We Got Beer!

Whether you believe craft beer is breaking out of the hipster/geek niche it’s occupied for 25 years to emerge as the new wine, or you think it’s a flash in the pan, the fact remains: Only Irish whiskey has grown faster than craft beer during the past six years. Even in the worst economic times we’ve seen in 20 years, craft continues to thrive.

Why is a question for analysts; how to make a buck off it is our concern. A good specialty beer program not only can make you more money per tap or cooler, but it also can draw significant traffic to your establishment or even give you an entirely new image.

“We were a bar and grill for 30 years,” explains Andy Scoggins, vice president of culinary and beverage at Ruby Tuesday, the casual dining operation based in Maryville, Tenn., that has 900-plus locations worldwide. “We realized we’d become a dated concept, and re-branded to high-quality casual dining. We’ve made every touch-point more contemporary. Craft beer is one of those touch-points. It fits with trying to upgrade the brand and compete on a higher level. We took a craft beer position.”

If you want a “craft beer position,” first decide where craft beer fits in your overall program. At Ruby Tuesday, craft beer is an add-on — significant, but definitely subordinate to food. Meanwhile at Winking Lizard, a 14-unit regional operation based in Bedford Heights, Ohio, beer is a major part of the identity. Its “World Tour” is a loyalty program that rewards customers for imbibing each of the 100 different beers on the World Tour checklist throughout the course of a year.

“It’s part of our culture,” says partner John Lane of the beer offering at Winking Lizard. “We’re recognized for that. Food still is the loyalty piece, the most important piece. But this program adds a lot.”

Even an all-out beer bar still needs perspective. Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia was a first-tier beer bar the day it opened in 2008, but managing partner Brendan Hartranft knew what he had to do to keep the doors open. “Every piece has its percentage of importance,” he notes, citing beer, food, value and service, “and it’s all equal. If someone doesn’t like their burger, I can’t say, ‘Well, okay, but how was the beer?’”

Strategy on Tap
Next, pick your beers. Don’t rely on one source; scope out local beer hot spots, talk to your wholesalers and cruise web sites like www.BeerAdvocate.com. You’ll need to either become or hire a beer person — someone who’s passionate but understands that sales targets and turnover come before having “the best taps in town.”

Remember, it’s a moving target; trying new beers is a big part of the customer’s fun.

Constant change means constant staff training. Staff beer knowledge is crucial. Tasting is essential; you can’t describe a beer if you haven’t tried it. Servers should know three to five words about each beer, like “smooth,” “malty,” “spicy” and “hoppy.” From there, they need to know what those words mean, at least one other similar beer and something on the menu to recommend as an option. 

“When we roll out a new beer, we educate the team — flavor profile, food pairings, how to sell it,” Scoggins says. “We also educate the GM on craft beer: what it is and how they get the choices on their list. They have to sell it through in the right amount of time.”

Lane hosts a yearly meeting at Winking Lizard. “We roll out the new beers and any changes to the World Tour,” he says. “[Employees] get a copy of the book. They taste the beers a couple of times a year. It takes a new person quite a while — it’s a lot of information — but the long-term employees mentor them.”

When Lane says “the book,” he’s talking about a collection of information about the beers that’s part of customer education as well. Don’t overlook customer education because the more they know, the more they want.

Here’s one free tip from a long-suffering customer: Tell your staff members to delete the words “I don’t really like beer” from their vocabulary. Even if they really don’t like beer, that’s the last thing a customer wants to hear.

Special Delivery
Once you’ve got the beer, make sure it gets to the customer the way the brewer intended. At www.draughtquality.org, there is a free PDF from the Brewers Association that may be the most comprehensive source of information on design, construction and maintenance of draft systems available. Use it, and keep those lines clean!

The glassware is important, too. Keep it “beer clean,” and don’t serve craft beer in a frosted glass: Frost melts and waters down the taste.

What glasses to use is another consideration. “I use a bunch of different glasses,” Lane explains. “I have our ‘high ABV glass,’ a 10-ounce Belgian bell glass. We pour Orval and Duvel at the table in their branded glasses; we pour Stella draft in the Stella glass.”

With the demands of a much larger operation, Ruby Tuesday keeps it simpler. “We have a true pint that we’re proud of, and a large glass,” says Scoggins. “We’re not going to get into more than two sizes right now.”

Hartranft walks a line between the two. “People really like the nice glasses, but they steal them,” he explains. “They do. And glassware makes the price of the beer go up, whether people want to admit it or not.” He serves mostly in sleeve “pint” glasses, but he puts aside some nice glasses for the finer beers.

Save some time and attention for merchandising and marketing your beer program as well. Winking Lizard’s World Tour has taken a life of its own; Lane had to cap the membership at 5,000 this year. Ruby Tuesday has a devoted menu page for its beer program, while Memphis Taproom’s Hartranft relies on word of mouth and skillful press relations.

Finally, remember: You don’t have to leave mainstream beer behind. Even at the Winking Lizard, where 28 taps is the norm, a lot of mainstream beer is sold. “We’re [high-end beer importer] Merchant du Vin’s largest account in the country,” Lane says proudly, “and we’re also Labatt Blue’s largest account.”

So now, get those taps on-line, get your staff fired up about beer variety and spread the word. You’ve got beer! NCB


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