to beers. Give people enough time and they’ll find their favorite.