When Mongoose versus Cobra first opened, one of my favorite things to do was sit outside on a busy Friday night and watch as the following scene played itself out over and over like some version of Groundhog Day with a different pack of confused Midtowners each time:
- Group of snappily dressed men and women out for a night in Midtown approaches snazzy-looking bar.
- Group walks inside.
- Group cranes necks at boards displaying names of exotic beers, then attempts to engage in dialogue with bartender.
- Group looks around at each other, confusion and angst dawning on their pretty faces as they realize that there are no "normal" beers in the bar.
- Group has furrowed-brow discussion amongst themselves.
- Group leaves in frustration.
There is no Miller or Budweiser for sale at Mongoose. There aren't even more familiar-looking options such as Shiner Bock or maybe a Blue Moon -- beers which the mainstream beer consumer would certainly denote as "craft beers." The most "mainstream" item for sale at Mongoose on its beer list is Southern Star's Bombshell Blonde, a light blonde ale that's easy to drink and increasingly familiar in Houston stores and bars.
And that's where Mongoose -- like many craft beer bars -- loses customers. But bear with me here.
From our craft beer high horses, we might be quick to say two things about this situation:
- Who cares if a bunch of Midtown douchebags choose not to stay and frequent a craft beer bar? Good riddance!
- We don't want craft beer to become a commodity item that everyone drinks; I would die if I saw one of those douchenozzles with a Laughing Dog Anubis. He doesn't appreciate that stuff.
And that is where I so often find myself when in discussions about craft beer these days, although I'm reluctant to paint all craft beer lovers with the same brush. I'm especially guilty of the former statement, many times over. I don't want to drink my Poperings Hommel next to a girl in a too-short, sparkly dress who keeps my bartender overextended by ordering multiple cocktails at my craft beer bar. I admit that.
But more often than not, misbegotten attitudes like mine extend to the establishment itself. It's obviously perfectly fine not to offer Bud and Miller in a craft beer bar; that's the entire point. But I feel sometimes that places like Mongoose and Petrol make their craft beer lists purposefully obtuse and their service style abrupt in order to keep the "riffraff" out.
That sword cuts both ways, though: It can also make craft beer unnecessarily daunting and turn the entire thing into a patronizing, cliquish experience for the uninitiated. You don't know how to pronounce Klokke Roeland? You don't know the difference between an English Pale Ale and a Belgian Strong Ale? You don't like hops? We don't need your kind here.
When confronted with this kind of craft beer bar, newcomers can be left with a bitter taste in their mouth that has nothing to do with hops. It's especially odd considering the entire craft beer movement is taking place, ostensibly, to wean the American public off adjunct lagers and mega-beers like Miller and Bud.
"Let those Midtown douchefairies have their swill!" is not a battle cry; it is completely antithetical to the entire war on crappy beer. Beer is the great egalitarian beverage, meant to be enjoyed by the masses. So why don't we want the masses to drink good beer?
Aren't you still appreciative of the first gentleman who bought you a Fat Tire or a Saint Arnold? You, as a craft beer lover, should want other people -- and, yes, especially those Midtown-y dudes -- to discover the joys of a finely made bottle of Hitachino Nest White Ale over a bland, watered-down Blue Moon.
Those dudes are an important segment of the beer-buying public. Their dude-dollars will help bring more craft beer into Texas and will fund additional craft beer operations as the movement grows. It doesn't matter if you don't want to hang out with the guy at Pub Fiction for his law school fraternity happy hour; all that matters is that another person has taken up the good fight.
To that end, I find myself wishing that craft beer bars would be more accommodating of all kinds -- not just beer nerds. The simple act of enjoying good beer and supporting small businesses is not a secret, special club. Go be a homebrewer if that's what you want and pass out samples to your friends that you deem worthy in your garage. (Hey, homebrewers: You're super awesome. Don't take this the wrong way.)
I shouldn't have to do homework before going over a beer list. The bartenders should know the product they're pouring, be able to answer my questions -- without a snarky and/or dismissive attitude, I might add -- and provide their service with a smile.
