When entering a bar the customers’ first focus is often on the tap handles. Many steady beer drinkers are more interested in what is on draft than what is in the bottle so checking the taps—whether for an old favorite, or something new—is so natural it’s practically a reflex for many. Here are some reasons operators should be buffing up their draft programs and some tips on how to do that effectively.
A solid draft selection attracts customers. “There’s a social aspect to draft beer,” says Patrick Kirk, the marketing and brand manager for Buffalo Wild Wings, the Minneapolis-based outfit with 660 units, both owned and franchised, across the country. “There’s something about that good foamy head and an open glass to smell the aroma. That might sound poetic, but there’s something people enjoy about getting out and drinking draft beer.” Buffalo Wild Wings carries approximately 24 beers on draft at each location; and prices vary by region.
Reason number two: in a tight economy, draft beer can be an inexpensive part of a night out. After years of slow decline that pulled draft to under 10 percent of beer sold in America, sales have inched up a bit, according to the Beverage Information Group’s (Cheers’ parent company) Beer Handbook. Latest figures also show draft’s share of total sales rising by 0.2 percent over the past five years.
Kirk believes that increase may be coming from a renewed focus on draft from the major brewers. “You see a bigger emphasis on it,” he said, and mentioned one instance of how the majors are changing the image of draft. “I see ‘draft’ spelled ‘draught,’ for instance, in the materials we’re working on with Heineken. We’ve been talking to our operators about draft quality and spelling it ‘draught.’ We want to raise expectations.” Anheuser-Busch InBev, according to operator feedback, is also using the same terminology and pushing higher standards for draft dispense with its national accounts.
That’s good news for Buffalo Wild Wings. “It’s one of the core attributes of our brand,” Kirk says. “The three pillars of the business are wings, draft beer and sports. Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light are by far the top-selling drafts, but Blue Moon is right up there too. Between our demographic—mostly male, 21 to 34, single and a mix of young professionals and students—and our guests’ preference for draft beer, it’s a perfect storm.”
Draft as a Perfect Venue for Craft
Consumers want the chance to sample a variety of craft beers. Craft beers continue to grow, even when American beer sales overall are down, and draft is what craft drinkers prefer. Kirk agrees that, “People want Samuel Adams on draft; they don’t order it in the bottle.”
“Craft has done amazing things for draft,” notes Doug Hager, owner and manager at Brauhaus Schmitz, a German beer hall-inspired venue in Philadelphia. “We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg on what’s going to be available on draft. There are so many new breweries, with so many one-offs that it wouldn’t make sense to have a beer bottled year-round.”
Craft has historically been draft-friendly, largely because getting set up for draft was cheaper and easier than bottles in the early days of craft brewing. For example, Portland, Oregon-based Widmer Brothers was draft-only for their first 12 years. “Many of the local breweries only offer many of their beers in kegs, especially the specialty ones,” notes Kevin Conover, owner of the Tap Room in San Diego. “It’s more expensive and time consuming to bottle beers, so they prefer to keg them.”
The craft category grew 10.3 percent in dollar sales in 2009, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. With almost 1,600 breweries in the United States, the sheer number of craft beers plays into customers’ love of discovery and draft is the most common way that happens. “The tap handle is a great way to discover new beers,” Kirk agrees. “There are plenty of people who will always have a Bud Light, but there are others who are open to a new idea. Tap handles lead to trial. ”
Hager’s Brauhaus Schmitz is part of the new wave of German-style beer hall and beer garden restaurants popping up all over the country. Draft beer is more than important in a German beer hall-style setting, Hager says: “It’s mandatory! Bottles are nice, but the legitimate beer is always on draft. It’s freshest on draft.” So wider choices of draft beers are also in line with the national spate of German beer bar-inspired restaurant openings.
It doesn’t have to be draft from far away, of course. “Local” has become hotter than “organic,” and nothing is better than a local draft beer. “We gave each local brewer a tower, and they run those five taps,” says Conover; the local brewers are Stone, Karl Strauss, AleSmith, Green Flashs and Ballast Point, priced at $4.50 to $6.50. He notes that these offerings separate the restaurant and make it unique.
Tips for Tapping In
Getting more out of your draft program can be as simple as letting people know about it. Some chalkboards can be hard to read, so printed draft lists and updates to a Web site list are helpful. It’s essential to make sure your lists are up to date, readable, correctly spelled and complete.
Operators can also make use of the services offered by providers like BeerMenus.com, a draft menu service that’s currently up in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, and coming to Los Angeles, that helps restaurants create easy-to-understand draft beer menus. BeerMenus offers a free service to bars in those cities: list your beers—draft, bottle and cask—and they’ll make them all available on the Internet. The lists are searchable, sortable and extremely easy to update. Users can also search a beer to find where in the city it’s currently being poured. New beers show up on the front page. Conover’s Tap Room Web site goes one better: with a constantly updated “Live Beer” page of what kegs are about to kick, and what’s lined up to replace them.
Knowledge is power; a staff that knows draft can sell draft. Bartender Samantha Persall, at Red New American restaurant in Santa Cruz, not only knew her draft selections (36 taps, ranging from $5 to $7.25) and could explain them, she knew how Red’s merchandising plan worked. “We merchandise our draft in several ways,” she says. “We have beer pairing dinners that show off the beers we have, and we have Beer Pong on Mondays. We have draft specials on those nights, and we recently brought back pitchers.” Keeping staff up to date on changing draft selections takes some time and sampling, but pays off when customers tell their friends about the great new beer they had at your bar. It’s smart to have a manager or motivated server be your beer expert and have them do the training.
Pitchers do seem to be making a comeback as a simple, unique advantage of draft beer with a certain nostalgic flair. “People like to come in a group and buy pitchers,” says Conover, “and it’s cheaper per ounce.” The flight is another popular draft option: a sampling of beers sold three to six at a time. Conover sells six beers in six-ounce glasses for about $15 at the Tap Room.
Draft also gives you the option of a taste. Alexia Delandry, manager at the Village Tap in Chicago, runs 26 taps, priced $5 to $7.50 a glass. “We did have 32, but we downsized a bit to keep the quality up,” she says. “Still, some people come in and are overwhelmed. We’ll ask what kind of beers they like, then give them a taste in a portion cup. We try to find a good fit for everyone. And then we have a nice conversation about beer.”Getting more out of your draft program doesn’t have to be about new towers and ultrasonic line cleaners. By listening to customers, thinking about what they want and having a nice conversation about beer with them; you never know what you might learn.