Building a Better Beer List

From popular domestics to crafts and imported specialty beers, a beer menu should offer quality and quantity.  From popular domestics to crafts and imported specialty beers, a beer menu should offer quality and quantity.


Consider your respective food, wine and cocktail menus. They are undoubtedly well thought out, meticulously engineered components of your business. After all, they’re your selling tools. Can the same be said for your beer list? If the answer is “no,” you’re missing a huge opportunity.
With wine and cocktails dominating the scene for the last few years, the beer list has been somewhat neglected. Though it may not be the easy sell it once was when a few major brands dominated the scene, beer is nonetheless immensely profitable. A fresh approach at designing a more efficient list may be all it takes to tap into greater profits.

A Balancing Act
With a seemingly infinite number of beers to choose from, crafting the ideal list for your venue can be daunting. According to David Commer, president of Commer Beverage Consulting, one of the biggest traps operators fall into is carrying too many “me too” brands (beers everyone else carries) or carrying everything under the sun with no real focus. He recommends beer selections be “a good mix of top-selling popular brands, including domestic, import, craft/specialty and local/regional offerings. If beer is central to [a bar’s] theme and/or it offers its own brands, build around that, including a selection of niche beers like lambics and beer cocktails.”

Developing a strong relationship with a well-established brewer can offer long-term benefits. Chris Stahlschmidt, manager of draught marketing for Anheuser-Busch, explains: “We interview operators to understand their needs and opportunities. We focus recommendations on training (proper pouring, eliminating waste and maximizing profits), marketing (upgraded beer glassware and towers), innovations, brand selection, profitable package mix (draught and aluminum bottles) and beer systems.” 

Tap Into Trends
Sales reps, brewers and bartenders all have their fingers on the pulse of what’s hot, both locally and nationally, so listen up. “We utilize the on-premise category management department to understand the operator’s needs, uncover insights, provide recommended solutions, communicate proposed plans and track results,” Stahlschmidt remarks. “We invest in a library of data sources and tools to assess the alcohol industry — on-premise, segment, consumer, market and account trends — for better recommendations.”

Also, be responsive to your own crowd — are they into canned beers or moving toward Belgians? Mary Palmer, general manager at Silvertone Bar & Grill in Boston, says Silvertone started carrying Miller Lite because a group of construction workers working on a site nearby drank it. “Although that building project is over, it caught on with other guests, so it remains,” she says. Additionally, “We had a lot of guests asking for cider, so we brought on the Harpoon brand.”

Chain restaurants in particular should strive to set themselves apart with more inspired offerings, and that’s exactly what Ruby Tuesday aims for, says Andy Scoggins, vice president of culinary and beverage for the Marysville, Tenn.-based chain. “We want to have the best craft beer selection in our segment. Companywide, our approved .beer list consists of over 80 import, traditional American and hard-to-find craft brands, such as Fat Tire and Dogfish Head, and although we are unable to carry all of them in every restaurant, managers have the ability to offer local favorites. We work hard to stay on top of emerging trends and are always searching for new and unique selections.”

Proper Presentation
A list that’s either too bland or too overwhelming will quickly turn a customer off. At the TapWerks Ale House & Café in Oklahoma City, where they serve more than 200 different beers, menu management is a priority, general manager Geoff Bond says. “We try and keep the menu as user-friendly as possible. It’s organized from light to amber to dark and we include ABV information and price.” The list is printed on a separate menu (always a good idea) with country of origin flags placed next to each beer. He also has a large chalkboard above the bar that promotes new or temporary brews.
How a beer is presented can affect future sales. “Operators can elevate the image of beer by using special, iconic glassware that heightens the appearance, taste, aroma and operator profits,” Stahlschmidt says. “The new look of draft towers has made the bar and the consumer’s draft experience more appealing.”

Fan Favorites
Whether it’s nachos or clam chowder, most restaurants feature a few popular, inexpensive dishes that keep customers coming back. A well-priced, quality beer will do the same. With its location in a large city like Boston, Silvertone’s management could easily charge high prices but they don’t. “We don’t believe in overcharging for anything,” Palmer says. “Miller High Life — our house favorite — has been $3 since we opened in March 1997. I’m always shocked to go to another bar and pay $5!” Another option is an inexpensive upgrade. “In addition to offering great variety, we are also committed to providing great value,” Ruby Tuesday’s Scoggins comments. “We proudly use a true 16-ounce pint glass, not a smaller look-alike version, and guests can order a 22-ounce tall draft for only 99 cents more.” Additionally, Ruby Tuesday’s Draft Beer of the Day features a premium beer at a domestic draft price.

