These days, even the diviest of dive bars have at least one or two microbrews on tap -- or bottles gathering dust beneath the bar -- and more and more often, places are stocking their taps with micros and calling themselves beer bars... blurring the line between a place that truly cares about its beer program and a dive that's not nearly as crafty as they'd like you to believe.
To help separate the taps from the saps we consulted Pat Fahey from the Cicerone Certification Program as well as Ben Siegel, owner of the Austin, Texas beer garden Banger's (outfitted with over 100 drafts) to reveal a few tells that show whether a bar is really serious about beer. And a warning: if you're a hypochondriac, you should probably skip straight to number five.
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1. Suds in your suds There are few things more beautiful than the foaming head of a well-carbonated beer, and few things grosser than bubbles streaked down the sides of your pint. Those bubbles mean your glass is not clean. Instead of rising to the top, the carbonation gets stuck on the sides because of some type of debris -- dirt, grease, or sanitizer (if you're lucky). Congratulations. You will never enjoy draft beer again.
2. Tap touching The faucet of a tap should never touch the glass. Would you want to put your mouth on that beer tap? Well, maybe, but it's not sanitary... the exterior of the faucet collects all kinds of germs, including all the ones it procured when you put your mouth on it.
3. Foaming over the faucet Another cardinal sin of cleanliness. Some bartenders think that, in addition to touching the tap to the glass, you should let the beer rise over the faucet in order to reduce excess foam. This soaks the faucet in foam, thus making it even more of a germ powder-keg... a powder keg that just left some powder in your beer.
4. Clean lines Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye's lawyers aren't the only people who hate blurred lines. Nothing has a bigger effect on the quality of your beer than the cleanliness of the draft lines. They should be cleaned weekly by the bar staff. If a bar says their lines are cleaned by the distributor, then they aren't serious about it. You can tell by a buttery or vinegary taste.
5. Through the drinking glass The shaker pint is your archetypical beer drinking vessel: straight sides, slightly wider on top than the bottom. It became popular mainly because it's cheap and easily stackable, but if you walk into a beer bar and that's the only glassware they have, it's a red flag. The shaker pint is far inferior to stemmed glasses at trapping aromas, maintaining a foamy head, and some even say keeping the beer cool. Both our beer gurus made it clear that you don't need a unique glass for every beer, but it's a bad sign if there's nothing but shakers.
6. Portion-to-price balance The size of the pour should vary inversely with the ABV of the beer. It's not necessary to be too precise with this, but if a bar is serving a 4% beer in an 8oz glass, you know they're paying more attention to the bottom line than the ABV.
7. Tasters/half-pints A good beer bar should pride itself on the patron's experience, and that means making sure they're drinking what they really want. To achieve this, Banger's lets patrons taste the goods before committing, and even goes so far as to offer half-pints to give customers the opportunity to try more beers.
8. A well-trained staff If a bar cares about beer, it'll attract and hire people who are like-minded. And if a bar has a complex beer list, even the most knowledgeable clientele will need guidance. Today most serious beer bars put their staffs through a rigorous training program such as the Cicerone exam, which offers several levels of testing, ranging from certified beer server to master cicerone. If your server has gone through the proper training, it guarantees they won't be dunking tap faucets into greasy glasses (that's actually on the test!).
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He now orders beer exclusively in bottles and wears gloves and a surgical mask everywhere he goes. Follow him to more paranoid habits at @Dannosphere.