“We’re stupid if we don’t do this!”
That’s Ryan Tedder, the “wine chief” at Grace, a new fine dining restaurant in Ft. Worth, Tex., talking about why his team decided to match their well-chosen selection of wine with a beer selection of equal weight and emphasis. “Our tagline is ‘Modern American Classic,’ ” he says. “What’s more American classic than craft beer? There’s so much low-hanging fruit: it’s local, it’s different, it’s American.”
Tedder carries about 30 craft beers, priced from $4.50 to $17. “Beers are the second page in our wine list,” he boasts, noting that the listings all have tasting notes. “We’ve set up tastings for our staff, and we did a big display of beers on the wall; the craft labeling is great. We also added beers to our series of Wine Me, Dine Me prix fixe dinners; we had a lot of people come in and try ten new beers.”
Tedder puts his finger on a new reality for restaurant and bar beer programs: craft beer isn’t just for “beer bars” any more. It has reached a level of customer awareness and interest that you can’t afford to leave it out of your beer program. “I have friends that have unique tastes,” they said. “This is not a compromise area. I wouldn’t consider a less expensive brand for them.”
Total craft beer depletions hit 132.6 million 2.25 gallon cases last year, according to Cheers’ parent company the Beverage Information Group. Depletions also increased six percent in the same year. BIG defines annual craft beer production as beers that are produced in quantities of less than 2 million barrels.
Statistics from the from the more than 1,000 member Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association also showed growth of the craft brewing industry in the first half of 2009 was up by five percent by volume and nine percent in dollars.
A Growing Category
“You want to consider why you still have four light American lagers and no other choices,” advises Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association. “Today’s beer drinker demands variety and choices and for too many of America’s beer drinkers, no longer does a light American lager satisfy every beer occasion. Diversity and selection are also key to increasing sales and keeping your customer happy.”
Beer selection was part of the concept plan for Post 390, an upscale comfort food restaurant that opened on October 3rd in Boston, which is part of the local Himmel Hospitality Group. Paul Dias, senior vice president of operations for the group, explained why a selection of twelve drafts and about thirty bottles, priced from $5.25 to $19, was as important as Post 390’s carefully chosen high-volume wine program.
“There’s been a lot of talk about gastropubs,” he notes, “and what we wanted was an urban tavern: a place with good dark liquors, a place for people to meet. Good craft beer is part of that. We like good beer, but to get it, we had to head out of town to a dive bar; great beer, but maybe you can get a sandwich. We have American classic food, or a top choice New York sirloin, with that great beer.”
The keys to moving the beer and getting the customers interested are the same as with their wine program: reasonable pricing and training. “One of our sous chefs is a homebrewer,” Dias explains, “and our wine director is a big beer lover. They’ll be training our staff, putting training manuals together to put smart salespeople on the floor to sell what’s on the list. We want them to know as much about the beer as they do about the wine; what’s hoppy, what that means, where it’s from.”
There can be room for even more choice. Jeff Miller, partner in TJ’s Restaurant and Drinkery, a casual independent restaurant in Paoli, Penn., had a decision to make in 2005. His new restaurant was lost in the shuffle. He saw craft beer as the key to success. “We did away with macro-taps and replaced them with a constantly rotating craft beer selection,” he recalls. TJ’s now carries 24 drafts and about 150 bottles of craft and specialty imports, priced at $5.25 up to $30 for rare 750-ml. bottles of Russian River specialty ales.
“We educated our servers about styles, glassware and even beer history,” he says. “Each menu item had a beer pairing to go with it; much like an upscale restaurant would offer a wine suggestion. The results have been and continue to be astonishing. Our sales are up 50 percent since 2005.”
Outside of a tightly focused presence on several “beer geek” websites, Miller doesn’t credit any program or promotion for these increases, just having the right stuff at the right time. “Look at the other places like mine around here,” he said. “Craft Ale House in Limerick, or The Whip in Coatesville; middle of nowhere, and they’re jammed. Any one of us is a testament to the fact that—in the right market—these beers sell themselves.”
Miller didn’t jettison mainstream beers; he kept the most asked-for brands in bottles. But he gave craft variety pride of place. That’s also what is behind the success of the Best Brews Program at the White Plains, New York-based Four Points by Sheraton which has 81 locations. The man behind that, chief beer officer Scott Kerkmans, explains that “each Four Points is mandated to carry four draft beers and eight bottled beers. Half of both the draft and the bottles should be local craft brews where the situation allows it. The other half needs to be quality beer from a national or international brewer.”
At the Philadelphia City Center Four Points by Sheraton, for example, the draft beers are national brands Stella Artois and Sierra Nevada, along with regional brewer Yuengling, a local phenomenon. Bottles include locally brewed Victory craft beers, which have proven to be quite popular with guests.
Keeping things changing is a lot of extra work, or course. As Julia Herz asks, “Is the additional effort with new suppliers to get more people into your stores worth it? Local and regional beers make you a destination. People want to buy local, they feel good about it, and they will have loyalty to places that carry these products.”
“The Best Brews Program is worth the extra effort,” says Kerkmans, “because it gives our guests what they are looking for. Just like any good beer can do, it brings them together and lets them relax at the end of a long day.”We’ll let Ryan Tedder of Grace have the last word about the importance of variety in your beer program. “It’s such a homogenous hospitality market anymore,” he says, “you’ll be flat if you aren’t different.”