Basic Beer Knowledge For Bar Staff

Solo Beer Glass Half Full Being Held By Bartender in a Tulip Glass-1
// By Kyle Thacker // , Mar 22, 2019

Topics: Bartender Training

A consistent flow of new beers, breweries, and bars are feeding the beer loving public each day. If you're at a bar and ask for a beer list, chances are there will be a brew you've never had or maybe even heard of. With such a dynamic market, it's important for bars and restaurants to provide training on basic beer knowledge for bar and waitstaff. 


This post is a crash course online beer class to help you understand the basics of beer.


Why spend time on beer training for staff?


As mentioned above, the beer market is an ever-changing, mercurial industry. Trends peak and diminish, then tastes change.


But there are also some constants when it comes to beer like established standards and styles that are worth understanding so you can communicate with guests to inform and sell.


Here's why you should take the time to learn about beer. 


Money to Make

  • Profit margins on beer can be high. Draft beer costs run on average between 15 - 18 percent of draft beer sales, which gives beer sales an 82 to 85 percent profit margin. And bottled beer comes in a little higher at 24 percent - 28 percent. Comparatively, industry benchmarks for wine show average costs running between 35 - 45 percent of wine sales.


Build Customer Relationships

Reduce Staff Turnover

  • The industry turnover rate for restaurants was 73% in 2017. Losing employees is one of the biggest challenges that restaurants face. Training is a great way to keep employees engaged and feeling like they are getting value from the job outside of income.

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State of the beer industry


Before we dive deeper, let's check in on some craft beer data.


Though 997 craft breweries officially opened for business in 2017 in the U.S., an average of over two-and-a-half new breweries per day, craft beer only made up 12.7% of all beers sales in the U.S. in 2017. In 2018, there were 7,000 active breweries operating in the states.


In what seems like a slap to the bearded faces of craft brew lovers, 2017 marked the first year that the top 3 selling beers in the U.S. were all light beers. Bud Light led the way, followed by Coors Light, and Miller lite.


With that in mind, it's important to remember that many drinkers still prefer light and mass produced pale lagers. This is important when considering how to train servers and what to train them on for beer.


Training for beer service


Strip away condescension 


Knowing the small market size of craft beer, it's safe to assume that despite the growth of craft beer, many people are not regular craft drinkers, and may prefer a bud light to a megadeath-hopped IPA.


Being unassuming when dealing with beer drinkers new to craft goes a long way to making them feel comfortable and helping them find a beer that they enjoy. Teaching staff to be patient and open minded is key to stripping away pretension.


Ask Questions 


If a customer is unsure of what to order, the best practice is to ask questions to determine their preferences. Make the experience about the customer, not your own preferences or what the newest, hippest beer on tap is.


Leading with questions puts the guest in charge and allows them to make their own decisions.


Give Tastes


Tasting is important for deciding on a beer. Especially if you have a large draft beer selection. Training staff on how to handle giving out beer tastes is important. Limit tastings to 1 or 2 per guest, and make sure that there is a standard pour size for tastings.


A taste should lead to a sale, not a free round.


Beer basics for training


Ale vs Lager


One of the most fundamental elements of beer knowledge is the difference between an ale and lager. It's helpful for identifying certain characteristics of a beer and what traits you can reasonably expect from a beer without actually tasting it.




The type yeast used and the traits of that yeast is what yields the majority of differences between an ale and a lager. The yeast used for ales ferments from the top down, while the yeast used in lager ferments from the bottom up.


Alcohol Content


The different types of yeast used in the two basic beer styles will handle alcohol differently. Ale yeasts can survive in an environment with a higher level of alcohol than lager yeast can. Which results in ales having typically higher rates (or at least the option for higher rates) of alcohol by volume than lagers.




Lager yeasts can survive at colder temperatures than ale yeast. The colder the fermentation is, then the slower the fermentation process, and the clearer the beer will be. Additionally, lagers undergo a period of cold storage, which separates solids so they can be filtered out, adding even more clarity to the beer. This results in lagers having a lighter color compared to ales.


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The most popular ale styles


These are popular ales in America, and this list will focus on American styles of these beers. Some of the notes on color and taste have been aided by the the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines.


India Pale Ale


Color: Gold to copper colored. High alcohol IPAs, or double IPAs, can be darker.

Taste: Bitterness, rounded by some malty sweetness

Background: The India Pale Ale originally started as a British ale, but the common version found in America is a hopped up, ultra bitter version of the Brit's brew. British IPAs are less bitter, with more malt presence, but still maintaining a dry mouthfeel.

