Draft beer is changing: from tap takeover promotions to tap handles that don’t even look like brewery packaging; the on-premise environment for draft beer is evolving fast and favoring craft brands.
Many on-premise beer customers focus on draft offerings first, so imagine the surprise when a customer walks into Milwaukee’s Rumpus Room and spots an upside down cleaver, antique eggbeaters, rolling pin and other vintage kitchen implements above the draft lines on the back bar. “We decided to avoid the visual clutter of different brands for tap handles,” says John Wise, managing partner and director of operations for Bartolotta’s Restaurant Group, a multi-concept chain based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
Along the 750-square-foot bar at the Rumpus Room, which is part of the Barlolotta group, there are several chalkboards on columns that list the beer specials and noteworthy new releases on draft. A large beer list (about 24 pages) includes regional brands as well as imports such as Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock on draft. Why skip the branded handles? It’s all about selling with service, says Wise, “This way, customers talk with our servers and bartenders, so we can personally answer questions about what’s on tap and get the conversation going.
Hand selling draft beer by the glass
With the growing investment in draft lines, operators often ramp up their hand selling of draft beer. Whether offering tiny samples for customers to try before they buy, or bringing in brewers to create excitement through guided tastings or tap takeovers, operators are making sure customers are sampling a wider variety of beers on draft.
Draft beer continues to offer the opportunity for greater profit margins, especially if draft lines are balanced, clean and well maintained to preserve freshness and flavor (see sidebar).
Making it possible for customers to try new beers affordably is key to building excitement about draft beer. More operators report adding sampling programs and tasting flights. Jennifer Cooke, beverage director of Phillips Seafood Restaurants, a 15-unit chain based in Baltimore, Maryland, says, “We’ve introduced new sizes for draft pours and switched our 10 taps in our new location along the Harbor so the drafts are all from local breweries or breweries from states bordering Maryland. We’re located in a prime tourism area and to enhance the guests’ experience, we want to show them what we actually are doing in Maryland and the region.”
Pricing for draft beer at Phillips is affordable, as an 8-ounce glass is $3, a 16-ounce pint is $5 and a 24-ounce pour is $8. “The most popular size is the 16-ounce pint, but some visitors prefer to get several 8-ounce glasses to try different beers for less than $10,” says Cooke. Bar areas range in size from 1,300 to 1,600 square feet and beer sales are going higher, “Draft is now accounting for as much as 35 percent of all beer sales,” says Cooke, adding that Phillips customers are also evaluating draft choices based on ABV as well as beer style.
Variety in draft selection attracts new customers. “In 2011 we took a strong look at the beer category in general, really looking at how we can position ourselves better for our guests,” says Todd Kronebusch, vice president of guest experience for Buffalo Wild Wings. “We made the decision in 2010 to expand all new restaurants to 30 taps as well as retrofitting our existing stores during our remodel process. This expansion allows us to focus on four major categories: premium domestics, craft, import and local brewers.”
Buffalo Wild Wings (BWW), based in Minneapolis, has had unit growth of more than 12 percent per year, with 825 company-owned restaurants and franchises. Along with that growth, Kronebusch sees a very strong shift to craft and local brewers. “I think that many beer consumers are now expanding their palates, they are willing to try something with more body and flavor, in a wider range of styles,” says Kronebusch. “I myself tend to lean towards full bodied-beers such as New Belgium Brewing Co. Fat Tire or Boston Beer Co. Sam Adams Lager, but will still crave a Coors Light or Michelob Ultra on a given day.”
Though BWW’s beer prices vary by region, overall, adult beverages comprise 23.7 percent of total sales for the company; and beer represents almost 77 percent compared to spirits at 22 percent and wine at one percent. Draft beer accounts for 85 percent of total beer sales, and of this, premium domestics are most popular at 58 percent, craft at 28 percent and imported brands at 14 percent of beer total sales.
“In 2012, we moved away from beer of the month program that we had for most of our existence and moved to Game Day Specials,” says Kronebusch. “We believe that ‘Every Day is Game Day’ at Buffalo Wild Wings so we wanted to enhance Game Day! We now have three offerings instead of the single Beer of the Month. There is a craft, a domestic premium and an import, which allows the guest to have more of variety to choose from and for us to showcase some really great beer.”
Feet on the street: Beer weeks, tap takeovers
As more cities embrace the Brewers Association promotion of American Craft Beer Week each May and festival Beer Weeks crop up across the U.S., more independent operators compete on draft with tap takeovers. Just as it sounds, this promotion involves switching all or a majority of draft lines to serve offerings from a single brewery. Featuring all of a single brewery’s beers on draft may sound risky, but it all depends on the venue, the size of the beer community, the rarity of the beers on tap, and marketing support.
