Learning about wine and beer as a restaurant server?
October 3, 2010 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Being the drunk that I am, I'm familiar enough with cocktails and hard liquor. However, I need help with my beer and wine knowledge, for working as a restaurant server. To quickly, broadly learn about beer and wine, what are my options for book-learnin', starting points, and so on? Current knowledge is basically zero.

My current beer and wine knowledge is horrendous. I know there's red and white wine. PBR is cheap and hipster ... as I learned from that one movie. There's regular and there's light beer, as in Bud/Bud Lite, Miller/Miller Lite. And ... that's about it.

I know I can always go out and buy various beers and wines to taste and experiment with pairing, and look them up on the intarwebs to learn about them. But that would take a long time on a small budget. And I'm not a fan of buying a six-pack or wine bottle, only to drink a little and then to give it away before it goes off or I get bored with it. I know I'll have to do some buying/tasting at some point, but just not of everything out there. But I would like to seem to know about almost everything.
posted by Xere to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Local wine shops often have free or very cheap tastings. That might be a place to start. The staff there will almost certainly be glad to help with basic questions, too.
posted by something something at 1:31 PM on October 3, 2010

I know a fair bit about beer. The best advice I can give you is: buy one or more of the late Michael Jackson's beer guides, and start a tasting notebook!

Availability is going to vary greatly depending on your city and state, but my local grocery store in Seattle sells over 100 fantastic beers as single bottles--if you can find a similar selection, you don't have to worry too much about six-packs.

For internet resources, Beer Advocate is fantastic, but may be overwhelming at first glance--there are many thousands of reviews. Start with "Beer 101" and "Beer Styles."

If there's one thing you should know first about beer, it's probably the difference between ales and lagers. (I'd say that that distinction, rather than "regular"/"light", is the fundamental split that's analogous to red vs. white for wine.) The difference in manufacture has to do (this is a simplification, but that's okay!) with the type of yeast used and the fermentation temperature, but the important thing is that the two methods result in very different flavor profiles. A good starting point might be to identify 3 ales and 3 lagers and taste them, with a view towards (i) the differences between ale and lager and (ii) the similarities and differences within each type. Do you prefer ale over lager, or vice versa? Why? Take notes if you feel so inclined. Have some friends over and make it a party!
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 1:42 PM on October 3, 2010

Books about beer: check out the work of the late Michael Jackson.

Websites about beer: beeradvocate and ratebeer are some of the most popular.

Beer: many craft brewers produce 12-pack variety sampler deals, so buy some of those and try them out.

What kinds of beers does your restaurant serve? What kind of restaurant is it? What part of the country are you in? Craft beer is a fairly regional thing (though your Sam Adamses and Sierra Nevadas are available in most of the US). Additionally, the kind of stuff you'd want to know for a job at Chili's or whatever is very different from what you'd want to know for a job at a brewpub.
posted by box at 1:45 PM on October 3, 2010

You can learn a lot about beer from the BJCP style guidelines. If you'd like, take notes in a copy of The Beer Journal which has the 2008 BJCP guidelines included in it, along with room for you to make notes about your own tasting experiences.

Would the restaurant you're working at let you try out a couple of the beers? Not necessarily on your first night working all in one go, but especially if they have a large selection. If you want to know way too much about each beer offered there, look it up at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.

I guess what it comes down to for me is do you want to know in general about beers or do you want to know about the specific ones your restaurant offers?
posted by knile at 1:45 PM on October 3, 2010

Or a sports bar, or a place with a seasonal/locavore focus, or an ethnic restaurant--you get my drift.
posted by box at 1:47 PM on October 3, 2010

The Guardian has a great guide to wine.

How far you go beyond that depends on where you're serving. I mean, it's one thing to know that Ch√Ęteau Pichon Longueville is a Pauillac, Bordeaux wine, that 2005 was a great year and 2009 even better. That kind of stuff is like learning for a test. Either you know it or you don't and outside a limited realm, it is trivia.

It's a whole different thing to be able to taste a wine and determine what's in it - or at least learn some of the vocabulary for different wine flavors. This is learning a skill, and I'd really encourage you to do it a good waiter should have a tangible sense of the food and wine he/she is serving.

But to be honest, unless you're in a really high end place, you just need to know the tasting notes for what you're selling and be able to match food to wine. So if someone says they like dry white wine or want a spicy red wine or can't drink chardonnay etc you can help them.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:05 PM on October 3, 2010

I feel like if you really need to know this as a server your restaurant should be helping you. Do you have meetings semi-regularly where you discuss the menu, etc.? They should be telling you things like 'we just added this salmon dish and we think it would go nicely with the pinot noir' If they're not volunteering this info, you should ask. Mention that a customer asked you for something like 'a dry red, not sweet but spicy' and you had no idea what to recommend. Realistically that's what you need to be prepared most for, because the average person is not going to know the wine names but they will have some idea of what they like and you need to be able to steer them in the right direction. Nothing irks me more than waiters who TRY and fail at this rather than going to the kitchen and asking if they don't know.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:33 PM on October 3, 2010

If you're a DIY kind of guy, you might check out Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. Now hold on - I know you're not interested in brewing beer. But it's a really well written book, and when you're done reading it you'll understand the different processes by which beer is made, what ingredients are used, and what gives the different styles of beer their particular qualities. It's not very long, either, which is a plus.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 3:22 PM on October 3, 2010

On beer, just try the ones you have on tap. Relevant adjectives: hoppy, malty/sweet, light, dark, bitter, crisp, floral, wheat, smooth, strong (high in alcohol). Start by learning what the lightest, darkest, hoppiest, and strongest are.
posted by salvia at 3:44 PM on October 3, 2010

Regarding beer, between Michael Jackson, Charlie Papazian and beeradvocate the above have pretty much nailed it. Only source I can add is Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table, which is a fantastic book about the history of beer specifically targeted at people like you.

