There’s an old saying that it takes a lot of beer to make great wine. And while that may be true—as winemakers love good beer, too—what about actually selling beer in wine country? Is it an easier task for operators among sophisticated palates or more difficult due to the competition? Are there special challenges or greater opportunities?
In terms of proximity, virtually every region of the country with a vibrant local wine industry also has numerous small craft breweries located side by side among the vineyards. This is true in the nation’s wine-growing heart of northern California and in upstate New York’s wine country, where almost without exception beer sells better where wine is made.
This proximity of wine and beer is no accident. For the most part, people are cross-drinkers and enjoy a varied number of different beverage-alcohol offerings depending upon the circumstances or situation. But one thing seems abundantly clear; loving good wine does seem to make people more open to trying other complex beverages, especially craft beer.
In recent years, high-end craft beer has managed to prove itself the equal of wine in a number of settings, particularly paired with a variety of menu items. Offering a wine and beer selection provides customers with greater choice and operators with more opportunities to connect with them. Alex Puchner, senior vice president of brewing operations for BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, a comfort food destination based in Huntington Beach, Calif., which has 94 restaurants in 13 states, says that “craft beer outsells wine in every one of our locations in wine country.”
Kip Snider, director of beverages for Yardhouse, an Irvine, Calif.-based upscale casual restaurant chain operating 28 locations in ten states, notes that things have “opened up a ton over the last four to five years with wine drinkers accepting beer. It’s gotten very extravagant in the last decade.” Snider adds that generally wine drinkers can be more accepting of wine, brandy or Sherry-like flavors in Belgian-style beers. What is more, a wine drinker’s palate often already is open to those flavors and is more ready for them. For Snider, knowing that allows his opereration to offer a wider selection of craft and imported beers with less perceived risk than might be associated with non-wine producing markets.
A Similar Consumer
Wine appreciation often lays the groundwork for beer sales. Doug Thayer, owner of Rooster Fish Brewing at Wildflower Café, a brewpub restaurant in Watkins Glen, N.Y. by the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, believes that the “craft beer industry has the same target market as wines.” He’s found it “easier to sell beer in wine country because more sophisticated palates like good craft beer,” and his beer sales have been growing by double digits every one of the five years since he’s added brewing to his 20-year-old restaurant. The fact that so many of the area’s restaurants focus solely on wine also gives Rooster Fish Brewing a point of differentiation.
When BJ’s expanded north and opened stores both in Washington and Northern California, they noticed an increase both in wine and beer sales. Puchner notes that BJ’s “strongest wine sales are in wine country,” as you’d expect, but added, “we also sell more craft beer there, too.” In both markets, Puchner has seen “more and more crossing over to flavorful beers. Wine drinkers have an appreciation that spending $10 on a great bottle of beer, rather than $20 for a bottle of wine, makes it seem like a great value.”
Kevin Reed, director of brewing operations for the Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery chain, with 37 locations in 16 states, says that’s what he calls the “artisanal craftsman attitude. Wherever we share markets, we reap the benefits of those general attitudes,” the propensity for wine drinkers to look for something new. He adds that while it’s been a tough year for the restaurant side, sales have continued in areas where grapes are grown even in this tough economic year.
Where Local is the Focal Point
The focus on local products has been hard to ignore lately. Nowhere is this more true than for craft beer, though of course it’s also happening in the wine regions. Rooster sells all local wines, along with their own beer—and even uses locally grown hops—along with serving mostly local guest beers on tap.
Laura Thompson, service manager at the Rochester location of Dinosaur BBQ, one of three in New York, agrees, noting that with “24 beers on tap, priced $3.50 to $4.50, we sell a lot of local craft beer. Many customers are asking for the local ones.” Nearby, Matt Cass, manager of MacGregors’ in Rochester, one of five locations in upstate New York, carries beers from all over the world, but also is focusing on local breweries, too.
One contrary experience to the local preference occurred when Yardhouse opened their first location in Colorado. Initially, they carried nearly 40 local beers, priced from $3.50 to $5, but consumers quickly showed a preference for hard-to-find beers that couldn’t be located at many other establishments, such as beers from Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing and Belgian beers such as Tripel Karmeliet. This suggests, as Snider reflects, that he “keeps my eyes and ears open to what my customers are looking for.”
Another feature shared between wine and beer cultures is the worship of key ingredients—grapes in the case of wine, hops in the case of beer. It is no accident that hops grows abundantly on the West Coast as well as in upstate New York, which until the late 1800s was the nation’s hop growing region. In all these places, hoppy beers currently are the rage, with India pale ales and even hoppier double- and triple-IPAs continuing to be some of the fastest growing beer styles.
Rob Vallance, the Portland, Ore.-based district brewing manager for McMenamins, which operates 46 hotels, restaurants and brewpubs in Oregon and Washington, sees mixing beer and wine as inevitable. “We’re in the very heart of Oregon wine country, operate a vineyard at one of our locations and many area wine tours start at our hotels. We see people coming back from doing wine tastings who want to unwind and take a break. They want a beer as a change of pace.”
Putting the Product Out There
Just having beer prominently displayed in McMenamins’ restaurants, in some cases being their primary focus, communicates their availability. At McMenamins, menus include all the beers and descriptions of each one, not just a list. They’re displayed in essentially the same way as wine, giving them equal weight.
Other simple methods to promote beer in wine country include offering big—22 ounce or 750 milliliter—bottles. These can be used to encourage sharing, for dessert or both. Since margins often are better in big bottles, too, educating staff about these beers in the same way they know the wines can pay dividends. If a restaurant already offers wine and food pairings, suggesting a beer with each dish gives customers greater choice.
What it often comes down to is treating beer with the same respect afforded wine. The majority of customers living in or visiting a wine country already love both wine and beer. Showing guests that the restaurant or bar cares about both with equal passion becomes an advantage. Building a reputation for a good beer selection in wine-drinking areas ends up being a plus as customers view such places as unique. This allows establishments in these wine regions to differentiate themselves by offering high-end craft beer as an alternative to the local wine culture.
It may indeed take a lot of beer to make wine, but it appears it also pays to sell both, too.