when sitting down to a mess of barbeque, chances are restaurant customers are concentrating on the pulled pork tumbling off their plate and searching for a moist toilette, rather than thinking about whether a glass of sauvignon blanc or riesling would pair best with their slaw.
But at the newer, urban and upscale barbeque restaurants, customers are finding that operators are devoting more attention to their beverage selections. Beer is definitely at the top of the list all over the country, and ever-expanding wine lists and creative cocktails are also proving that barbeque drinking can be a more sophisticated affair than Mason jars filled with iced tea.
Barbeque connotes comfort and a laidback dining experience, so it’s natural that barbeque restaurant operators report that beer consumption is especially strong at places serving the smokey, spicy, sweet and vinegary meats. To give their customers the broad range of beverages 21st century diners expect, some are looking beyond the world of longnecks and plastic cups.
“One of the fun things about Blue Smoke is that ‘the giants’ are really the little guys,” says Mark Maynard-Parisi, general manager at Blue Smoke, the New York City restaurant that’s part of Danny Myers’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “For example, Blue Smoke Original Ale, which is made in small batches by Brooklyn Brewery, is by far our most popular brew. After that, other smaller producers from Abita (Louisiana) to Stoudt’s (Pennsylvania) to Wolaver’s (Vermont) to Ommegang (NY) tend to be very popular here.”
Maynard-Parisi points out that his customers are keen to try regional beers, although “There will always be a place here for Bud and Heineken,” he says. Blue Smoke carries eight beers on tap and stocks an additional 36 bottles. Maynard-Parisi has noticed an increase in sales of less common imports like Chimay, Duvel and Samuel Smith.
“We are really a draft house first. Those eight taps account for 75 percent of our beer sales. The beauty of this is that the beer is always incredibly fresh. We serve at least ten kegs of our own beer every week,” he says.
Beer is also a huge part of the beverage program at Virgil’s, another popular barbeque restaurant in New York City. Its barbeque is especially a hit with tourists thanks to its prime location off of Times Square. How do they manage to appeal to mainstream audiences with beverage personality?
“Our draft system was recently updated to a state-of-the-art system that has a nitrogen generator which only Virgil’s has,” explains Steven Kleitz, beverage manager.
The ten beers they’ve rounded up on tap include Virgil’s Ale, Leffe Brown, Bare Knuckle Stout, Magic Hat Fat Angel and Brooklyn Pilsner, but they also boast a list that is 70 bottles strong.
At NYC’s Blue Smoke, small brewers make a big impact.
“The American beer drinking public has educated themselves greatly in the past ten to fifteen years thanks to the brew pub explosion, but the domestic giants still dominate here at Virgil’s,” he adds.
In the Midwest, beer also emerges as the leader.
In barbeque-crazed Kansas City, Ryan Ewing, bar manager at the original KC Masterpiece Barbeque & Grill, notes that standard domestic beers sell the most.
“We’ll pour two kegs of Bud Light a week with ease,” he says. “However, Boulevard Brewing Company, the local microbrew, does incredibly well in our establishment. The three beers from Boulevard we offer, wheat, pale ale and dry stout, accompany any down-home style cooking.”
But there’s no set formula when it comes to putting together the lists. For example, KC Masterpiece’s two locations in St. Louis don’t offer microbrews at all, considering they’re in the midst of Budweiser country.
Rachel Antalek, beverage director for the 104-unit Smokey Bones Barbeque and Grill chain, reports that domestics are holding steady, but also that there’s a lot of growth in imports, regional brews and lager alternatives.
“Ales, brown ales, stouts, wheat beers. For us, we love that they taste great with smoke flavors,” she says.
“Nothing goes better with barbeque than an ice cold beer,” adds Lane Schmiesing, vice-president of marketing at the Famous Dave’s “rib joint” chain. “It represents 70 percent of our adult beverage.”
Domestic beers outpace imports by 3 to 1 at the Minneapolis-based Famous Dave’s, which operates 38 locations, has 71 franchised units in 25 states and has signed development agreements for an additional 171 franchised locations. But sales of hand-crafted microbrews are vital to the restaurant’s brand positioning since they are “all about the hand-crafted artisanship of slow-smoked barbeque.”
Whether draft or bottle gets more play at Famous Dave’s depends upon the service and format of the restaurant, since some of their counter service-only restaurants offer no draft options at all. At these locations, they typically merchandise their selection of bottles in an ice bath right at the register and sometimes sell buckets of bottled beer at the table.