When is it OK to send a beer back?

This piece originally appeared in print and online for in the November 2018 edition of The Growler, Ontario’s Beer Guide.

I recently had occasion to visit a nearby outpost of a franchise steak restaurant.

It was one of those rare moments in our lives as parents when my wife and I realized that we were out, childless, hungry at the dinner hour and could actually sit down and enjoy a meal together.

This is, of course, what franchise steak restaurants are for. They are a known entity: You will have a large and decent piece of meat that you will pay a large and decent price for. You will have the same two appetizers you always order at their other locations. And you will enjoy timely and courteous service. Deep booths, dim lighting, these are all things you are familiar with.

I like an independently-owned, funky, and unique restaurant as much as the next casual food snob, but when you’ve got 90 minutes and no margin for error, give me the comforting sameness and uniform service standards of a reasonably solid franchise every time.

Of course, the one unknown at places like these is always the beer selection.

Sure, things in Ontario have improved. Most decent restaurants no longer just pour a monotonous selection of lagers decided based on whether Molson or Labatt was the last company to send in a sales rep with an expense account, but still, the franchise restaurant, with its barely contained corporate vibes, is always something of a gamble.

That’s why, on my unexpected night out, I was pleased to see a couple of semi-decent local offerings being poured amid the usual macro shit. Larger craft brewers you could likely guess, but respectable and welcome accompaniments to my prime rib (which is coming off the bone tonight at medium rare, as it always does, of course). Unfortunately, however, when I ordered and received my beer, something was clearly wrong with it. It was flat.

So, now I was faced with a dilemma. And I was caught off guard outside of my natural habitat—a craft beer bar or the safety of my own garage. Do I simply drink the mediocre-at-best beer and eat my prime rib? (Did I mention it was medium rare tonight, sir?) Or do I attempt to flag down my server, who is currently being hit on by thick-necked, polo-shirt-wearing salesmen happily sucking down Shock Top at the bar?

Is it really so bad that I need to send it back? Do I really need to be that guy? Why can’t I just enjoy things? The voice in my head was obstinate. Why are you like this?

Or was that my wife’s voice?

But really, when is it OK to send back beer?

Lauren Fitzgerald is a Certified Cicerone who works in the restaurant industry in Stratford, Ontario. I spoke with her recently about my dilemma. Was I just being high maintenance, or was I within my rights to send back my subpar beer?

“It is hard to find a beer so bad that it is undrinkable,” she told me. “People have been drinking Bud Light for decades after all and they seem to be fine with that.”

“That being said, there are definitely certain instances where sending back a beer is acceptable,” she says.

Fitzgerald cites infected beer as a definite cause for sending back a pint.

“Unlike if there is an infection or bacteria in food, infected beer is unlikely to physically harm you,” she explains. “However, it can be very unpleasant to drink. Some common off flavours that are easy to detect are vegetal flavours, staleness, cardboard flavours, buttery popcorn, or sourness in a beer that is not supposed to be sour. Some of these off flavours can be very unpleasant and any sort of quality control should weed these beers out before they are served to the public, but, unfortunately, it is common for these things to slip through the cracks.”

While sending back a beer because it is infected is a no-brainer, I’d probably be unlikely to get into too much detail about what I thought was wrong. There is a clear and present risk of sounding like a dick if you start throwing words like acetaldehyde or chlorophenol at a busy server. Just describe to your server what you’re tasting and tell them it’s off. They’ll probably just replace your beer.

Another reason Fitzgerald says you might send back a beer is if it is simply “bad,” but then of course, this is pretty subjective.

“I have seen people send back Bellwoods Brewery beers or Burdock beers—two of the best breweries in Ontario, in my opinion—and I’ve seen people take a sip of a beautifully and painstakingly crafted wild cider from Revel Ciders and call it awful,” she says. “Each time my heart breaks a little because these are places going out on a limb to create beautiful, individual products but they just weren’t to the tastes of the person who ordered them or he or she wasn’t expecting what was poured.”

A bad beer is something that is clearly unbalanced. Fitzgerald says a bad beer might include “an IPA that is so bitter and resiny that it coats the tongue and leaves an aggressive aftertaste, an amber style beer that finishes cloyingly sweet or a stout that contains so much dark malt that it becomes burnt and acrid tasting.”

Personally, I would probably send back a beer because I didn’t like it, but I’m also unlikely to order an entire pint of something I think might not be to my tastes. If it’s a style that is new to you, a brewery with a questionable track record, or something you’re just not familiar with, ask questions or request a sample before you dive in.

Of course, the first and simplest reason to send back beer is if it is improperly served. This can be anything from warm beer, beer served in a dirty glass, or under-carbonated beer like the one I was served. All of these things mean the establishment is doing something wrong and it is actually pretty unlikely at a franchise steak restaurant that usually has high standards. Fitzgerald concurs, and says: “All of these things are relatively simple fixes that establishments should be made aware of and should take ownership for.”

And so when I did finally get the attention of my server, I politely explained that my beer was flat and asked for something else. She gave me a crinkled-nose look that confirmed she thought I was wrong but apologized profusely and retreated to get me my second choice instead.

My second beer arrived with much ceremony alongside my prime rib, which was a perfect medium rare, by the way. I took a sip. My server anxiously awaited my reaction and I nodded my approval so she could get back to the thirsty salesmen.

This beer was flat, too. I drank a third of it and switched to wine.

7 thoughts on “When is it OK to send a beer back?

  1. I wouldn’t hesitate to send a beer back. Flat? Infected? We pay big bucks for beer in pubs, and I do send beer back but make sure it is for a good reason though. Ben, I would of sent the second one back too.

  2. I would have sent the second one back as well, suggesting that the gas cylinder needs changing. Staff were probably wondering why the beer was frothy and difficult to pour? Once the gas bottle is nearly empty the gas which is compressed and dissolved in the beer comes out and lazily aids the dispense.

  3. A beer being flat is not always the fault of the establishment…trust me. The cylinder needs to be out for sometime before the gas in the keg and the carb in the beer itself dissipates, more often than not it won’t pour at all before it will pour flat, mind you my experience is with 30 foot long lines and not with a lowboy fridge with a tower on top. I have had enough kegs sent that are way under-carbonated and the level at which we force gas into the kegs there is nothing we can do to solve a brewery sending under-carbonated beer.

    1. I do need to add it is 100% an establishments fault for serving a beer if it comes under-carbonated and they don’t pull it. I would like to think our staff would thank you for letting us know, try the beer to make sure you aren’t full of crap and pull it.

  4. I find dirty glasses the main reason I send beer back. We should be sending any beer that doesn’t smell,look or taste right. We pay too much money now for a pint.

    As a Master Beer Sommelier, I find many restaurants and breweries need training in pouring and serving beer.

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