In case you haven’t heard, beer is the new wine.
Not just any beer, mind you. We’re talking craft beer — those stouts, pilsners, doppelbocks, hefeweizens, tripels and other odd-sounding beer styles that are bubbling into the mainstream after many years of near obscurity.
With the brew-ha-ha over craft beer these days, it’s hard not to heed the siren song of such heady news. But with so many beers and so little time (and space and money), it can be a bit daunting to know where to start when introducing craft beer into your establishment, let alone knowing which ones to serve.
Starting a craft beer program doesn’t have to mean high drama on the menu. Others have already been there, and have distilled what they’ve learned into a few easy steps that promise to help make craft beer a growing and flowing part of your establishment.
Take Baby Steps
Tapping successfully into the craft beer market begins with small steps. Try adding a local craft beer to a couple of your existing taps. Or start with a few bottles, advises Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore. and operator of the Web site JeffreyMorgenthaler.com, where he writes about bartending and mixology.
“A small bottle selection can be a good way to introduce craft beer to your bar,” he says. “You don’t have to invest as much into it as you would kegs. You can purchase smaller amounts, so you can afford to be more esoteric and varied in the beers you select. Plus, it’s a great way to see how beer fits into your establishment.”
Also keep in mind that many craft beers aren’t pasteurized, so they have a shorter shelf life than mass market brews. A small bottle collection helps you become accustomed to monitoring the stock levels so you’re assured the beer is fresh, according to Barry Chandler, who operates ManageYourBar.com out of Columbus, Ohio.
“It helps you minimize the downside by not investing too heavily in stocks of beers that can’t be returned,” says Chandler, who consults with bars and clubs to help them manage their bottom line.
Know Your Guest
Now comes the head-spinning, yet fun, part: selecting the beers.
Morgenthaler suggests that for most establishments it makes sense to offer a variety — after all, that’s what makes craft beer so intriguing. A selection that represents a lighter-colored beer, a medium-colored one and a dark one that also offers a range in the spectrum from sweet to bitter or roasty can usually cover most requests. A starting lineup like that might include a golden ale, hefeweizen or pale lager (light-colored and sweet), an American amber (medium-colored and sweet with a bit more bitter), a pale ale or India Pale Ale (light- to medium-colored and bitter) and a stout or porter (dark-colored and often roasty and/or sweet). If you have more space, you can fill in with other interesting styles.
That said, Morgenthaler also warns that it’s cruicial to know your establishment and your customers’ taste preferences.
“It’s important to learn the regional palate,” he says. “The collective palate for the Pacific Northwest, for instance, is a lot hoppier (than most of the country). A beer lineup there would center on bitter to more bitter. But in other places, customers might want beers that are sweeter, while some regions, like the Southeast, might even center more on lighter ales and pale ales and such.”
Another angle involves making sure the beer goes well with the food served. Sandy Block, vice president of beverage operations for Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, recently started a craft and import beer program at many of the chain’s 34 restaurants scattered along the East Coast. Block says the beer spectrum at Legal Sea Foods is designed to accompany the food, even though some customers just come in for a drink or two.
“Beer goes very well with our food,” he says. “Since we are a seafood restaurant, we are interested less in styles like porter and more in golden ales, blonde ales, hefeweizen — although I personally love the Trappist Ale style and Belgian beers in particular.”
Glass Is In Session
Once the beers are selected, how do you let customers know about them and help them choose?
“Educating the customer is important,” Chandler says. “Craft beers often look different, have different size heads, may be served in different glasses and have interesting stories behind them. These factors all add to their uniqueness and should be part of the sales pitch.”
Chandler suggests that operators can spark excitement around a new beer program through specials, tasting events, food pairing recommendations from the menu and “beer of the week” promotions — as well as simply making sure the staff is knowledgeable enough about the beers to comfortably talk about them with customers.
“Undecided customers can be persuaded to try something based on the enthusiasm and perceived authority of the server,” he says. “Every beer has a story. Tell the story on your menus, through point-of-sale promotional material and by educating your staff about the beers.”
At Legal Sea Foods, for example, the craft beer program has designated supporters on staff who champion the beers.
“Craft beers need sponsors among the staff who are willing to take the time and talk up the guest because they love and appreciate the product,” Block says. “Education is essential. Tap your suppliers and distributors for training. We started at the top down, got our area directors together, sold them on the quality and then prepared the way for the rest of the operations teams with memos explaining what we were doing and then held training sessions in each unit. We’re not pushing the products, but we do recommend that bartenders talk them up.”
The final step? Plan for growth. Once customers get a taste of your craft beer program, they will be lining up for more.
“It’s a revenue enhancement, because (craft beers) are more expensive. It’s an image enhancement, and the bartenders are genuinely proud and excited to tell the stories about the beers,” Block says.
“It’s lit a fire. There’s nothing a server likes better than positive feedback from guests, and if they’re successful with a product they tend to want to spread the word and satisfy more customers.” NCB
Lisa Morrison (known as “The Beer Goddess”) enjoys craft beer in her hometown of Portland, Ore. and all over the world. She is host of the new radio show “Beer O’Clock,” broadcast across Oregon and Washington and on KXL.com and in podcasts.