A matter of TASTES
Introducing your customers to new brews can help create a more loyal following.
Rizzo Studio/John Valls
Portland’s Don Younger
swears by beer tastings
to build customer loyalty.
As the owner of two beer bars in Portland, OR, the town that helped kick off the American microbrewing revolution, Don Younger knows something about what beer drinkers want from craft brewed beers. Avid beer aficionados, Portlanders want all the information they can get about the brews they imbibe, he says. So, he organized beer tasting at his bars–the Horse Brass Pub and the Rose and Raindrop–which regularly bring together the local brewing community and the fans of their product in a format that engenders good feelings.
“What people liked about microbreweries when they started is they had a sense of camaraderie with the people who made the beer and could put a face on the brewer,” he says. Tastings, of course, introduce the public to beers and visiting brewers from small local breweries or large international firms, but run properly, they can bring the public together with brewers to create a sense of brew community.
They’re also great ways to keep people interested in the variety of beer styles that the breweries of the world have to offer, says Judy Ashworth, a consultant in California who specializes in craft beer.
“There’s always a need to educate the customer about what they are drinking,” she says. Bar owners and managers, too, need to keep up with changes in the beer industry in order to maintain a legitimate reputation with their brew-savvy customers.
Though not all bar operators can regularly entertain brewers at their establishments, inviting them as special guests for such events can capture the fancy of regular bar customers. “If you bring those people to the customer, it works,” Younger says. Whatever its structure or format, the successful tasting works best with elements of pleasure and fun, rather than overly serious sipping. “The atmosphere lets people know we’re going to enjoy the beers,” says Younger. As a pub owner who offers appreciative beer drinkers the opportunity to meet a brewer in a fun environment, Younger reaps rewards in customer loyalty.
Before deciding to conduct a beer tasting, most bar managers already have a theme in mind. Among the most popular themes are those which focus on an important or historical brewing style, the beer styles of a single country or region or the beers of an individual brewery. Experienced organizers of tastings, though, caution against events that are too narrowly focused, which can appear suspiciously commercial to customers wary of sales pitches.
“We are not necessarily pouring our own products, and we don’t do this just to promote our own beer,” says Alex Puchner, brewer at BJ’s Pizza Grill & Brewery in Brea, CA. With monthly beer tastings, he’s been able to explore many different themes and, although BJ’s is a brewery-restaurant, Puchner’s choice of themes ensures that customers get a broad spectrum of exposure to beers. He’s based tastings on such topics as the history of lagers, a comparison of pale ales or great breweries of Colorado. “You stand to gain from converting drinkers off mainstream tastes and getting them to appreciate different beers.”
Beer tasting specialists warn that these events are best approached as promotions, rather than opportunities to flesh out a slow night. Puchner cautions against any urge to base the success of a tasting on bottom line results.
“Don’t make it a money-making event because you’re gaining a lot by drawing people in,” he says. Consider a reasonable tasting fee that covers the cost of the beer being poured, he advises. The appetizers and the staff devoted to the event might represent extra costs, but conducting the tasting on a slow night can ultimately bring in dining room revenue, as, inevitably, some attending the tasting will purchase dinner before or after the event. “If you just go into it with philosophy of enlightening people, they’ll be back,” he says.
The goal of a tasting, says Puchner, is to develop in customers an appreciation of a range of beers, rather than one single brand. To that end, he looks for dynamic speakers who can talk from a broad knowledge base about beer and its many styles. “The key ingredient for a good beer tasting is that you need somebody to make the presentation that is not only knowledgeable about beer but also passionate about it, and you try to instill that passion in the audience,” he says.
Importers of specialty beers have long promoted organized beer tastings as an effective way to introduce the American public to unfamiliar beer styles. Michelle Mitchell, regional representative for importer Belukus Marketing, says most import firms try to get brewers to travel to the United States just to make such presentations at beer tastings. “Whenever we can get somebody from the brewery over here, we let our accounts know so they can schedule a visit,” she says. Representatives from foreign breweries can add an authentic feel to an event, she adds. “When we get these people in, they are perfect to talk about the food and the culture of the country, and how the beer is part of that.”
