There’s Abita Purple Haze and Magic Hat #9, Anchor Steam and Bell’s Hell Hath No Fury, Sam Adams Winterfest and Troegs Dreamweaver.

These and hundreds of other craft and seasonal brews are being downed by Americans at an increasing pace, a trend noticed by more owners of pubs and restaurants.

In fact, the continuing growth of microbreweries and craft beers across the U.S. provides restaurant operators with greater opportunities to use suds to differentiate their businesses from competitors.

“Craft brews are helping beer reclaim its place at the American dinner table,” says Julia Herz, director of the craft beer program for the Boulder, Colorado–based Brewers Association. “People really enjoy craft beer and how it pairs with food.”

Beer is by far the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the U.S. The nation has about 1,600 microbreweries, the most since Prohibition, though just two conglomerates, Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, own 80 percent of the market.

Craft beers, usually made by small, independent, and traditional brewers, control only 6 percent of the market. But while overall beer sales were down 2.2 percent last year, craft brew sales jumped 10.3 percent in 2009 on increased volume of 7.2 percent.

Experts say the sales gains by costlier craft brews result from many Americans deciding to splurge on more flavorful beer when they go out to eat, even in a flagging economy.

“There continues to be a growing awareness and appreciation of very good regional and local beers made at microbreweries across the country,” says Ray Daniels, Chicago-based founder of the Cicerone Certification Program that trains people to sell and serve beer.

“Forward-thinking restaurants are not only providing customers with a wide array of great beers,” Daniels says, “but they are looking to ensure that educated, upscale, and inquisitive diners can find the best beers that go with certain dishes.”

More than a Can

Beer, which has been around for thousands of years, consists of malted barley (although other cereals can be used), hops, yeast, and water. The fermenting grain creates alcohol.

Most beer is either an ale or lager, depending on the fermentation process. Lagers are made with yeast that ferments at the bottom of the brewing tank at lower temperatures, resulting in more aggressive fermentation that provides crispness. Ales use top fermenting yeasts at higher temperatures that often result in more sweetness.

Beer’s taste evolves from all its ingredients, mostly the malted grain and how it is roasted (providing even caramel or chocolate highlights), as well as from hops (the flowers of the hop vine) that contribute bitterness as well as floral and citrus flavors.

The beverage works well with many dishes because it cuts through food’s natural oils and fats, while its carbonation scrubs the palate to prepare it for the next bite of food.

As with other alcoholic beverages, beer can be a profitable item, whether it is sold in bottles or cans or as draught from a keg.

“Most beer has a very good margin, and draught has the best margin because there’s no packaging,” says Wing Lam, a cofounder of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, a Mexican-style chain with units in California and Colorado. “The profit could be 55–60 percent higher.”

A premium or craft-brewed cold one often sells for $1 more per bottle or glass than a domestic.

Still, beer comes with its own set of issues, such as permits, hiring staff members old enough to sell the beverage, and the potential that some customers may overindulge.

“Beer surely can be a differentiator, but offering it can be tough to do, and in a quick-service environment it can be a challenge,” says David Henkes, a vice president who focuses on alcohol business for restaurant research firm Technomic Inc. “There are big opportunities, but it is not a slam dunk. It takes significant research.”

A handful of U.S. quick-service operations have dabbled in beer sales. The most recent is Burger King, which this year opened 24-hour Whopper Bars in Miami and New York City, serving several Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors products in aluminum bottles for $4.25 each.

Serving brands such as Budweiser, Bud Light, and Miller gives customers the option of pairing Whoppers with “great American beer,” according to a statement from Chuck Fallon, Burger King’s North American president.

Three Carl’s Jr. restaurants in Los Angeles have sold beer for years. The units were acquired by the parent company in the 1970s and came with permits, so it was decided to continue selling brews, including Bud, Bud Light, Corona, and Michelob, at the locations.

Traditionally, however, alcoholic beverages have helped separate quick-service from casual restaurants, says Mike Ginley, cofounder and partner of Next Level Marketing, a Westport, Connecticut–based marketing agency that focuses on premium beverage brands.

But as new quick-service formats developed during the past two decades to compete with casual-dining restaurants, these fast-casual operations often used premium and flavorful craft beers to straddle the two segments.

Today, the biggest restaurant trend in beer is locally produced products, Ginley says. “Microbrews will continue to outpace growth in domestic and imports,” he says.

Many styles of lagers and ales are available. Among the lagers are mild American varieties, golden-colored classic pilsners, and darker bocks, while there are light pale and amber ales, nutty and sweet brown ales, and robust and heavily malt-roasted porters.

Add in seasonable craft beers, such as light, fruity summer ales or hardy winter lagers, and there is a long list of brews for customers to choose. To assist their guests, some restaurateurs are emulating the wine industry by creating beer pairings or tastings.

It’s one of the creative ideas introduced by The Counter, a Culver City, California–based fast-casual chain that has been serving beer since the company launched in 2003. One night a week, many of the chain’s 26 restaurants pair miniburgers with different beers.