Justin Lloyd, owner of Denver-based “dive bar” Star Bar, thinks that tap takeovers are a great fit for his venerable bar, operating since 1959. “It all depends on the bar, the brewery and the market: in Denver, we’re lucky to have a vibrant draft beer scene and tap takeovers really help the smaller breweries.” It’s almost like a brewery tour as road show, Lloyd says, “You won’t get to see the fermenting tanks but maybe you will get to talk directly with the brewer at our bar, while drinking beer that is hard to find.” Popular tap takeovers include Avery Brewing Co., Dogfish Head, Odell Brewing Co., Oskar Blues and Ska Brewing Co.
As the Star Bar has only six taps, it’s simple for Lloyd to switch all the taps for an evening. “For example, with New Belgium Brewing Co., we focused one night exclusively on all their Lips of Faith limited releases,” says Lloyd, “and in 2011, we brought in all the beers from Oskar Blues for a total tap takeover to celebrate American Craft Beer Week.”
Operators can create their own taps takeover promotion by stocking up on rare beer styles suitable for aging. “I try to stay abreast of what the Colorado breweries are doing, so if I get an idea, I can put this together in six months: I collect the beers, cellaring them myself and then when I’ve collected six kegs of the rare releases, I can put them on all at once.” Lloyd adds that operators have to be strategic, by “choosing the beers that know you will cellar and age properly and will achieve a total sell-through in 14 days or less.”
Tapping into regional festivals makes sense for many operators. Established in 2008, Philly Beer Week is one of the largest beer weeks in the U.S., featuring more than one thousand events, from beer dinners, tours, pub crawls, tastings and meet-the-brewer nights throughout greater Philadelphia. For example, Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery and California’s Anderson Valley Brewing Co. participated in highly popular tap takeovers in 2011.
Philly Beer Week co-founder Don Russell says that, “It’s a promotion that really begins with the bar owner having a great relationship with the brewery. Customers come to these events because you offer a lot unusual beer, many that would not normally be available on draft. Bar owners and wait staffs are more engaged and interested and the participating brewers are there on-premise, so you can actually have a conversation with the brewers themselves. We’ve even had to create a category for the 50 tap takeover promotions in this year’s Philly Beer Week program. That’s the magic of sixtels [five gallon kegs].”
Presentation and specialty glassware
At Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S., beverage sales and standards manager Brad Ward highlights the impact of draft. “Our Beverage Team decides what selections to offer based on the theme and style of location [restaurant, lounge, pool bar, quick service, or outdoor cart]. For example, at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, we offer Abita Amber, Purple Haze and Turbodog along with Bud Light. We also offer a flight of the three Abita beers. At The Wave [a restaurant and lounge at Disney’s Contemporary Resort] we offer Orlando Brewing Blonde, Pale, and Brown Ales, Orange Blossom Pilsner, Blue Moon, Bud Light, Yuengling and Samuel Adams Seasonal. We also offer a flight of the three organic Orlando Brewing Company beers. There are numerous other locations that have draft beer selections based on theme.”
Specialty glassware helps sell Disney’s draft picks. Ward says, “We use glassware from Stella Artois, Guinness, Samuel Adams, and Abita at select Parks and Resort locations.” Draft beer accounts for approximately 24 percent of Disney’s beverage alcohol sales.
Buffalo Wild Wing’s Kronebusch adds that, “In 2011 we introduced a new large beer, the Nucleated Beer Glass, as well as nucleated pint glass. This is our signature glass; we believe that the nucleated etching [in the shape of a Buffalo] allows more of the carbonation to be released and the beer to become more appealing to the guests. In 2012 we are introducing the Logo specific Nucleated 20 ounce Sam Adams Glass and Guinness Glass to go with the current Stella Artois glass.” In 2012, BWW beverage and brand manager, Patrick Kirk, will be looking at more sampling and beer flights to enhance the beer experience at Buffalo Wild Wings.”
Draft education is Key
Bar owners and operators also work to protect their investments in draft beer through line maintenance and font cleaning. Training: such as the Cicerone program, the Doemens Beer Sommelier program at the Siebel Institute and the MBAA: Master Brewers Association of the Americas Beer Steward Program, helps educate servers to detect off flavors in beer from poorly maintained draft lines. More beer distributors are focusing on the MBAA Beer Steward program to assist them in training staff to help operators get the most out of their draft beer sales. Remember, foam is beer, so if a server is scraping foam down the drain, profits can go down the drain, too. If your bar staff needs training to understand draft maintenance, it’s a worthy investment.
Draft beer clearly remains a category worth exploring and investing in for many operators.