Bar managers should, however, be wary of the public sales pitch. “I don’t necessarily recommend a sales person for a presentation,” says Puchner.
Although many beer sales people are knowledgeable, distributors often try too hard to sell the audience on their product. He tempers that tendency by working with distributors to find out when someone from a brewery they represent might be traveling through his area. Cultivating a rapport with one distributor, he was able to book a brewer from Belgium’s van Steenbrugge brewery for a tasting.
“Try to get a brewer, an owner-operator of a brewery or a beer writer,” he says. A knowledgeable retailer who carries an extensive beer selection or writers who specialize on the topic of beer are unlikely to have any interest in selling a brand, and they fulfill Puchner’s main criterion: a passion for beer.
Pacing is an important aspect to consider in conducting a tasting, according to Sebbie Buehler, a craft beer consultant who has conducted many tastings in the eastern states. “I warn people not to get overly ambitious with a single tasting event.” Trying to cover too broad a range in a single evening can overwhelm customers. “One of the key ingredients is not having too many beers. Eight to 10 is the comfort zone for a straight beer tasting, and I keep it to five or six for dinners.”
Food also slows down the overzealous drinker. To give people a rest at the midpoint of the tasting, Buehler might even take a break from beer. “Sometimes, I use cider as an interlude in the middle as a refreshing change. Also, have enough crackers or bread on hand for cleansing the palate between beers,” she says. “You need to refresh the taste buds, otherwise some people don’t pay attention to the differences.”
Among the potential benefits of frequent tastings are introducing customers to beers not on your list and creating a showcase for newer brews to prove their worth before committing to a purchase. Buehler sometimes uses a formal presentation to introduce one brewery’s products in areas where they’re just entering the market. Whenever introducing new tastes, she keeps tasters focused by describing the beers as they sip and then talks about the brewery to convey the company’s beer profile.
Such techniques help her maintain the audience’s focus on each beer and ensure the salient points in her presentation don’t get lost to attention fatigue. Tastings organized around seasonal beers or single brewing styles likewise benefit from reasonable pacing, especially when the flavor profiles between different beers is subtle.
Many bars, especially those in full-service restaurants, probably already have the resources to develop beer expertise in-house, says consultant Ashworth. “Restaurants have had sommeliers looking after their wine selections for years and see what kind of business they have there.”
Once such expertise is established, the considerations for setting up a beer tasting should, in principle, be no different than those for organizing a wine tasting. “The basic themes always work,” says Ashworth. “Organize a comparative tasting across the same style, or between different breweries or between regions.”
And with new beers continuing to enter the market, if your first efforts are successful, there’s no logical limit to the number of themes that can be tackled. And there are few promotions as likely to build your reputation and enhance your image as a beer-friendly operation.
William Loob writes about beer and brewing for Cheers and other publications and is an exam-qualified beer judge.
BEER in bourbon country
One of the problems Andrew Hutto faces running tastings at his Baxter Station Bar and Grill in Louisville, KY, is convincing brewers a trip to bourbon country is worth their time.
“We have to fight the perception all the time with beer and wine people that we only drink bourbon down here,” says Hutto, whose 24-tap operation does very well with hard-to-find beers, like those from Anderson Valley Brewery of Northern California.
Hutto turned to tastings after finding that beer dinners were too unwieldy and potentially uncontrollable. Better, he thought, to market products directly to customers using the brewers themselves, who visit the tables during the tastings and offer the beers for free.
Unlike paid tastings, the Baxter Station set-ups give every customer a chance to taste the night’s fare, a bargain as far as Hutto is concerned. “The sample only costs us about five cents, and we potentially get back a sale of $3.25 or $3.50.”
With beer drinkers becoming more sophisticated, especially with many of them home brewers as well, these sorts of events give the beer-heads a chance to talk shop with brewers, yet not bore the average consumer, since the setting is still the bar.
“The way to build sales with customers is to do things that other people don’t do and keep your place in the forefront of their minds,” so even if customers are not the natural audience for beer tastings, the advertising related hook might bring them in, he reasons.
“You don’t build a beer business with 50-cent beer nights; in fact they could drive your regular customers away. For us, beer tastings fit our customer base.”