Popular Examples: Dogfish Head 90 Minute, Bell's Two Hearted


Pale Ale


Color: Deep golden to copper or light brown

Taste: Low malt character, resulting in less balance than IPA. Medium to medium-high bitterness, often "piney" resin flavor that is commonly found in American hops, especially California style pale ales.

Background: One of the most popular beer styles, again, originating as a British style. American pale ales are more aggressively hopped than the original British ales. Pale ales, particularly those with less hop character, ie., bitterness, are great beers for drinkers who are used to pilsner and other hoppy lagers.

Popular Examples: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Dale's Pale Ale


Wheat Ale


Color: Straw to pale

Taste: Low maltiness, no perceived hop flavor, with a creaminess from the wheat. Some light notes of fruity flavors, and spiced with coriander and orange peel (Belgian style, witbier) , which impart a slight spiciness.

Background: These beers are of Belgian origin. Wheat beers are also represented by German styles like Hefeweizen, Berliner Weisse, and Weizen beers. They are generally cloudy beers that still contain yeast solids from being "bottle-conditioned." A practice where fermentation is finished while in the bottle instead of prior to bottling.

Popular Examples: Allagash White


Brown Ale


Color: Deep copper to very dark brown

Taste: Notes of roasted malt, hints caramel and chocolate aromas. A brown ale tastes like a baked good, balanced by a bitterness from hops.

Background: Another import from Britain. And it hits on another theme, American brewers love hops and bitterness. The British style is much less hoppy, with toasty, biscuit-like characteristics. This is a great fall beer.

Popular Examples: Funky Buddha French Toast




Color: Black

Taste: Coffee notes, roasted malts, some sweetness with hints of caramel and chocolate. Some hop flavor, often a full bodied beer.

Background: Stouts are big, bold beers. They are dark, even black in color. The deep color of stout is why a pale ale is called pale, even though it's often a rich copper color. In the early days of English ale making, beer choices were limited, and so the comparison between pale ales and stouts was much more clear.

Popular Styles: Founder's Breakfast Stout, North Coast Old Rasputin,


*A note on Stouts and Porters


These two beers are often confused. And for good reason. There isn't a big difference between the two styles. The murky origin story leaves us with little insight that feels helpful, but a stout is generally considered a descendent of a porter.

The name stout originally meant strong, or a beer boasting a high alcohol by volume. The same way we use the term Imperial today. The name stout derived from patrons ordering a stout porter, or high-alcohol porter. The only stylistic difference is that porters are often made with unmalted roasted barley, which imparts flavors associated with coffee. Porters are generally made with malted barley.


The most popular lager beer styles


Lagers are split between two categories: light and dark. Germany might be considered the king of lagers, which is why it's not surprising that the king of American beers, Budweiser (well, now, Bud Light), is from Anheuser-Busch Brewery, started by German immigrants.




Color: Straw to gold

Taste: Low malt, medium to high hop flavor. Can include citrus and fruity hop notes, noticeable bitterness.

Background: American style Pilsners utilize pre-prohibition styles which use rice and/or corn as significant ingredients. German and Bohemian-style Pilsners have more pronounced malt flavors, with less hop flavor than American styles.

Popular Examples: Victory Prima Pils, Firestone Walker Pivo Pils




Color: Straw to gold

Taste: Low malt, low hops, fruity notes, a dry and crisp beer.

Background: A German style of beer.

Popular Examples: Trillum Sprang, Metropolitan Krankshaft




Color: Pale to golden

Taste: Malt flavor, very lightly toasted, low hops with a medium body

Background: Originated in Munich in Germany to compete with Czech Pilsner's popularity. More malt and bready-ness than a Pilsner with less hop bite.

Popular Examples: Surly Helles


The most popular dark lager styles




Color: Light brown to brown

Taste: Low maltiness but it imparts chocolate and roasted flavors without presence of hops.

Background: This beers gets its color and distinct roast flavors from the Munich malt.

Popular Examples: Not a lot of popular dunkel style beers are brewed in the States. Try the Surly Schadenfreude.




Color: Copper to dark brown

Taste: Toasted malted barley, some caramel and coffee flavors, no hop flavor. High alcohol.

Background: These are high alcohol beers, the doppel meaning "double," like Double IPAs.

Popular Examples: Smuttynose S'muttonator

Kyle Thacker

About the author, Kyle Thacker

Kyle is the Marketing Director for Backbar. Before helping Backbar connect with the restaurant industry, he managed multiple bars in Chicago, with a love of whiskey and cocktails.

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