The growing popularity of taverns with on-site microbreweries can be summed up in one word: beer. Not only do these establishments offer unique beers that are generally limited in distribution, they also provide a refreshing alternative atmosphere to more traditional restaurants and pubs. That makes brewpubs a prime drinking and dining destination for beer aficionados.
There’s no question that brewpubs are gaining steam. The segment posted its third straight year of accelerating growth, with a beer sales increase of 5.6% in 2011, according to the Brewers Association, which defines a brewpub as a restaurant-brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer on site.
When The Brew Kettle first opened its doors in Strongville, Ohio, back in 1995, it was only one of 20 or so similar establishments in the U.S., according to president Chris McKim. As of June 2012, the Brewers Association says there were 1,073 brewpubs in the U.S.; The Brew Kettle is ranked 13th in terms of U.S. barrels sold.
Thanks to the growth in on-site breweries, McKim finds himself with more competition than ever before. How does The Brew Kettle compete? “We try to offer the complete beer experience,” says McKim. “We have a very diverse customer base, and it’s important that we have something for everyone.”
Showcase your One-of-a-kind brews
At any time, you can find between six and eight original brews on tap at The Brew Kettle, which rotates more than 20 different signature brews annually. Each beer costs an average of $4 per pint. Other breweries operate similarly.
Emmett’s Brewing Company is a family business made up of three locations in the suburbs of Chicago. Customers will generally find five core beers on tap, and Emmett’s also rotates 30 to 35 seasonal beers throughout the year. A pint of beer costs $5 to $6.50, depending on the style of beer.
Tullycross Tavern & Microbrewery in Manchester, Conn., always has five standard beers available at the bar, at an average cost of $4 to $5.50 per pint. The venue rotates in about three other beers throughout the year, based on the brewer’s selection and also depending on what the customers are asking for.
Offering a wide selection of brews is a big draw for those customers who are mainly enticed to a location because of the beer, says Tullycross pub manager Jeff Carvalho. “Having something new to look forward to will keep people coming in again and again,” he notes.
On-site breweries also have the option of bottling and distributing their own products. Within the past year, Emmett’s began offering six-packs for carry-out at a cost of $9.99 each. The six-packs are also distributed at several retail and restaurant locations across the Chicagoland area.
The Brew Kettle features a variety of brews in 22-oz. bottles and six-packs, at an average cost of $10 to $12. Customers can also pick up a keg or growler poured straight from the tap. Brew Kettle beers are also distributed to retailers across Ohio.
While Tullycross doesn’t currently distribute its beer, plans to move in that direction are already in the works.
Although many microbrewery owners may be inclined to increase the availability of their brews, it’s important to remember that one reason these types of breweries are so popular is because they are somewhat of a novelty. Emmett’s is looking to acquire a 30-barrel brewhouse that will allow it to brew about 11,000 bottles of beer annually to keep up with current demand, says CEO Andrew Burns. But he is wary about expanding the reach of his brew too far.
“We’ve seen microbreweries that have overreached and are now stepping back to better serve their own market,” Burns says. “International consumers may love your beer, but part of the mystique of your brand is that it’s only available in a certain area. I wouldn’t want to lose that.”
Know your customers’ Tastes
People may be attracted to on-site breweries for the beer, but brewpubs must also deliver on the food. Taverns with on-site microbreweries must treat the brewing and restaurant sides of their business as equals. In other words, the beer has to be great, but the food must be amazing as well.
Brewpub operators need to consider the geographic location and consumer demographics of each establishment when determining what type of food to include on the menu. For example, rural establishments often draw in a more diverse array of people, so businesses need to diversify their menus in order to appeal to a wide variety of clientele, such as families with small children.
But some urban locations may have a narrower consumer niche, such as young professionals. Those businesses have the luxury of being able to customize food offerings a bit more to cater to their target customers.
It can be a challenge to allow beer and food to coexist peacefully at a brewpub. Special programs and events can help.
Emmett’s invites customers to attend several brewmaker dinners throughout the year, for which the brewmaster and chef collaborate on a five-course meal. These events are a great way of showcasing the uniqueness of a tavern/microbrewery.
“Oftentimes items will come out of those dinners that will be featured on our main menu later, like our cheddar ale soup, which is one of our most popular items,” Burns says. “But you also need to realize that some people are going to come into your place and just want a pizza.”
To that end, while every microbrewery should be proud of their original beer offerings, some customers will always be in the mood for something else. Many tavern microbreweries keep a section of “guest beers” on tap at all times, for those customers who won’t be happy unless they can order a major brand such as a Miller Lite.
Customize the experience
On-site breweries can also distinguish themselves from other competing restaurants and taverns by creating a unique customer experience using the novelty of a brewery. For instance, The Brew Kettle offers customers the opportunity to brew their own beer on the premises.
This hands-on brewing experience was an instant hit with the establishment’s more-sophisticated beer lovers. The event has drawn many other customers into the fray as well. McKim reports that the brewing appointments are so popular, they are often booked six months in advance or more.
“We get the customers in here at least twice, once to brew and once to bottle,” McKim notes. “They usually spend time some time in the pub as well afterward. This gives you a chance to really get to know your customers, and to give them reasons to keep coming back—which they do.”
The ambiance of an on-site brewery can be another customer draw. Space is precious in any type of restaurant establishment, and most brewpubs keep their dining areas separate from the brewing facilities.
Still, there’s an opportunity to create a distinctive atmosphere, whether that means showcasing some of the more impressive brewing equipment in a prominent place or devising a unique theme for the décor. The Brew Kettle’s customers can peruse more than 3,000 brewery collectibles, which are prominently displayed on the walls of the pub.
“We designed the place to create a quaint pub atmosphere,” McKim says. “We don’t have the music on loud because we want to encourage people to talk with each other. All the booths and tables were custom made with rustic, natural wood, as was the bar.”
Tullycross was also modeled after an Irish pub. The floor plan of the tavern was designed so that everything is centrally located around the bar. “Our setup is nothing like a normal restaurant, which makes the look and feel of the place very unique,” Carvalho says.
And while great beer, delicious food, and a downright cool or fun atmosphere are key to success, one trait all great brewpubs have in common is something they also share with any popular business: outstanding customer service.
“The families who come in here become our families,” McKim says. “We know what’s going on in their lives; we get invited to their weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. We know them and they know us. These relationships that we have formed have helped us be successful.”