Don’t Get Stale
Much like chefs often change their food menus, reevaluating the beer list should be routine. “When consumers get the brands they want and have a good experience, they become loyal customers, ” Stahlschmidt says. “Operators should review their beer mix monthly to make sure each and every brand is generating profits. If a glass of beer has a high profit but doesn’t sell, then it is not really profitable for the operator.”

Luxury Is No Loser
Don’t shy away from high-end crafts and imports for fear of investing in a loss. Think of these beers as a lobster salad or Porter House steak — people will treat themselves every once in awhile, and chances are they’ll come back for seconds. “Belgians, lambics, etc. aren’t as unprofitable as you might think,” Bond notes. “People are more educated and, even in today’s economy, will pay for quality.” He recommends offering smaller portions for very expensive drafts, which drops the price, reduces waste and encourages experimentation.

Beyond Beer
“We’re seeing mixologists experimenting with beer and spirits and it’s catching on,” Bond says. “Beer mixes, as we call them, are a great way to expose people to new beers.” Popular mixes include the Monaco, with Harp, Chambord and Sprite, and the Irish Car Bomb, a half-pint of Guinness with a blended shot of Jameson and Baileys dropped into the bottom. “We’ll also mix beers — we’ll take a peche or framboise and mix it with Hoegaarden. People have a taste for something new.” 

The Daily Special
If Bond wants to promote a new beer or push one before it loses shelf life, he’ll often drop the price. But if he really wants it to go fast, he turns to the Internet. “We do a lot of social networking with Twitter and Facebook. We promote rare beers and many sell as soon as we Tweet about it. It’s lightning in a bottle.”

To effectively sell beer, staff must be educated. In addition to trainings and tastings, Bond prints out descriptions for servers to keep in their books. Sometimes he’ll offer an incentive to move a beer, which is usually quite motivational.

The Little Things
Success often lies in the details. “Bars should remember that their beer selection as well as the quality of their product can rule their establishment in or rule them out as a consideration for potential clientele,” Commer remarks. “Having a broad beer offering does little good if adequate attention is not given to maintaining quality through clean beer lines and drains as well as offering appropriate, clean glassware.”

Ultimately, the best menu will be the one that’s most efficiently managed. As Commer says, “A smaller list delivered well will beat a bigger list delivered poorly.” NCB

Food & Beer: Quite a Pair
With the craft and micro boom, beer has evolved into a diverse beverage that’s a perfect complement to cuisine. Charlie Storey, senior vice president of marketing for Boston-based Harpoon Brewery says: “Beer pairing and beer menus are a growing trend that’s becoming increasingly popular. Being able to pair beer with food is a core competency for a craft brewer. It’s a good opportunity for brewers to get out and share their passion for and knowledge about craft beer.” Many operators offer wine recommendations printed on the menu; the same can be done with beer. “Pairings should bring out the best in both the beer and the dish,” Storey says. “Most suppliers will want to ensure that their products will be prominent on a menu, but will also suggest additional offerings for the menu to address the restaurant’s customer base.”


Collaborating with a brewer to host a dinner can set your venue apart from the competition. “Beer dinners offer restaurants exposure to a customer base they may not have otherwise connected to, and vice versa. Aligning with a well-respected brewery can be a strong endorsement for a restaurant. Some suppliers might have large consumer databases through which they promote special menus or events, which can be invaluable. In addition, we typically host beer dinners on slow nights for the restaurants. This brings bodies in the door and fills up seats,” Storey says.


Why not go one step further and try cooking with beer? TapWerks Ale House & Cafe routinely features dishes made with brews, such as Guinness Beef Barley Stew and Fish & Chips with Fuller’s London Pride-infused beer batter. TapWerks also uses Lindemans lambics as reductions for desserts and has a decadent fudge topping infused with Guinness. Creative dishes not only generate repeat business, they inspire patrons to order brews to complement their meals.

Making the Menu
Tips from beverage consultant David Commer.

  1. Pay appropriate attention to the beer section of the menu

  2. Offer the right brand selection for your operation

  3. Offer a balance of draft and bottle selections

  4. Price offerings to encourage trading up to higher profit and/or unique offerings

  5. When offering lesser-known styles or brands of beer, provide some description to encourage trial


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