Compared to wine and liquor, beer is inexpensive and obvious. If you can develop familiarity with a decent example of even half the styles on beeradvocate's beer styles guide, you'll be in good shape. From there, it's just a matter of getting to know the breweries distributing in your area to find the handful of beers which are most exciting in the styles that happen to pair well with the cuisine you're serving.
posted by tsmo at 3:44 PM on October 3, 2010

I'm no beer connoisseur, but you can quickly get a basic feel for a few different common varieties. Go to the store and buy one of each of these (this is very far from comprehensive, as you can see from Beer Advocate's list!):

Stout or Porter
I.P.A. (India Pale Ale)
Wheat beer

There's some overlap in those -- for instance, stouts and porters are technically ales. That's worth knowing about for your own background knowledge, but I'd imagine a customer is going to want to hear that this beer is an "ale," while this other beer is a "porter" (i.e. the more specific, evocative description).

Wikipedia on different kinds of ales. And lagers (especially note the links to "pilsner" and "bock" in the first paragraph).

A lager will probably strike you as a very normal, standard beer. Ales are darker. Stouts and porters are darker than the typical ale. As mentioned above, knowing about these different varieties is more important than regular vs. lite.

Maybe try a mix of cheaper and pricier brands. For instance, you could get Budweiser, which is a pilsner (a type of lager). That's obviously not the height of beer excellence, but it's so widely known that it's worth knowing about as least as a reference point. (And I'll bet your restaurant serves it, which is reason enough to taste it.) Harp is also a lager, but much better quality. Of course, those are just examples; err on the side of beers your restaurant actually serves.

Of course, it'd be useful to refer to a site like Beer Advocate while going through this process.

That's all pretty rough since, as I said, I'm no expert. If any of the other comments contradict mine, I'd happily defer to them. But that's the general approach I'd take if I were in your position.
posted by John Cohen at 4:03 PM on October 3, 2010

I agree, BeerAdvocate, Michael Jackson, Charilie Papazian.

posted by georg_cantor at 5:29 PM on October 3, 2010

Go to a beer tasting festival and taste (taking notes) and not imbibing.

If you can, go on a tour of a microbrewery and ask a ton of questions.

There are only 4 ingredients in beer: grain, hops, water, and yeast. From there, the differences go into composition and type(s) of each and from there, temperature. Water is as much an ingredient - it's hardness or softness makes a difference in taste. Beyond all of this are adjuncts, usually fruit or spices, but sometimes brewers add Burton's Salts (aka gypsum, aka the stuff between the cardboard in drywall) to change water hardness.

In beer, there are a ton of varieties, but I would argue that there are three types: lager, ale and steam. Lager is made with lager yeast and fermented at cold temperatures. Ales are made with ale yeast and fermented at warm temperatures. Steam beers are lager yeast used fermented at ale temperatures. Lager yeast can go a little wonky at ale temperatures and will produce good things as well as wonky things.

The most common grain for beer is barley. In fact, in most beer there is barley which has almost no flavor and is there strictly for sugars. Other barley types and roasting times change the flavor of the beer dramatically. Sometimes you'll get coffee flavors or chocolate flavors. It's really interesting to eat roasted malt to compare.

Other grains include, rice, wheat, corn, and rye. Heffeweizen, for example, means "half wheat".

Hops do three things for beer: add bitterness, aroma and help preserve it. What types of hops and when they're added in the process changes how the hops will affect the beer. India Pale Ales were beers made for shipping to India from England. They were hopped extremely strongly to help preserve the beer as well as to cover up when it went off. IPA today, usually means an ale that has been extremely strongly hopped as preservation is really not an issue.
posted by plinth at 5:45 PM on October 3, 2010

Find out what's on your restaurant's beer and wine lists.

Learn about those.

If it's the kind of restaurant that does server education stuff - like tasting the wines on the list - do those and take a ton of notes.

You don't have to learn everything in the world about all possible beers/wines, just the ones your restaurant carries. And since beer/food pairings is pretty rare in restaurants, concentrate on learning which varieties of wine on the list goes best with menu items.

Even here in the microbrew-heavy San Francisco Bay Area, I can think of fewer than five restaurants I've been to in 10 years that encourage (via servers or on the menu) pairing This Beer with That Dish. Most people who order beer will know what they want already and won't need help deciding whether they should order the IPA or the porter with the chicken.
posted by rtha at 7:30 PM on October 3, 2010

If your restaurant's wine cellar does not warrant a separate sommelier, you may not need to know as much as you think you do. Rather than immersing yourself in the Bordeaux wine classifications, you may just need to spend a little time with your wine list and a co-worker so you know what goes well with the veal cutlet. As for beer, unless you work at a microbrewery the vast majority of the questions you get will be "what do you have on tap" and "what do you have in bottle?"
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 11:06 AM on October 4, 2010

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