It happens more times in an evening than the bar staff at the Toronado in San Francisco care to remember: A customer walks in, looks at the line of 46 taps and can’t decide what to order. Often, these customers arrive untutored to the world of microbrews and are astonished to find so many different beer styles offered together. And when they ask for a recommendation, bar owner David Keene relies on his staff to show off. Literally.
“To guide the customer to the beer flavors they want, it takes a few key descriptors–like lighter or and dry or sweet to narrow in on the customer’s preferences,” he says.
But arriving at a customer’s wants may not always be so straightforward because uninitiated customers understand accepted beer terminology to mean different things. It is a matter of asking the right questions to determine how much the customer already knows about beer styles, he says. “Then if you know your inventory, you should be able to find a beer that fits their taste.”
As more operators expand their craft, specialty and imported beer selections, it has become crucial that their staffs learn more about beer–and not just a particular beer’s origin and brewing style. Telling a neophyte that a lager has a good hop/malt balance won’t tell them much about a beer’s flavor if the only malt they’ve ever had came inside a chocolate malt ball.
Many styles of beers available on the market today have only become part of the U.S. beer landscape in the last few years. Bar patrons now have an unprecedented range of choices to suit their moods and palates. For some consumers, especially those just discovering American microbrews and specialty import beers, the sheer variety can become not a blessed bounty, but an overwhelming and confusing mishmash.
Certainly it’s serious business for a bar manager if customers order beers unlikely to satisfy them. Sometimes consumers who are just learning about the different styles of beers are not ready for challenging tastes that don’t meet the standard flavor profile of mainstream American beers.
In many cases, bar operators find themselves cast in the role of beer style teacher. “Through education is how you keep the craft beer renaissance healthy,” says Judy Ashworth, a former pub owner in California and frequent speaker on the craft brewing business. If customers aren’t willing to take chances and order unfamiliar brews, there’s little sense in carrying them, she adds. “Teaching people to enjoy the different styles of beer and understand the flavors is the way to keep the range of choices we now have.”
Describing the flavors in beer to customers can be tricky. Toronado’s Keene recalls recommending a brand of beer to a customer who said he liked sweet beers, only to find later that he was actually referring to the flavor of a hoppy beer. “They had been drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and that’s what they were calling sweet.”
OLD WORLD PROFILES
Most American brewers use the major European styles as models for their beers. A familiarity with the flavors of British ales, porters and stouts; Irish stout; and German lagers styles, from pilsners to bocks, can provide a basis for beer appreciation.
Americans don’t necessarily identify traditional European brewing styles with particular flavor characteristics. Surveys have shown that most people even misunderstand fundamental distinctions such as that between ales and lagers. With many customers unclear about brewing styles, some simple, easily identifiable characteristics such as a beer’s color have become established as ersatz styles in the American beer lexicon.
Ray Disch, one of the original founders of the Triumph Brewing Co. in Princeton, NJ, found that “amber” was as good as gold for a pub catering to a microbrew crowd. While Disch was researching the market in preparation for opening his brewpub in 1993, he found that the word “amber” was readily recognized by customers to distinguish a beer as a “hand-crafted” product rather than a product of a large brewery. “My partners and I went to pubs all over before we opened, and found that up to 85% of draft sales in microbrews were in the ‘amber’ beers, whether they were ales or lagers.”
Keene concurs that such an easily identified characteristic often presents a user-friendly way of getting a novice to try new beers. He takes care to introduce his customers gradually to beers with aggressive flavors. “I find that most people being weaned off the standard American beers usually care for sweeter beers first. If it has a lot of hops in, it’s hard for them to take, so I start them with something fruity and malty.”
Keene may start by suggesting a malty German style lager. “If they like that,” he says, “the next step would be an amber, like the Anderson Valley Boont Amber or Alaskan Amber.” Most American amber beers show the malt flavors without laying on a heavy dose of hops. After a customer demonstrates a more adventurous palate, he begins to recommend beers with more aggressive hop bitterness and character.
As for those who prefer darker beers, Keene finds that customers who like malty flavors often move up to traditional German doppelbocks, while those who favor a drier character enjoy stouts based on the classic Irish style. The progression sometimes runs more quickly to the heavier flavors than he thought. “I would have expected people to move to a porter as a way station before stouts, but they have been difficult to sell. Apparently, porter is not much of a stepping stone to stout.” And he has noticed a gender-bias in stout drinkers. “Women seem to be open to the flavors of a lot of microbrew stouts. Whether they like the comparison I make to coffee flavors, I don’t know.”
Another area of the beer style spectrum, however, stretches the range of flavor descriptions beyond those traditional styles: the specialty import category. Belgian beers in particular and a few German beer styles, such as Hefeweizen, require more explanation to get a customer’s palate ready for flavors that they often don’t believe are characteristic of beer.