“The idea is to match four miniburgers with four different beers” served in three-ounce cups, says The Counter’s founder, Jeff Weinstein. The flights arrive on a 14-by-3½-inch paddle and “are matched with toppings and sauces of the miniburgers.”

The beers change every four or five weeks.

How to Pick a Beer

Certain brews work well with specific foods.

“We like to say a beer should complement, contrast, or cut [through] the flavor of food,” says David Blossman, president of Abita Brewing Co., a microbrewer in Abita Springs, Louisiana, just north of New Orleans. “Some can do all three.”

Not surprisingly, many of Abita’s beers, including its flagship Amber, taste great with Cajun, Creole, and other spicy foods.

Brown ales tend to complement the strong flavor of beef, while pilsners work well with seafood. Pizza and chicken usually go best with a light lager, but Italian food with heavier sauces require a richer beer. And a hoppy brew, such as India Pale Ale, can be a good option for hot dishes like Buffalo wings.

“It’s best for people to experiment to find what’s best for them,” Blossman says.

Typical of The Counter’s offerings are $4.95 draught beers from several craft brewers, including the nation’s largest microbreweries, Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams Lager and seasonal beers) and Chico, California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale).

But each store can have a different beer menu, depending on demand and the region’s brews. “We allow the local team to select from a matrix of beers,” Weinstein says.

For three-year-old Smashburger, beer—always served in a frosted mug—is an important part of the Denver-based chain’s constitution.

“So many burger occasions are burgers and beer, whether it is a team event, a date, or a family meal,” says founder Tom Ryan. “A burger and a beer is one of life’s simple pleasures, so we wanted Smashburger to embrace that.”

Just as the chain builds specialty burgers designed around a region’s food heritage, Smashburger has local beers on its menu along with national brands. In Minneapolis, for example, restaurants sell Grain Belt beer from hometown August Schell Brewing Co., while Tulsa units feature Last Laugh and 1919 from Choc Brewing Co. of Krebs, Oklahoma.

Before Smashburger opens in a city, it gets assistance from local sources to determine the top local beers. Company officials then sample the top six or eight choices to make final selections, because “there’s nothing better than actually trying them,” Ryan says.

Most brews at Bobby’s Burger Palace units are chosen to go with hamburgers, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam from San Francisco, and Honey Brown Lager from Dundee Brewing Co. of Rochester, New York.

But some beers are specific to certain sites. Sam Adams Boston Lager, for instance, sells best at the Mohegan Sun Casino Bobby’s location, while the Philadelphia store does well with the traditional lager from Yuengling Brewing Co. of Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

“Our approach is to be part of the community,” says Bob Mundell, director of operations for the chain launched by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

Shake Shack has gone a step further. The seven-unit New York City–based chain, which sees itself as a modern version of an old roadside burger joint, not only features craft beers but created its own draught, Shackmeister Ale, in conjunction with the Brooklyn Brewery.

“It’s a lighter style ale, but has a really good, strong flavor to it,” says Randy Garutti, the chain’s chief operating officer. The brew, which sells for $5.25 a pint, is “more like a summer ale but with enough pop to accompany our burgers and fries.”

Beyond Burgers

Just as burgers pair well with beer, so does pizza.

“I don’t want to make it sound too contrived, but after a long day, there’s nothing better than a beer and a slice,” says Todd Parent, chief executive of Extreme Pizza, a San Francisco–based chain with more than 40 units in seven states and Ireland.

Beer has been on the menu since the company began in 1994 and most units have about a half dozen brews on draught and the same number in bottles. Parent says local-store operators augment national brands with local flavors and specialties.

“Our pizzas make us different from others, and so does our beer,” Parent says.

Many of Wingstop’s 430 units in 29 states offer a core of Budweiser, Miller, and Coors beers, but there are also craft choices.

“Normally if you see a tap in one of our restaurants in Texas, for instance, it will be Shiner Bock” made by Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, says Mike Sutter, the chain’s vice president of training. “It goes great with wings.”

Another basis for choosing a restaurant’s beer is cultural affiliation. Not surprisingly, many Mexican restaurants offer imports such as Corona, Dos Equis, and Negra Modelo, while eateries serving Asian food, such as Pei Wei Asian Diner, have Sapporo and Kirin.

“With Mexican dishes, you often want Mexican beer, because it seems to be brewed with that kind of food in mind,” says Wahoo Fish Taco’s Lam. “They are lighter beers, so they go especially well with a fish taco and spicier food.”

One of the widest arrays of beer at a limited-service chain is at J. Gumbo’s, which features New Orleans–style food, including etouffee, gumbo, and jambalaya.

“Cajun food just calls out for beer,” says Ronnie Dingham, president of operations and head chef for the six-year-old Louisville, Kentucky–based company. “Our menu is very well balanced, and we have beers to match all of those flavors.”

The richness of a porter pairs up well with jambalaya; a lager complements the fiery Voodoo Chicken; and pale ale with its bitterness is perfect for a spicy dish.

“We like to choose local purveyors for beer, just as with many of our ingredients,” Dingham says. “But we know we have to have Abita and Dixie brands, because they not only are linked culturally to New Orleans, but they taste wonderful with our food.”

By Barney Wolf
Beverage, Industry News