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Worth the Upgrade: It’s Time to Elevate Your Beer Program

Posted on  | June 16, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Restaurant Beer ProgramFor many restaurants, beer often gets overshadowed by the wines and spirits components of the beverage program–a few bottles, a few drafts, something “lite”; re-order as needed. But today more and more guests are asking for something more, expecting a bit of the range and diversity exhibited in today’s marketplace. Craft beer and specialty bottlings are no longer the preserve of select bars.

Expanding choices is not really difficult. For one thing, even higher-end, limited availability beer doesn’t get that expensive when you compare it to your wine program. That lower price gives your beverage program flexibility in today’s unpredictable economy. “When wine drops, beer picks up and vice versa,” says Curtis Allred, general manager for the Tuscarora Restaurant Group in Virginia.

According to Rich Higgins, brewmaster at Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco, director of San Francisco Beer Week–and one of the world’s only three certified Master Cicerones–beer’s lower prices offer several other advantages: “You can change your list quickly. You can take chances, and if a beer’s not moving, it’s not eating up your balance sheet. The top tier is still much more affordable than even mediocre wines.”

Look to the Competition
But there’s more to jazzing up a beer program than throwing a few craft beers on the list. Allred says he spends as much time looking at other restaurants’ lists as his own, which not only helps him see what’s popular but can also make his lists stand out among the competition.

Beermenus.com, which posts beer lists of restaurants and bars for the New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco areas, is a great resource for seeing what’s out there. Will Stephens, who founded the site with his brother Eric, says he sees more and more places with five to 10 draft lines–dedicating at least a couple of those to craft beers now–and that’s not including the specialty venues.

Draft or Bottle?
If you’re starting from scratch, you can offer as many drafts as you have room for; Allred says the extra cost for installing 20 lines is minimal compared to the initial eight or 10. Higgins cautions that you might need more refrigeration room than you think. He designed the program at Delarosa in San Francisco where initially kegs and food shared a walk-in, making life difficult for the bartenders and kitchen staff. A beer-only walk-in with room for at least two of each keg is ideal; kegs take at least 48 hours to get to service temperature, so not having a back-up chilled means 86-ing a beer for a while or wastefully serving a lot of foam each time a keg runs out.

Sound like a lot of trouble? Well, draft beer, with its higher margins, is where the money is. In addition, Stephens says Americans tend to favor draft beer when they go out; it is, after all, an experience most customers can’t enjoy
at home.

But bottles are not without their own benefits. “With bottles your margins may go down, but the sale price can go higher,” says Higgins.

Which format, draft or bottle, you focus on can depend on your resources. A draft system has more costs upfront and in maintenance than bottles. On the other hand, some beers are only available in one format or another, so if you want that brew you have to take it as it comes. For beer styles where freshness is a priority, they are often better suited for draft service.

Many establishments favor local brews for their taps, but David Flaherty had a different experience when he set up the program for the wine bar Terroir Tribeca in New York City. Initially, he sold all local drafts, and rounded that out with an eclectic, international bottle list. “It took a year before I sold through a case,” says Flaherty of one of his selections, Hop God, an IPA aged in Chardonnay barrels from Nebraska Brewing. So Flaherty turned the program on its head, serving most of his local selections by the bottle and putting his more unusual beers on draft. Now both sell well. Guests can have a more obscure beer without investing in a bottle, and can even taste the less familiar beer before they commit.

Local Connections, Foreign Friends
Move more eclectic beers, says Flaherty, “and you become the darling of your beer salesman.” More interesting selections come your way, and when a small handful of specialty kegs or cases come into your market, you’re the one who hears about them first. In Virginia, Allred cultivates relationships with distributors as well as with local producers, even sending restaurant employees on “internships” at nearby breweries.

According to the Brewers Association, the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery, so beer even more than wine is well-situated to capitalize on today’s interest in local produce and agriculture. Stephens says some markets, like Brooklyn, are strongly focused on promoting local products, and doesn’t expect that to change: “It’s already regional in terms of availability [many breweries only distribute to a limited number of states], and will probably become more regional as people realize how perishable beer is.”

Importers, however, are becoming more and more careful about protecting their beers during shipping. B. United International, for example, recently opened a facility in Connecticut where it receives tanks of beer from its European suppliers and kegs them, providing better temperature control during the voyage across the Atlantic.

Talking the Talk
Despite a growing popularity–craft beers were up 9% by volume for the first half of last year, despite overall sales being down 2.7–craft beers don’t sell themselves like the ubiquitous domestic and import brands do, so be prepared to train your staff. Jake Williams, beer manager at Rocco Ranalli’s Café & Pizzeria in Chicago, says this is the hardest part. He trains his staff weekly, on four or five beers each time.

Higgins says it’s important to do more than describe each beer to staff, however. “You want to help servers understand why beer has its place. Make sure they can train themselves,” he notes. Flaherty agrees. At his monthly staff tastings a portion of the class is always devoted to “Beer 101.” When servers understand the brewing process, Flaherty points out, it becomes easier for them to learn about individual beers and they become more enthusiastic and confident sellers.

Restaurants, Not Bars
“Pairings are generally server-driven,” says Allred; his servers find it a great tool for introducing guests to different beers and enhancing the dining experience, and he makes a point of including food at their beer classes so servers will be ready. Williams teaches recommended pairings to the servers at Rocco Ranalli’s and has even added them to the menu itself.

Stephens sees more and more of the restaurants listing beer dinners on his site. He says these events, where each course is paired with a different beer (often from a single brewery, region, or style), create important promotional tools to interest customers in general beer programs.

More Than Just a Glass
Pairings can help show off beer (and the food, too) at its best, but so can the right glass. Some breweries, particularly Belgians, offer free glassware specially suited to its beers, which can also help develop interest in those brands. Some beverage managers, however, feel that doesn’t suit their establishment. It depends on your beer list, but Higgins believes you can get by with about four different types: the shaker pint, the fluted pilsener glass, the weissbeer glass–designed to accommodate the generous head of wheat beers–and some sort of stemware, be it a shorter snifter or more like a Burgundy glass, “something that elevates the beer over the hand when you’re holding it so you can see the beer clearly.” He also emphasizes the importance of cleanliness and abhors stackable glassware, which creates rings on the glasses that mar the appearance and head formation of the beer.

Not a Beer Destination?
If you’re not expanding your list much, there are still things you can do to give it a fresh twist. Higgins says the growing interest in beer cocktails can cast fresh light on your mainstream American light lagers, which often make a good base ingredient–think of it as the vodka of your beer cocktail program. With their lack of bitterness they also work well in cooking and can pair with delicate dishes where more assertive beers might overwhelm the food.

These days it’s not just specialty bars that are featuring good beer, and you don’t want to go bigger than you can handle. Williams says Rocco Ranalli’s list expands and contracts with the seasons, as outdoor seating allows them a lot more sales opportunities in the summers. “You want to make sure there’s no stale beer. For most beers if you’re keeping it more than 1½ months, it’s too much,” he points outs.

“It’s not the size of the beer list,” says Flaherty. “If you only have five or six bottles there’s no reason a couple of them shouldn’t be craft or local.” He notes that your typical beverage program consists of wine, spirits and beer: “These days, if the beer list is lacking I donâ’t see the restaurant as serious about its beverage program.”


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