Don Feinberg, one of the principals of beer importers Vanberg & DeWulf, likes to explain the flavor spectrum of Belgian beers as combinations of four fundamental flavor characteristics–sweet, sour, dry and spiced–arranged radially as compass points. The linear flavor model with the malty or sweet flavors on one side and hoppy or dry and bitter flavors on the other is too simple to convey the components of basic flavors in some beers, he says. “For most American beers, the flavor descriptors are based on two fundamentals–sweet and dry. We have to at least add two more descriptors before we can begin to talk about these Belgian beers.” Abbey style ales are sweet but also a little spicy, he says, while lambics are both sour and dry.
Feinberg also cautions that the term “dry” in the context of Belgian beers doesn’t indicate bitterness from hops but rather a more attenuated beer with less residual sugar, much as with wine. “That’s the point, we need different flavor descriptors suited to the way these beers are drunk and enjoyed–with food rather than on their own as a refresher.”
Chris Demetri, bar manager at the Old Bay Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ, takes that philosophy to heart for all the beer styles he serves. He incorporates flavor descriptions on Old Bay’s draft beer list to take some pressure off the bar staff on busy nights. Each of the 25 draft selections has a tasting note of one or two sentences to describe flavors, aromas and mouthfeel. Whenever the selection changes, a new list is printed up. “It’s more work to do it this way, but we like to give people more information about the beers,” he says.
Having printed flavor descriptions readily available also gives the bar staff a quick reference when they talk to customers about beer. Demetri trains his staff to know the beers they serve, but he also frequently acquires limited releases from American microbreweries and rare imports that are new to his market. Printed descriptions presents the customer with a common language of flavors. Restaurants make their wine lists more accessible this way, Demetri says, “and why shouldn’t we also do this with beer, especially when you have so much range of flavors?”
It is important to let customers taste beers they’ve never had if they’re eager to learn more about beers, Ashworth says. She advocates serving draft beers in smaller, sampling-size glasses at a reduced price if a bar has a good selection of draft choices. In San Francisco brewpubs, she says, it’s a standard practice to offer sampler trays of a half-dozen or more beers.
“Most everybody here in San Francisco has dollar tasters, and it’s popular with customers,” she says. Using three- to four-ounce glasses gives customers enough for a satisfying drink, but leaves them room to try different beers so they can find their favorite. “You’re going to get a lot better customer reaction if they don’t like a beer because they only paid a dollar, and the bar doesn’t have to take back a whole pint as wastage.”
A bar with enough taps can let customers taste a range of beers on draft to survey beer styles, much as tasting flights are used in some restaurant wine programs. “If you get a customer who doesn’t know the styles, it’s a great way to teach them,” Ashworth continues. Four or five tasters could introduce a customer to the range of the main beer styles, or the flight can let them compare differences in the same style from different breweries.
Although there are exceptions, starting novices off with lighter colored and tasting beers is generally accepted as best. Often the malty flavors become more evident as the beers get heavier and the colors darker, with flavor notes of chocolate or coffee emerging at the darkest end of the spectrum. Sometimes a little explanation helps that a fruity character comes out in fermenting an ale, while lagers retain the flavor of the sweet malt. Heavily hopped beers can be light or dark in color, but the bitterness dictates that they should also be served later in the lineup.
The strategy of starting at the lighter end of the spectrum works well for the Old Chicago Restaurant chain, says corporate beverage manager Tracy Finklang. “In general, when we start into a new market, we tend to go on the lighter side in building the beer list.” She also focuses on what beers are brewed locally as an indicator of the styles that are popular in a region, then uses those styles as springboards to suggest other beers.
Operators focusing on beer should know that enthusiasm and a selection of wonderful products are not sufficient to guarantee long term success. As the beer landscape keeps shifting, it will take more than knowing and loving beer; operators will need to communicate that knowledge and passion in a way new beer consumers can understand.
Focus on Hops
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Recently, American beer marketers have been focusing on “single-hop” ales. Whether the category can be said to constitute a proper brewing style is doubtful, but this marketing strategy does draw attention to the flavor characteristics of hops.
Shipyard Brewing launched its Fuggles India Pale Ale last year, which was planned to be the first of a series of single-hop beers in the product line. Says Shipyard president Fred M. Forsley, “We saw a strong IPA market, and we decided to feature the Fuggles because it has an interesting name with which the general public was not familiar.”
Bert Grant’s Brewery is likewise releasing a series of seasonal beers, each made using a single hop variety. The Springfest, made with Willamette hops, was released in March. “Using a single kind of hops is a way of getting a distinctive flavor in the beer,” says brewery founder Bert Grant.
The idea of using a single hop in formulating a beer is actually a time-honored tradition. Some of the classic beer styles are traditionally made using only one hop variety: Saaz for Czech pilsners, and Hallertauer Mittelfrueh for the Munich styles of Bavaria. Many small breweries in the U.S. also make beers with one hop variety, but focusing on the hop variety as a marketing strategy is new to North America, says Grant. “I would be pleased if it caught on and everybody had at least one brand made with a single hop variety to give the beer a flavor of where the hops are grown.” -WL