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Ullage and Spillage: The First Thirst is the Worst

Call me a grumpy old man [You are a grumpy old man. – Ed.], but I had a head start. I was a grumpy young man, as photos of me sitting bolt upright in my pram will attest. Now, my well-developed capacity for disapproval is occasionally applied when assessing new watering holes. First impressions are important, and a key component of my first impression of a craft beer bar is how fast I get a beer.

I have said it before, and I will undoubtedly say it a few more times again before I shuffle off this mortal coil: “there are beer establishments in Vancouver where I swear you can almost die of thirst”, or at least black out from frustration at the time it takes to get your first beer. OK, you may have a glass of water front of you but many of us subscribe to the credo of W.C. Fields: “I don’t drink water. Fish fornicate in it” (except he did not say ‘fornicate’).

When I go out for a beer, I typically travel a ways via bus and/ or train. By the time I get to my craft beer destination, I have built up a thirst and a considerable level of anticipation. I know I am somewhat impatient, so I do try to keep it under control. However, my focus when I walk in the door is not on a glass of water, a menu, my cellphone or the name of my server (I ask again later if they are good). My reptilian brain is simply thinking “beer now” in a Homer Simpson voice. There is a wide range in how expediently various locations fulfill this need.

At one extreme is the place where you are a regular, and there’s your beer pouring before you even sit down. (Or, in at least one instance at DIX, you are so busy saying hi to people that the manager comes out from behind the bar and puts a beer in your hand.) At the other extreme, as experienced recently by this reporter, 25 minutes in a craft beer bar without a beer in one’s hand is not acceptable.

I am not talking about a weekend night with a game on, the place packed, and you’ve avoided the front of house person and sat in a spare seat at a long table. Then you have only yourself to blame. I am not talking about somewhere that just opened and they are still going through teething troubles. I am talking about a moderately busy night in the middle of the week with many tables empty. In the case of the aforementioned offender, they have a restaurant license and are obligated to proceed accordingly, but really, if you are promoting yourself as a craft beer establishment then serving beer should be at the top of the priority list. I have been served a beer less than four minutes from walking in the door at least twice on a moderately busy occasion at the Tap and Barrel on False Creek, so I know it can be done by others.

The five-minute wait for the front of house person, who looked right through me once, then seemed surprised to see me a bit later, is something I have got used to. I have always been invisible in pubs and bars. The fact they had no record of our reservation is also something I am now used to in Vancouver. As Seinfeld said, “You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to HOLD the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation— the holding… ”. Why this seems to be a widespread problem in Vancouver, I have no idea.

On that thirsty night out: the fact that one of the beers we ordered had run out was just fine, no problem. The fact the dinner special we ordered had run out at 7.15 pm was fine, no problem. It was the ten minute wait for the server to get to us and the further ten minute wait without a beer. That was the problem. We have no idea how long it could have gone on for, because we walked out. We explained to the server why we were leaving and he volunteered to communicate our concern to management. Well, management, if this story sounds familiar, you now know who that was.

Would I have done the same thing if I had not been ignored when I walked in, if the reservation had been held, if the dinner special had been available, if I was not feeling embarrassed at having recommended this place to my American visitors? Yup; pretty sure I would. The reason is, I have been mouthing off to my friends about such waits in the past (nobody told me I was being unreasonable) so it was about time I stood up and said something to the establishment.

The evening ended well, you’ll be pleased to hear. We walked to another place and serendipitously found ourselves at a Craft Beer Month tap take-over. Available were more great beers than we could possibly handle on a worknight, a fantastic and cheap dinner special, and my favourite bar manager, formerly of the fondly-remembered place where I once had a beer placed in my hand without asking.

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J. Random

J. Random has been penning the Ullage & Spillage column for What's Brewing since 2003.


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