I will readily admit that I get stellar service at Mongoose, but that's because I know my beer, I know the owners and I know most of the bartenders. My friends have received far poorer service, especially on the nights when the bar staff is spread too thin making cocktails instead of -- you know -- being a craft beer bar. And the beer list is fairly impenetrable to newcomers who don't know Deep Ellum from De Musketiers, with very few descriptions of the beer and -- occasionally -- mistakes in the style or ABV of the beer itself. It's all the more confusing considering the consistently top-notch service and wine list at Mongoose's sister bar, 13 Celsius.
I'm also a big fan of BRC Gastropub, but have experienced a dismissive and often surly attitude when ordering pints each time I've gone. I keep going back for the excellent rotating beer selection (and for the Monday night burger specials), but surely not for the service.
I've noticed, however, that the attitude at BRC softens considerably when I have a male dining companion with me -- although it's hardly the first or the last instance of gender-based snubbing across many different bars and retailers. Craft beer is still perceived as manly men stuff, which makes it difficult for female beer lovers to break into the boys' club. Honestly, though, gender is the least pressing issue when it comes to craft beer. Basic human politeness is really the key here; the rest will follow naturally.
And God knows I love Petrol Station with every fiber of my being, but service there can verge on nonexistent. Petrol is, perhaps, different in that regard from Mongoose: I'm fairly certain that owner Ben Fullelove is quite content to keep his patronage entirely composed of hard-core craft beer nerds. It's been that way for years and it's always worked for him.
But not every beer bar can be or should be Petrol Station, and places like Mongoose or Hay Merchant are too large to depend entirely on the comparatively small customer base of beer nerds when you consider that the overwhelming majority of Texas beer drinkers are of the Budweiser persuasion.
The same request for decency extends to craft beer retailers, and I am looking squarely at you here, Spec's. There doesn't seem to be a huge emphasis on training the beer department employees on their products -- one longtime Spec's employee is notorious for telling customers that he only drinks Bud Light Lime and doesn't touch the craft stuff. Again -- there's nothing wrong with making the choice to consume a metric ton of Bud Light Lime over your lifetime if that's your bag. But it's like asking for advice from a sommelier who admits that he only drinks Franzia. How can you steer a ship when you won't learn how to use a compass?
Equally off-putting are the dismissive attitudes I've received when attempting to shop at Spec's -- especially as a woman, at least according to my own experiences and the anecdotal evidence I've gathered from some fellow ladies. Recent inquiries as to the latest shipments of Positive Contact and Black Butte were met with quizzical stares and demurring invitations to peruse the aisles myself. (I did find both bottles on my own.) As a result, I stick to D&Q or Whole Foods for most of my beer buying, where I can walk out with a six-pack of a new-to-me Witbier to try after having a fruitful conversation with someone who actually knows his product and is eager to share his knowledge.
A recent trip to ChurchKey in Washington D.C. solidified my feelings on the matter. The veritable mecca of craft beer bars, ChurchKey has a bottle beer list that runs into the 500s and a draft list that routinely features beers unavailable anywhere else in America. But what ChurchKey really has going for it is accessibility.
I fully expected to feel foolish and out of my depth at ChurchKey. Instead, what I found was an incredibly helpful staff and even more useful beer list. Everywhere I looked, bartenders were chatting amiably with patrons, answering questions and pulling little pours for people to sample. Four-ounce tasters of any draft beer were available for between $2 and $4, making it incredibly easy to sample your way through its dazzling selection, and not a single bartender made a face when anyone asked to try this one, and then this one, and then that one, and so on and so forth.
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That's because craft beer presents a learning curve for everyone -- even those who have consumed beer their entire lives. People like those at ChurchKey recognize this and encourage the education process by being as open and positive as possible. And while we have a slew of great craft beer bars -- starting with the old-guard guys like Rudyard's -- I'd love to see even more of that attitude embraced here in Houston.
Our rallying cry as craft beer lovers has to change, too. It's the only way that craft beer will get out of the TABC-sponsored ghetto in Texas and the only way that America's appreciation for a beautifully aged porter or a spice-infused Saison will improve overall. Use your nerdery for good. Cry out a new craft beer battle hymn: "Buy that dude a beer!"