Beer programs that put restaurants on the map.
As more full-service restaurants include a heavier focus on the beer side of their menus, implementing an elevated taps program opens up less-familiar service turf. Questions abound, such as how to manage tap rotations and bottle selection, better hire and educate beer-savvy staff, and fine-tune a beverage menu to work with what the restaurant already has in place.
Even the most successful beer destinations had to address these very concerns at some point. Among the most highly regarded beer-focused restaurants are a 20-year-old Vietnamese restaurant in Richmond, Virginia; the flagship restaurant of a six-location success story that began in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and a Brooklyn, New York, bar with a secret restaurant that focuses on craft beer pairings and was recognized with its first Michelin star when the 2015 Michelin guide was released last fall.
Vietnamese Menu Pairs Perfectly with Beers
Mekong Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, originally started with a wine focus when it opened in 1995. Fast-forward 20 years, and Mekong has been named to CraftBeer.com’s list of Great American Beer Bars for the past three years—including first place overall in 2012 and 2013, when overall winners were ranked.
Owner An Bui explains that the shift away from wine was due at least partly to the fact that wine didn’t pair particularly well with the Vietnamese menu. The beverage shift began in 1998, and Mekong soon became the go-to spot in the area for bottled Belgian beers. By 2005, the restaurant was shifting to more draft options and now it features 52 tap handles in constant rotation.
On the food side, menu highlights include grilled pork chops with cucumber, pickled carrots, scallions, and nuoc cham, as well as a variety of clay-pot-style dishes with accompaniments such as fresh ginger, garlic, and pepper sauce. Of the menu, Bui notes, “It’s great with maltier beer. It’s great with Belgian beer. It’s great with IPAs—you know, fresh and spicy go great with IPAs.”
Maintaining the proper freshness across the beer selections is a major part of managing substantial draft and bottle lists, and Mekong has its draft menu broken down into broader style categories like sours, IPAs, and Belgian-style beers. The IPA selections in particular require monitoring for proper freshness, and the grouped menu makes it easier to swap out one beer for another. This also makes it easier to manage keg inventory, with quickly emptied IPA kegs kept in steady rotation.
Similarly, Mekong’s bottle list has shrunk from about 200 options to about half that number. “The only thing we keep nowadays,” Bui says, “[are] high-ABV stouts, barleywines, sour beers, the Belgians, the malty stuff—beers that can sit a little longer.”
Mekong also makes a point to serve its beers in proper glassware, with about eight types of glassware used. And on occasion, the restaurant has contracted with a local manufacturer to produce custom glassware.
The restaurant’s success in service and with building customer relationships over the years has made it difficult for Bui to host as many events as he would like. As he explains, “We don’t want to push the regulars out.” Which is part of the reason that he opened The Answer Brewpub in September: a 12,000-square-foot space next door to Mekong, with its own operating brewery.