Tips for Building a Dynamic Beer Menu

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With the explosion of the craft beer movement comes more product choices than ever before. Savvy business operators aim to give their customers the best of everything beer has to offer, but the seemingly limited options can make the process seem overwhelming. How do you go about building a solid beer menu from scratch? Here a few guidelines from some beer-centric bars and restaurants.

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With the explosion of the craft beer movement comes more product choices than ever before. Savvy business operators aim to give their customers the best of everything beer has to offer, but the seemingly limited options can make the process seem overwhelming. How do you go about building a solid beer menu from scratch?


While there’s no standardized answer for everyone, since each restaurant and bar is unique, there are a few guidelines that can help you create a dynamic beer menu. We spoke with several beer-centric bars and restaurants for some advice.


 


SIZING IT UP


Operators are certainly spoiled for choice when it comes to the beers available. Some restaurants may offer a handful of beer options, others a few dozen, and then there are operations that feature hundreds of brands from which to choose.


How do you determine the size and scope of your beer options? This is typically driven by your concept, customer base/demand and physical space.


Bottleneck Management operates several restaurants and taverns in the Chicago area, including Old Town Pour House’s two locations and Howells & Hood. These operations are known for their robust beer menus with a wide variety of American craft brews, including Sam Adams Boston Lager ($3 or $6), Hop Head Red ($3 or $6), Michigan Apple Cider ($5) and at Old Town Pour House; and Sweet Action ($3 and $7), Mischief ($5 and $10), and Meantime IPA ($5 and $11) at Howells & Hood.


Operators have to consider overall consumer volume when building a beer menu, says Ken Henricks, vice president of operations with Bottleneck Management. At the Old Town Pour House in Chicago, the menu boasts different 90 brands on 144 taps. Howells & Hood is in the heart of Chicago’s busiest tourist area, and it offers 114 brands on 360 tap handles. The suburban Old Town Pour House location has 84 brands on 90 handles.


“It all comes down to expected volume, and the depth at which you want to cover all beer categories,” Henricks says. “You need to be in a high-volume environment to have the kind of offerings we have in a draft environment.” It’s a little different for bottles, he notes, “but it’s essential for draft.”


 


GOING LOCAL, GETTING CRAFTY


With so many different beer styles available, “you don’t have to be an expert in everything,” says Dave McLean, owner of both Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery and The Alembic Bar in San Francisco. “Just make sure you decide what you do want to do, and roll with it.” But there’s a clear trend of tapping into local brews.


Magnolia patrons can choose from a selection of handcrafted ales, such as Bonnie Lee’s Best Bitter ($7) that are produced in an on-premise brewery located beneath the restaurant. Magnolia also features occasional guest beers from friends and associates in the local beer industry.


At TGI Fridays, which has 936 locations worldwide, each restaurant maintains some consistency across the beer menu, although there is a bit of flexibility. All locations carry the same eight drafts, including Blue Moon Belgian White, Stella Artois, and Samuel Adams Rebel IPA. (Pricing at TGI Fridays varies based on market.) Additionally, locations must select two regional crafts to bring on draft.


After that, each location can select the additional draft products that it will carry. All of the TGI Fridays restaurants also carry the same 12 bottled beers, including Amstel Light, Corona, and Heineken. Locations may then choose to bring in additional bottled beer brands based on guest needs and regional relevance.


TGI Fridays plans to roll out a rejuvenated craft beer menu this spring that will include a national IPA and will also broaden tap recommendations for local options. “It’s important that we offer variety for our guests,” says Matt Durbin, vice president of marketing, beverage, bar innovation, and revenue activation with TGI Fridays. “Craft beer is super hot right now, and it fits in very well with Fridays’ heritage as a beverage innovator. People are looking for more local options, and we want to make sure we reflect that.”


The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, which opened in 1933 on the day Prohibition was repealed, keeps all 12 draft taps stocked with Texas crafts. These include Ranger Creek Oatmeal Pale Ale ($5), Live Oak Big Bark Amber ($6), and Southern Star Bombshell Blonde ($5).


