"I have no problem sending back a glass of corked wine," I mused to my boyfriend on Saturday afternoon at Coaches Pub, where we'd ducked into the Midtown bar in hopes of catching the Texas Longhorns game. "So why do I feel so weird about sending back a bottle of skunked beer?"
The beer in question was the green bottle of Spaten Optimator in front of me, which was sadly light-struck—or, in the more common vernacluar, skunked. I've drunk plenty of bottles of Optimator in my day, which is normally a clean and crisp Doppelbock with a little residual sweetness. I know what Optimator should taste like. This bottle of Optimator had a sour, spoiled taste from beginning to end, with that sulfur-y bitterness that's the telltale sign of skunking.
This is when the beer has been exposed to ultraviolet light for a period of time. Hop-derived molecules, called isohumulones, are basically ripped apart. Some of these parts bind with sulfur atoms to create that skunk character, which is similar in character to a skunk's natural defense and is such a potent compound that parts-per-trillion can be detected and even ruin a beer.
There's a reason beer is normally shipped and stored in kegs, casks, firkins, or other containers which keep the beer in a cool, dark environment. It's the same reason cans are such an effective storage system for beer—in addition to being lighter and therefore cheaper to ship—and why beer bottles are so frequently colored brown (as opposed to clear or green). Brown glass affords a bit more protection than clear or green glass, although beer in brown bottles can still become skunked.
I passed my glass of Optimator to my boyfriend, a beer professional, and asked his opinion. The beer was definitely skunked. Yet there I was, feeling incredibly awkward about sending back an obviously spoiled product. Why?
At least part of the issue, I reasoned, was perception of value. If I'm paying $10 for a glass of wine or $60 for a bottle, I feel it's within reason to send the wine back if it's corked (cork taint being roughly the equivalent of of a skunked, spoiled beer). But if I'm only paying $5 for a bottle of beer, I feel obligated to suck it up and drink the damn beer—skunked or not. Beer tends to cost a lot less than wine, but more than that, its overall value as a product is still perceived as lower. Wine is highbrow and upper class and should be savored and appreciated for its subtle nuances; beer is basic and working class and shut up and drink it.
Even though I don't feel that way, it pained me to admit that I still feel the societal pressure to man up—even as a woman—and drink my beer, at the risk of being seen as a snob or a pain in the ass. Moreover, cork taint in wine is easier to spot than a skunked beer. Some beers are even deliberately skunky-tasting, while other beers are so often light-struck that beer-drinkers assume the spoiled product is how the beer is supposed to taste. I didn't want to be challenged by a bartender and have to defend my tastebuds.
"Send it back," my boyfriend kept encouraging me. "You're not going to drink it. Just be ready with a new order when you do." This, and "be nice" are his two suggestions when sending back a beer—which he always encourages. "Even if you just plain don't like it," he says. "I never have a problem with a customer sending back a beer as long as they're cool about it."
This seems to be the standard agreement in the service industry, where bottles get corked and skunked all the time as simply a general fact of life. You're not a snob for sending back wine or beer, as long as you don't act like one. The cost differential between beer and wine shouldn't be a factor, says Jonathan Honefenger, former sommelier at Tony's: "[It's a] smaller investment but still a waste. Which leads to a bad experience. Which leads to the lack of desire to come back. The game is won by nickels and dimes in our business. Not dollars. The smallest details are what seperate a decent experience to a wonderful one."
And if you run up against that rare bartender who wants to argue with you over the bottle being skunked or not? That's their loss, says Honefenger. "Whether you're right or wrong there is a service and quality you are paying for," he says. "But don't argue, just make sure the guest is happy. It's a long term investment."
In the end, I sent the skunked Optimator back and ordered a Saint Arnold Santo instead. The bartender was perfectly nice; my Santo came out cold and crisp and perfect. My boyfriend and I sat back and waited for our lunch to come out: a Greek salad, a burger, and a side of jalapeño mac 'n' cheese. Ten minutes later, our plates arrived. His mac 'n' cheese contained plenty of jalapeños, but no cheese.
"You can send it back, you know," I told him. He declined. Apparently you only get one send-back per table in the industry, and we'd used mine on the beer. He ate his buttered jalapeño noodles placidly, and I drank every last drop of my beer.