Anatomy of a Beer List

The beer menu at Bluejacket in Washington, D.C., is easy for guests to navigate and understand, effectively describing beers like the Forbidden Planet.
The beer menu at Bluejacket in Washington, D.C., is easy for guests to navigate and understand, effectively describing beers like the Forbidden Planet. Marissa Bialecki

How a restaurant organizes its beer selections is as important as the selections themselves.

I’ve been covering the beer business in its many iterations for nearly 14 years, and in that time I’ve watched attitudes toward the beverage transition from indifference and disrespect to unabashed reverence. 

Consumers, especially those of the millennial generation, are savvier about beer than they’ve ever been at any point in modern history. They also like to explore and they crave variety, so carrying just a handful of brands doesn’t always cut it. 

The market research company Mintel found that only 12 percent of craft beer drinkers stick with a single brand of beer, versus 33 percent for the macro drinker. And, increasingly, as beer drinkers dine out, they expect restaurants to keep up with their varied tastes. 

While many restaurants get this, and have expanded their beer offerings to reflect the explosive growth of the craft beer industry and offer their guests the level of choice they’ve come to expect, a considerable number of restaurants still aren’t effectively communicating the extent of their selections. 

Though it happens far less than it did a decade ago, it’s still not an entirely uncommon occurrence for a host or waitperson to hand a guest a wine list—an epic one at that, demarcated by region and varietal—and ask if, perhaps, the diners would prefer a cocktail before dinner. There’s no mention of beer, even in cases where the restaurant has a fairly robust selection of the malt-and-hop-based beverage. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion as a civilian restaurant guest, when I wasn’t necessarily wearing my professional beer writer hat. (Figuratively speaking, of course. I would never don such an obnoxious piece of headgear.) I would ask, “What beers do you have?” and the response would be, “We have the usual stuff; what brand are you looking for?” 

Having an expansive and diverse collection of brews is one thing, but it’s only taking up valuable space if it’s invisible. Communication is key. 

Take a cue from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group of Washington, D.C.—the poster child for effective beer list design. 

Not only is beer director and managing partner Greg Engert nationally (and internationally) renowned for running a world-class beer program across multiple independent eating and drinking establishments with an array of disparate personalities, he’s also adept at making his beer range meaningful for an inclusive cross section of consumers—from the complete novice to the seasoned beer geek. 

At locations like D.C.’s Churchkey, Birch & Barley, Bluejacket, and the Belgian-centric gastropub, Sovereign (its newest venue), as well as at its concepts in Alexandria, Virginia, Rustico and Columbia Firehouse, Engert segments the menu by flavor. And not with esoteric geek-speak, but using key words that anyone can pick up. It involves section headings like Crisp, Roast, Tart & Funky, Fruit and Spice, Hop, and—in the locations with hand pumps—Cask. Rustico has a sign on the wall that further explains some of those flavor groupings in greater detail. 


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