There’s a lot that makes America great, including freedom of choice. From 31 flavors of ice cream to, more to my point, 99 bottles of beer on the wall, consumers want what they want—so, why would any bar manager or restaurateur limit their patrons’ options? And yet, not to throw the good folks at places such as the Yard House under the bus, but the Irvine, California–originated chain with some 60 locations offers between 130 and 250 beers on its tap lists. Typically, no fewer than 30 of them are IPAs. And while bright, fruity West Coast IPAs are miles apart from chewy, richer imperial IPAs, I think the customer becomes bombarded by options and stands a good chance of not being able to zero in on the beer that best suits the meal. Put in idiomatic terms: Sometimes less is more.
Additionally, paramount to a great beer drinking experience is the beer’s freshness. A restaurant full of diners drinking down a handful of kegs or bottles means that the beer hasn’t been sitting around longer, running the risk of aging poorly and failing to deliver the brewer’s intended expression of, say, hops or specialty grains, or other additions such as coffee or fresh fruit. I recently cracked open a bottle of a pink peppercorn saison that I think of as an ideal complement to my home-grilled steak, but I clearly put off that supper too long because the spicy and earthy notes I love in the beer had diminished, while the Belgian yeast’s phenolics ran roughshod. It put a damper on the meal. Luckily, I won’t be giving myself a bad Yelp score. (Just kidding; I don’t use Yelp.) But if a beer like that—which was in a bottle conditioned to provide shelf stability—could fade from glory, then imagine how rapidly those extra IPAs have broken down, especially those that are the beer menu’s bridesmaids, not the bride.
In my little town, Portland, Oregon, craft beer is a way of life, and denizens demand so much choice that they support nearly 70 breweries inside the city limits. It’s here where Imperial, from James Beard Award winner Vitaly Paley, proffers just six taps and fewer than 10 bottles or cans. When general manager Eric Bigger has a deluge of stellar brands from which to order, Bigger goes smaller. Why? “Simple,” he says, “it’s all about good beer.”
He keeps up to a dozen kegs in the cooler and the bottles in the wine cellar. Every restaurant knows: You gotta keep your overhead low. Another issue—not to diminish the importance beer plays at any great restaurant—is that beer sells at a lower price point compared to wine and cocktails. Bigger estimates that beer, while constituting 20 percent of the bar orders, makes up just 10 percent of the bar’s revenue, adjusted seasonally. Furthermore, he notes, “Most people do tend to stick with one beer,” meaning reordering a particular brand over experimenting with others takes on the same style or a different category altogether. “We’re a fairly large restaurant and get varying clientele. But lager people stick with lagers. IPA folks want that hop profile.”
Conversely, for beer lovers such as myself, and Bigger as well, a streamlined tap list enables us to do something we almost never do at multi-tap pubs: enjoy a great beer on repeat instead of always making it our objective to try each and every offering, regardless of how much a beer deserves its spot on the board.
One might argue that fewer options means fewer overall dishes will have an ideal pairing available, but beer is such a versatile beverage that in most cases a single style can mix and match with myriad foods. This isn’t to say one size fits all. “Being a restaurant, we need to have something light and an IPA,” says Bigger, at present referring to Mazama Brewing’s toasty Vienna Lager and Breakside Brewery’s gold medal–winning and immensely popular Breakside IPA.
He adds, “I’m a big saison fan and always have something on that’s seasonally appropriate.” He went so far as to say having all six taps flowing with sour beer would be A-OK for him, but for fans of the sour, The Commons Flemish Kiss, while not exceedingly puckering, performs amiably. And when ordering the filet with truffled potatoes, you really don’t need to peruse another 10 or 100 beer choices.
In Chicago, Girl & the Goat is the caprine-focused, family-style restaurant from “Top Chef” winner Stephanie Izard. And bar manager Gary Valentine manages to go even more minimalist than Imperial. Four taps. For the complete range of small plates—which run the gamut from veggies to raw oysters and hams to goat in various preparation, including a delectable-sounding empanada with miso-blue cheese aioli—diners must choose to wash down their bites from only four taps, or, at present, more than 25 bottles. “Stephanie knows the beer menu better than I do,” insists Valentine. “It’s great.”
The taps rotate weekly, but always among Chicago-land breweries such as Half Acre, Two Brothers, or Three Floyds. Expect a pilsner or light lager, an IPA, a saison, and something else—perhaps a soft wheat beer or, on rare occasion, a gluttonous imperial coffee stout.
“Our guests enjoy a good amount of beer,” says Valentine, “but we are a restaurant first and foremost. Restaurants create amazing atmospheres for guests, and we aim to do that by putting a great deal of thought into many areas. The style of napkin, plates, chairs, flowers, music, aprons, food, and beer all help create this environment. If we aren’t putting detail into it, then we aren’t doing it right.”
At the crux is that emphasis on details. When a restaurant doesn’t feature, say, 50 different burgers on its menu, why feature that many beers? In most restaurant settings, a multi-page beer list reads like some buyer rattling off dozens and dozens of beers he’s heard of, or, perhaps just as bad, he’s simply kowtowed to a distributor to stock everything in that guy’s book. It certainly lacks finesse.
A smartly curated list, on the other hand, shows that the person in charge of ordering, while acutely aware of how many brands are available in virtually every region these days, intimately knows his or her stuff. In fact, it also honors the customer by saving them the trouble of winnowing down the options until the best beer has been selected.
Notes Valentine, “If a guest wants that particular style, here’s the option we currently carry and we can direct them to it, saving them and our team table time.”
This isn’t to say all restaurant bars should drastically scale down their beer lists, not if said beers move quickly enough to stay fresh and if the customers have come to expect a broad range of flavors and styles. Furthermore, there’s nothing I hate more than seeing a list of six beers that are duplicative lagers or indistinguishable hop bombs. It’s easy to tell when someone has pared down a list for maximum enjoyment, even when that’s a person like Eric Bigger. “Really, the only downside is that there’s no way to have all the beers that I want on tap. But the limitations are fun and keep things fresh.”