“We had more national and Mexican beers here before, and they weren’t necessarily performing badly in terms of sales,” says Esquire’s bar manager, Houston Eaves. “I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity for us to showcase the cool things we have to offer here in Texas.”


Other locations have had great success cultivating an all-craft beer menu. Matt O’Reilly is the co-owner of Republic, a beer-centirc restaurant with two locations in Minneapolis. He opened the first Republic in May 2011 with a focus on local/regional craft beer.


Republic only offers craft beer at its locations, such as Lake Superior Kayak Kolsch ($5), Indeed Day Triple Pale Ale ($5), and Tallgrass Vanilla Bean Buffalo Sweat Stout ($6).


Craft-brew enthusiasts “are in search of the next up-and-coming beer, not the one that’s been around for 20 years,” O’Reilly says. “A lot of people thought we were crazy to go the all-craft route. It was a big risk for us, but it’s paid off.”


 


AIM FOR BALANCE, VARIETY


While the craft beer movement shows no signs of losing momentum anytime soon, many customers will still want to order a beer they’re familiar with. That’s why Henricks keeps several brands such as Miller Lite, Coors Light, and Blue Moon on hand in his restaurants.The big national brands can be an opportunity to educate consumers on the different styles of beer, he notes.


“Some people are stubborn and won’t want to try something else, and of course we are never going to force anything on them,” Henricks explains. “But if someone asks for a Miller Lite, we tell them about other examples of crafts in a similar category that they might enjoy. That’s what this industry is all about: opening up the world of great beer to our customers.”


Experts say it’s important to balance your beer menu by offering a good variety of each available style, instead of focusing exclusively on one category, such as only IPAs. Not only will your establishment become known for its well-rounded beer menu, but the broad categories will appeal to a larger customer base.


Tap Sports Bar, which opened in February at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, is an example of a location with a broad yet balanced beer offering that appeals to the masses. Tap’s beer menu was created by Robert Parekh, a Certified Cicerone and the bar’s assistant general manager.


Parekh’s approach to the menu was two-fold: He wanted to keep the beers approachable, and he wanted to make sure he catered to the bar’s customer demographics.


“You need to keep in mind that, even though there are a rising number of people who are beer connoisseurs of sorts, that really only represents about 5% of the population,” Parekh explains. “At TAP, our average guest is a middle-American who just wants to come in, watch a game, and enjoy a familiar beer.”


When developing TAP’s beer menu, Parekh divided his list into three pieces. He made sure that a third of the list included “everyman” beers, such as Bud Lite ($8) and Heineken ($8), which are all easily familiar to TAP’s clientele.


The second third of the beers are split into different popular styles, such as IPAs, Belgians, and amber ales. Parekh took what he considered to be the heroes of those categories and added them to the list. Some highlights include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($9) and New Belgium Fat Tire ($9).


For the final third, Parekh injected his own preferences into the menu, selecting his personal favorites, including Stiegl Grapefruit Radler ($10) and Spaten Franziskaner Weissbier ($9).


 


SWITCH IT UP


Many bars and restaurants stick with a core beer menu, but leave themselves some wiggle room to include seasonals and special featured products.


Henricks makes a point of shaking things up from time to time in his restaurants. While 85% of of the beers on Bottleneck Management’s menus remain consistent for about three to six months, the rest are seasonal, limited release, or brews unique to the market.


Winter seasonal offerings at Old Town Pour House included Interlude ($7 or $14), Dino S’Mores ($5 or $10), and Rosy Barl Sour Ale ($7 or $14). Henricks also ensures that 20-25% of the beer menu features locally sourced brews specific to the region, such as Chicago’s Loku Hila ($3 or $6).


Republic switches out at least 10% to 15% of the beers on a monthly basis. Several items are always on the menu, such as Surly Furious IPA ($6), Julian Cider ($6), and New Holland Dragon’s Milk ($8), but O’Reilly bases many of the selections on availability and seasonality.


Republic also focuses on highlighting smaller breweries and new beers that have only recently been released and that customers won’t be able to find easily anywhere else. 


