So you want to serve craft beer. Updated Jan 28th, 2014
The cultural impact that craft beer has had on the restaurant and bar industry is irreversible. Similar to what happened in wine, coffee and other foodie cultures, this new American consciousness has even forced the hand of macrobrewers to produce more interesting flavors and compete on value propositions far beyond availability, cold, and price. As a result, consumers have much higher expectations for the establishments they frequent, from Michelin-star restaurants to dive bars, and spend higher premiums on beer than ever before.
Many new bars and restaurants opening are incorporating the role of a beer director or beer buyer in their operating plans. But for places that have long-standing positions in our communities or intended to focus on the food, adding this role to accommodate a new customer demand is difficult. Asking the manager, or the bartender, to add this to their long list of duties is also challenging. That challenge stems from misunderstanding the need altogether — the customer is often looking for more than just craft beer, they’re looking for beer to be taken seriously. Regardless of how you find the resources and the know-how, taking beer seriously in your establishment requires a change in our frame of mind. Here’s three rules to live by.
Rule #1: Curate
Bars touting 30 beers on tap and 100s of bottles make an exciting first impression. But outside of a few craft beer meccas, generating velocity in any of these beers proves challenging once the opening buzz wears off and customers find their way to their favorite beers. Even some of the best craft bars in a city like Chicago will tell you that they sell more Allagash White than almost everything else combined. That means that while customers want variety, familiarity plays an even stronger role in the final decision. And balancing the number of offerings with the reality of consumer trends and tastes requires getting to know your market inside and out.
Rather than playing the short game of wowing your customer, take the long view and focus on piecing together a shorter tap list that changes often (because you’re selling through!), and pulls from both local brands, and far-away favorites. Do the work to educate your staff weekly, if not daily, on new offerings so they can introduce the beers, and the stories behind them. Don’t treat the bottle list like a spillover either — you have to curate that just as thoughtfully, or your fridge quickly becomes filled with a few bottles of everything, and your velocity turns to mud.
If you don’t have anyone on staff that can fulfill this role, you don’t always need to hire in full-time. Consult with a beer expert that understands your region, a trusted distributor, or even a brewery owner to get their take on things. And listen to your customers' requests — especially the ones repeatedly asking for the beer list. More often than not, people are honest about their favorite beers, and their least favorites, and they can tell you why.
Rule #2: Cultivate
Despite craft beer’s surge, there are still a lot of converts out there to be had. Even if they’ve ventured, but not yet gained, a little encouragement is all it usually takes to drive customers toward your higher-end offerings. A lot of restaurant owners are still hesitant to let beer compete with their wine list or cocktails due to a perceived lack of premiums, but as the prices on small-batch beers and artisanal offerings continue to rise, beer is quickly becoming a viable option at all levels of the industry. And that means it’s time to cultivate new beer customers and grow staff awareness and appreciation for the brew.
Create a relationship between your food and beer, and use that as a way to help customers explore their palates. Selling a Gose might seem esoteric at first, but describing a refreshing, tart wheat beer that pairs perfectly with their meal suddenly has their attention in a different way — and it’s an experience they’ll remember.
For bars, it’s important to provide opportunities for customers to taste beers before committing, especially side-by-side. One beer’s flavor in isolation is difficult to discern, but next to another beer of similar or radically different flavor, and suddenly your customer is developing their palate and able to articulate their tastes. The next time they visit, you can guide them to another confident choice. Cultivating a palate is all about trial and error, and the bars that make this experience possible gain incredible loyalty from their customers.
Rule #3: Command
You need to stay on top of the products you’re serving. The single greatest threat to craft beer is a lack of quality and consistency. But it’s not just the brewers that are responsible for the end product — bars and restaurants control the storage, temperature, and service of each beer. And while many of these factors are second nature for traditional beer service, many craft beers require more time and attention than their pasteurized predecessors. Add to that the growing popularity of wild, sour, and brett beers, and you’ve got a recipe for infected tap lines.
Basic storage rules apply — keep it reasonably cold, and keep it dark. I’ve ordered $20 bottles of European saisons at Michelen-star restaurants only to find the beer skunked from light exposure. This could have happened at any step of the distribution process, but in the end, the restaurant is supplying the experience I’ll remember. Test everything before it gets to the customer — it’s the fun part of the job.
More importantly, maintain draft lines. Many of the beers being served today carry more residual sugars, bacteria (the good kind) and flavor-imparting ingredients that will taint a draft line and ruin the experience for your customers. Flush the lines every two weeks with a caustic solution, dissemble faucets and hand-clean, and flush the lines again. A few times a year, a more thorough cleaning is in order, and most major markets have draft techs that can provide this service. Use them.
For more information on beer service and draft maintenance, visit the Brewers Association and the Cicerone program online.