Currently, there are over 5,000 craft breweries in this country, each offering an endless range of annual styles and flavors. Building an interesting craft beer program is not as formulaic as it once was by simply featuring heavier, stronger styles in colder months and lighter and more sessionable brews during the summer. Due to the overwhelming growth of the industry, striking a successful balance with limited tap lines is even more of a challenge for operators; however, it’s also never been more interesting and exciting as long as one understands a few key components.
1. Don’t Stray Too Far From the Original Restaurant Concept
If a restaurant that has always traditionally offered Miller Light swaps it out for Pliny The Elder—a famously popular Imperial IPA that craft beer lovers proactively seek out—there’s going to be a guaranteed problem. While it’s tempting to offer the highest of the high-end as a litmus test, choosing to cut the most consistently expected product even temporarily causes equal brand confusion for the customer who depended on purchasing that Miller Light and for the beer lover who now thinks he or she may be able to sip Pliny on a regular basis there. A more thoughtful approach would be to tout bringing this style of beer exclusively and temporarily and why it makes sense via social outlets, press releases, table tents, or check presenters. It’s okay to try new things, but stay within the confines of the concept by also keeping fundamental brands the restaurant and its patrons rely on.
2. Know the Audience
Different customers have different comfort levels when it comes to specialty cocktail, wine, and craft beer offerings. Learn them all. If the customer already has a vast knowledge of beer and the restaurant or bar has always been specifically craft-centric, this is the time to shine creatively as well as diversify and distinguish the overall program. If the customer is curious and passionate, instead of the individual gratis samples, develop a five-glass tasting flight ranging from popular gateway craft brands (Prima Pils, Allagash White, Lagunitas IPA) to obscure and advanced flavors (Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale, Blueberry Gose, Crème Brulee Imperial Milk Stout). If the customer relies on consistency but profit and loss statements show many gravitate to that ‘special’ draught, use that one line to go crazy and test something fun. Customers will come to know the place as a cool way to sample new things and gain an education.
3. Seasonals, Best-in-Style, and Nods to Quality Local Breweries Sell
Most operators organize rotations with the heavier, stronger styles in cooler months and lighter brands for spring and summer. As discussed, that used to be a solid strategy. However, with so many best-in-styles and local breweries creating strong and session brands, the endless choices can be overwhelming or even intimidating for the most seasoned beverage manager. A bit of industry and geographical knowledge goes a long way. Dedicating at least one tap to best-in-style or popular and established styles is a safe and respected bet. For example, the overall most popular craft stouts for winter include Left Hand Milk Stout or Bells Kalamazoo Stout while Troegs Sunshine Pils and Weihenstephaner Pilsner are good bets in the best-in-style easy drinking summer beer spots. To further that idea, depending on where the restaurant(s) do business geographically, dedicating a line or two to the local brewery is always a positive and perceptive approach. It not only increases the probability for better tasting, fresher product (important in hoppy beers), but shipping cost is also minimal, and it supports a sense of community-based pride. We capitalize many times on our relationships with Victory, Troeg’s, Kane, and Flying Fish to great success.
4. Build Distributor and Vendor Relationships to Gain Exclusivity
Not unlike how the most respected chefs secure the freshest catch or first-foraged mushrooms, beverage managers need to maintain intimate relationships with vendors. In addition to consistently communicating, they need to keep a steady amount of a brewery’s core beers in rotation, so when special brands become available (sours, barrel-aged beers, or funky one-off infusions), your name ends up at the top of the allocation list. Staying competitive and selective is essential to any beer list, but particularly for draft offerings.
5. Rotate Inventory
While it’s sometimes easier to keep the long-standing favorites in ‘line,’ there is for sure a fine ‘line’ between complacency and interesting. Everything has a time and place, and tap lines are no exception to that rule. Bringing in new beer styles and brands is a reliable way to keep the offerings relevant. It also ensures keg freshness as well as variety. Don’t be afraid to stray (but not too much), mix it up a little, keep things fresh, and above all, have fun.