Up until recently, creating a great beer list was fairly simple. Most chains could get away with carrying a little over a dozen beers that fell into a few basic categories. If there 2 to 4 beers on draught, about a half-dozen domestics, three or 4 “premium” beers (in actuality, just more expensive beers than their domestic counterparts but of a similar style), and a few imports on a menu, the beer list was good enough. According to Stephen Beaumont and his 2016 VIBE Conference presentation, good enough is no longer good enough.
Today’s approach to curating an attractive and successful beer menu requires operators to consider several important factors and ask a number of important questions. How much local beer should be on the menu, and how good should it be? Should nationally distributed craft beer brands be on offer? How many taps are enough: a dozen? Two dozen? Several dozen? Since mainstream beer brands still move, how many should be on the menu? Should operators offer popular import brands or niche craft brands? Do the beers that have been selected make sense with the concept’s food menu? Are staff members equipped to sell every beer on the menu?
Beaumont also broke down beer flavors, styles and characteristics. Beer runs the gamut of flavor, from light and refreshing to bold and satisfying, sweet and malty to hoppy and bitter, dark and roasted to pale and fruity, standard ABV (4.5% to 5.0%) to strong (6.5% and above), sessionable to food-friendly to nightcaps, and everything in between. Operators need to put together a balanced menu that pairs well with their food menu. A disconnect between the beer and food or an unbalanced menu won’t appeal to beer lovers or the beer curious.
When it comes to beer styles, operators have all types of options from which to choose. There are the basics like basic Lagers, lights, Pilsners, Pale Ales, IPAs, Porters and Stouts, wheat beers (Weissbeer, Wit, etc.), and seasonals (fruit, Bock, winter warmer, etc.), specialties such as those that are Belgian influenced (Saison, Tripel, Abbey Dubbel), strong and dark barrel-aged beers, Sour beers, Barley Wines and other Strong Ales, Brown Ales, Dark Lagers, specialty Stouts (Imperial, Oatmeal, Smoked), and what Beaumont refers to as oddball creations, local gems, and international styles. Within those categories are the beers that have led the trends the past 5 years: barrel-aged beers, Sour beers, Saisons, Goses, session IPAs, and the Pilsners, Kölsches, and Golden Ales. Research and distributor input is a must when choosing what will work to fulfill operator and guest needs.
Since brand loyalty is certainly dying if it isn’t dead already, the word that should be on every operator’s mind is “diversity.” Beaumont suggests the following in order to build a beer list that will draw customers through the doors:
- Balance the weak with the strong.
- Approach the beer list in the same way as the wine list.
- Listen to sales reps but also taste, think and consider.
- Ignore the mainstream beer drinker at your peril.
- Remember to deliver on the WOW Factor.
- IPAs are great…but so are many other beer styles.
- Support draught beer with cans and bottles, and vice versa.
- The beer experience is critical to success.
Operators also need to keep their theme and cuisine in mind when putting together their beer menu. For instance:
- Italian restaurants should carry interesting Italian beers and Mexican restaurants should carry Mexican beers, but all operators should keep in mind that the beer experience may be found in great food and beer pairing.
- Steakhouses should carry steak-friendly beers.
- Milder beers work well for seafood restaurants.
- When selecting beers for the menu, operators should taste them with their food.
- Every selection must count.
But the most important thing for operators to keep in mind when selecting their beers is that their service staff is the front line of their restaurant. They need to be given the right tools to sell the beer experience properly.