Some restaurants take things a step further with expanded seasonal offerings. Bart Vandaele is the executive chef/owner of the Belga Cafe and B Too restaurants in Washington, D.C. that specialize in Belgian food and beer; he also appeared as a contestant in season 10 of Bravo’s Top Chef. B Too carries Belgian beer only, while Belga Cafe’s beer menu includes a mix of Belgian beers and selections from local breweries.


During the winter months at Belga Cafe, Vandaele creates a special holiday beer menu. Selections have included Pere Noel ($10), Corsendonk Christmas ($22.50), and Ommegang Aphrodite ($35).


SideDoor, a new gastropub that opened in Chicago’s River North neighborhood in February, rotates both its food and beer menus on a daily basis. It offers 12 draft and 12 bottled beers.


Manager/beer director Jess Van Der Tuuk says that the SideDoor’s ultimate goal is to give guests a unique experience they won’t find anywhere else. And he wants to have something new to offer them each time they visit.


“I’m the kind of person who tries a new beer everywhere I go, and I think a lot of people are behaving that way,” Van Der Tuuk says. “The beer palate has become more complex, and we want to cater to that.”


At The Esquire, Eaves generally makes adjustments to the menu twice a year. Because IPAs have become more popular throughout Texas, he’s increased the number of IPAs on the menu in recent years. Current offerings include a (512) Brewing Co. IPA ($5 a pint), Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA ($8 per bottle), and Lagunitas IPA ($5 per bottle).


The beer menu also features a Texas Seasonal for $6 a pint. This featured selection is changed out on a weekly basis and represents offerings from a variety of Texas brewers.


 


IS THE PRICE RIGHT?


Price is always a factor when cultivating a beer menu. As an operator, your primary goal is to ensure that your establishment makes a profit while also catering to the needs of your core customer base. Some owners may be inclined to steer clear of higher-priced beer options for fear of alienating their customers. That’s not always the case, however.


Henricks acknowledges the need to stay competitive and offer pints that are approachable at $5 to $7 each. But Chicago is also a premium market, so customers at the Old Town Pour House can opt to enjoy a pint of Tripel Karmeliet at a cost of $14 a pint.


“The Tripel is what I consider to be the gold standard of Belgian tripels, and I want to offer that to my customers,” Henricks says. “I’ll always have an alternate suggestion for a customer who doesn’t want to pay that much, but many of them look to us to provide them with that high-quality product.”


Pricing was definitely a factor when selecting TAP’s beers. With its prime location on the Las Vegas Strip, the bar has a significant amount of competition. Parekh wanted to make sure the pricing was approachable to all customers, so there would be an option available in each category at even the lowest price point.


Republic’s beer offerings generally feature 50-plus selections, ranging in price from $5 to $8 a pint. About 20% of the menu differs slightly by location, based largely on consumer demographics (one Republic restaurant caters to a younger, weekend crowd, while the other is more diverse). Each menu also offers a $12 beer flight, where guests can choose to sample four 6-oz. glasses of any four beers on the menu.


SideDoor’s eclectic menu offers 22-oz. or 750-ml. beers at a wide variety of price points. A recent menu featured beers ranging from $7 (Three Floyd’s Pride & Joy) to $26 (Revolution Very Mad Cow Milk Stout) each. The higher-end beers represent products that are generally harder to find.


One of Van Der Tuuk’s long-term plans is to begin a cellaring program, where certain beers purchased will be set aside to age, reemerging on the menu again when they’re no longer available anywhere else.


SideDoor’s 35,000-sq.-foot location contains a windowless, temperature-controlled space ideal for the cellaring process. Van Der Tuuk says that once those aged beers appear on the menu, it won’t be uncommon to see them listed from $30 to $60.


Another way to safely experiment with different prices is to offer various pour size options.


For example, customers at Tap can choose among three different sizes of most beers: a 16-oz. pint, a 24-oz. mug, and 1-liter mug. The exception is a few Belgian beers that are traditionally served in a smaller, 10-oz. size, such as Lindemans Framboise, which is priced at $13.


At Old Town Pour house, taster portions of beers are available in a 6-oz. size. Pricier listings feature either a 13-oz. goblet (high ABV beers, expensive Belgians, or stouts); a 15-oz. tear drop glass; a 20-oz. Hefeweizen glass (wheat, wit, hefeweizen beers); or a 20-oz. English pub glass (English ales, some lower ABV stouts, and nitrogen pours).


