Operators know that beer drinkers love their brews, but it’s not just the suds inside the packaging that entice them. Aluminum cans and bottles, quirky labels, cool taps and suitable glassware are some of the ways that bars and restaurants make the sale. In terms of ringing in beers sales, “In order to get noticed, you have to stand out,” says Scott Clime, wine and beverage director for Passion Food Hospitality Restaurants, which runs six concepts in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Beer in cans is definitely making a comeback. About 150 craft breweries in the United States offer it, a small but growing minority according to the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association. Two years ago, Boston’s Harpoon Brewery began canning its IPA and summer ale; California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Company now cans its pale ale and IPA; and the Boston Beer Company, which produces the Sam Adams brand, is rumored to also be considering canning.
First off, cans’ lightweight design is better for the environment. Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado reduced its carbon footprint and fuel costs for shipped beer by 35 percent when it switched to cans. And cans are the easiest and most frequently recycled beverage packaging in the world. One recycled aluminum can generates 95 percent less pollution and requires 96 percent less energy, than a new one; it also saves the equivalent of six ounces of gas, or the electricity to power an amplified guitar for two hours, according to data from, Cheers’ parent company the Beverage Information Group.
From a more practical standpoint, cans allow beer to travel where it typically cannot, including beaches, campsites, boats and golf courses, without the chance of glass breakage. The Clearwater, Florida-based chain Hooters, with 430 locations in the United States and 27 internationally, carries 48 beers, including cans at events like bike nights, car shows and other festivities held in the parking lot. “Can beer can be nostalgic and a novelty if positioned well during certain activities,” says Noela Scarano, director of marketing for Hooters of America, LLC.
Nostalgia and Freshness through Packaging
Cans also provide a retro drinking experience that many customers crave. Blake Rohrabaugh thinks cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon will continue to dominate throwback beer varieties. The director of beverage for Bar Louie, an urban bar chain based in Addison, Texas that offers up to 68 beers at its 56 locations, is adding a PBR pint glass this year that’s exclusive to Bar Louie. “It is shaped and painted to look exactly like the PBR can. We wanted to add PBR on draft, but we also wanted the iconic can label, so we designed this to get both.”
The aluminum bottle is also a good introduction for guests hesitant to drink beer from a can due to perception, as it offers the same lightweight footprint, with a familiar, acceptable shape. Aluminum bottles are used at sporting events and concerts and Hooters locations have had success with a co-branded bottle from Anheuser Busch featuring the Hooters owl logo and the Bud Light brand. “The customers loved them. I bet today you can still find them as collectors’ items on a shelf—we couldn’t keep up with the demand,” notes Scarano.
In addition the trendiness factor of canned beer—and environmental implications of aluminum packaging in general—restaurant guests are identifying another obvious and compelling reason: fresher beer flavor. Today’s aluminum packaging is lined with a water-based coating; since the beverage and metal never touch, the “tinny” flavor formerly associated with canned brews is literally a thing of the past. The opaque surface also means zero exposure to light, translating to authentic flavor. “The stigma of cans as a package is being removed as guests become more educated. The cans being used today are a great way to keep beer fresher and maintain product quality from damaging elements such as sunlight and heat,” explains Rohrabaugh.
Maxwell Lipp cites a noticeable increase in one particular style of beer’s propensity to be found in a can. “For aficionados of highly hopped beers [India and American Pale Ales], a canned beer delivers a fresher product with minimal breakdown of the bitter flavors that the customer wants,” declares the manager of Brasserie Beck, 220-seat Belgian brasserie in Washington, D.C. He goes on to note that the gap of those who believe this packaging is equated with a lesser-quality product has shrunk over the past few years.
But not all operators are convinced that aluminum even affects a beer’s flavor. Clime isn’t sure if an aluminum can or bottle provides better beer flavor, or if it’s a marketing ploy.” Guess it’s for the drinker to decide.”
Design in the Mix
As for regular glass bottles, brewers are increasingly utilizing striking labels with whimsical, clever names, logos and drawings. Clime admits he recently purchased a six-pack of Porkslap Ale from New York’s Butternuts Beer & Ale solely because of its design (two pigs belly flopping into one another), and also cites the popularity of irreverent brands like “Arrogant Bastard” and “Flying Bitch.” He notes that unusual labels and names are the most efficient way to stand out. Since District Commons was designed as a tavern, it’s the group’s most beer-centric venue, offering twenty beers on draft and on hundred in bottles or cans.
Bottles served in ice-filled buckets (including smaller “pony” sizes) are a popular promotion in many markets, but operators need to check with state and local laws to make sure this promotion is legally permitted. Hooters offers brands that make sense to serve ice cold, like Corona. “A nice iced down bucket of beers on a hot summer day on a Hooters patio makes for a terrific visit,” says Scarano. “And when serving large groups or parties it takes the pressure off the server too—it’s a win-win.” Bar Louie serves ponies in buckets in some locations on Wednesday evenings (five Miller Lights for $5, for example). “Buckets appeal to the more economically conscious drinkers, or drinkers in a group,” notes Rohrabaugh.
At first glance, it may seem that operators who serve beer solely on draft don’t need to be concerned with beer packaging. But Kip Snider, director of beverage for the Irvine, California-based, 36-location Yard House Restaurants chain, present in twelve states, disagrees. “I can speak for draft beer and how a cool and unique name and tap handle go a long way when there are so many great brands available. Marketing and packaging will always intrigue the consumer if it’s done correctly.” Most Yard House locations have between 130- and 160 beers on tap, sold in “Shorty’s [half pints], pints, goblets [twelve-ounces] and half yards [thirty-two-ounces].”
And though it’s not packaging per se, the role of the right glassware for draft beer shouldn’t be underestimated. A pint glass with the logo of the brew inside advertises the brand while giving a guest pride about enjoying their favorite brand; glassware designed to highlight a particular beer’s aromas and flavors enhance a beer drinking experience the same way wine glasses shaped for different grape varietals can.
“A lot of local beers are getting into the game with beer-specific glassware, which can highlight the distinct features of their particular beers and make them taste better—like the Belgians have been doing for centuries!” explains Rohrabaugh. Brasserie Beck uses matching glassware for their offerings whenever possible. “The added value of enjoying a Kwak [Belgian amber ale] in its unique beaker-like glass becomes a conversation starter at our tables. We see a lot of patrons who are sold on the glass before they are sold on the beer,” admits Lipp.
Though it’s apparent that you can’t judge a beer solely on its method of delivery, savvy operators recognize that packaging definitely influences purchasing decisions at the bar. As Rohrabaugh puts it, “the first thing we taste with is our eyes.”