 


KEEP ON TOP OF BEER TRENDS


Beer brings people together, and talking with others about the industry is an important part of staying in the know about what’s new, what’s popular, and what’s on the way out. From customers to employees to other industry professionals, make sure you stay in touch with them and keep the beer conversation fresh.


Eaves thinks the best way to stay on top of trends is to engage with your guests, maintain close connections with brewers, and attend as many tastings as possible to see what’s new and popular. “You need to be an active participant in what you’re selling,” he advises.


The Esquire has a tasting for staff members featuring any new beer on tap, the goal being to get the servers talking about the beers so that they are able to accurately describe them to guests. At TGI Fridays, all bartenders complete online and in-person training to coincide with the launch of a new beer product.


O’Reilly makes a point of having brief weekly meetings with each of the breweries Republic works with. “It’s important to be proactive in showing your eagerness to learn and find about about what’s up and coming,” he says. “Those quick weekly conversations are incredibly helpful,” O’Reilly says.


“Just by saying, ‘What’s new? What’s getting released next week or next month?’, you can stay on top of things and plan your menu accordingly,” he adds.


Your staff are your eyes and ears on the floor, and let you know what your customers are asking for.


“If bartenders tell you that several people have inquired about ciders every day in the past week, and you don’t have any ciders on your menu, it might be a good idea to shuffle some product and try something new,” Parekh advises.


“Remember that your target audience will always change, and you need to keep up with what’s trending with them.”


Passion is contagious, and your staff will quickly pick up on your enthusiasm for beer. That’s one of the reasons Parekh includes his personal favorites on TAP’s beer menu.


“You want to talk with your team and share these beers with them, and explain why they are your favorites,” he says. “Staff are motivated by your passion.”


Sometimes a beer that you’re passionate about may not have much of a following, but don’t be afraid to put it on your menu—as long as it’s a quality beer.


“You’re always going to have a worst-selling beer on your list, no matter what you do, and you’re always going to have a best-seller,” O’Reilly rationalizes. “Why not have your worst-selling beer be an amazing beer?” ·


 


Melissa Niksic is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


 


 


Add Value to Your Beer Offering


 


Beer menus are created with love. Take the opportunity to share your passion about the industry with your customers. By educating and involving them more in the process, your customers will begin to appreciate all the work you’ve put into cultivating such a great menu.


Tastings are one way to get customers involved. Ken Henricks, vice president of operations of Chicago restaurant and tavern operator Bottleneck Management, coordinates beer tastings at his locations on a regular basis. He’s working on offering more beer education programs for consumers later this year.


At the Belga Cafe and B Too restaurants in Washington, D.C., servers offer customers small tasting glasses to sample different beers on the menu before deciding on what to purchase. “It’s all about education,” says executive chef/owner Bart Vandaele. “We want people to try different beer, and to see if they like it.”


Vandaele is also adamant about using the proper glassware for each beer that is served in his restaurants. “If you’re going to sell high-quality beers, you should sell it the way it was intended to be served,” he says. It makes a huge difference in the tasting experience, “and if you don’t use the correct glassware, you aren’t honoring your customer or the beer.”


Special events based around beer and food are another way to engage customers. SideDoor plans to enhance its beer menu with “Tap Takeovers,” a bimonthly event that will take place on Friday evenings. Each Tap Takeover will feature a different brewer, which will showcase all the beers on the night’s menu; first up is Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in April.


New Chicago gastropub SideDoor will offer beer pairing dinners as well, ranging in price from $45 to $50 per person. Restaurant manager/beer director Van Der Tuuk plans to incorporate more laid-back events too, at which brewers will be invited to mingle with guests over appetizers and discuss different beers. 


Some beer-themed events are even more elaborate. Every February, Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery in San Francisco hosts Strong Beer Month, during which six new beers of at least 8% ABV are available on draft until they run out.


Customers receive a punch card and get a stamp for each new beer they sample. If they try all six beers at Magnolia (plus six at another at the 21st Amendment Brewery, which partners with Magnolia for the event), they receive a free commemorative glass.­—MN

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