Beer sales once seemed simple: Ask what the customer wants, grab a bottle, open it and hand it over with a smile. Now, it’s more complicated—operators sell dozens of competing brands, offer tasting flights, plan for seasonal releases, stock specialty glassware, conduct promotions, tastings, host beer dinners, brewmaster visits, and more.
“It can be just as overwhelming for new hires as it is for new customers,” says Sam Wynne, assistant beer director at the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in Houston, TX. “When you present a large beer menu, about 40% of our customers don’t know where to begin. Our staffers have to know how to guide them.”
For certain, guidance is key to sales, notes Patrick Libonate, director of on-premise and draught strategy for Heineken USA. “According to our market research, bartender or server recommendation was cited as one of the top-three reasons for trying a new beer and for enhancing the overall drinking experience.”
Staff training promises to simplify selling beer, according to experts like Samuel Merritt, a consultant and the founder of Civilization of Beer in Tivoli, NY. “About half my work is in the on-premise sector because of the growth in craft brew brands, and surge in awareness among consumers,” Merritt says. Freshness and flavor matter immensely to savvy craft beer consumers.
Merritt is one of about 650 certified Cicerones in the U.S. The Cicerone Certification Program, founded and directed by Ray Daniels, “has given us a great platform for beer education, and when retailers are able to get all their staff Cicerone certified, they post the certifications on the wall,” Merritt says.
Evidence of Cicerone certification is good for customers to see, Merritt explains. “I find it just as reassuring to see a sign posted behind the bar showing the date when the tap lines were last cleaned, because investing in draught quality is really another form of customer service.”
You have to remember that “draught systems are a big investment,” says Wynne, “because you need to know ideal flow speeds, mechanics of fonts and lines, chemical cleaning solutions and maintenance—training has to cover all of that.”
Investment in staff training may feel risky for a bar owner, especially in competitive markets or college towns where staff turnover is high. “Some retailers will pay staffers for the time spent in training, but will split the registration fee, and reimburse the employee six months later,” Merritt says. “It’s a way to control costs up front and realize the value of training through staff retention.”
Brands offer instruction
Both importers and breweries see the value in staff training, and several have designed their own programs. For example, the Passion4Beer (P4B) program offered by Heineken USA educates bartenders and staff on beer ingredients, brewing process, taste profiles, proper pour and beer and food pairings. “P4B is all about re-igniting the passion for beer, and doing it in a way that bartenders and bar owners can enhance the quality of the on-premise experience: By serving beer in the way its brewer intended,” Libonate says.
More hands-on beer training programs are being offered, says Karl Ockert, technical director of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) professional brewing education as well as the Beer Steward program. “We train distributors and wholesalers who are just trying to keep up with all the new beers coming in house, so they can sell them knowledgeably to bar operators,” he says.
“Several breweries, such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., have hired us to train their sales force, and we’ve also worked with chain operations,” Ockert says. One of these is Winking Lizard Tavern, a 14-unit chain headquartered in Bedford Heights, OH.
Winking Lizard Tavern offers a proprietary “beer geek” program for staff education, training about 500 staffers each year. The best “geeks” get to take the MBAA Beer Steward program as both reward and incentive. Successful graduates are eligible for rewards such as travel to breweries in Belgium.
“The 14 Winking Lizard Taverns are the original concept and built around a loyalty to brand building,” says John Lane, vice president of operations for the chain. “We have been a brand Ambassadeur for [Belgian brewery] Orval for five years in a row and are the first ones to be named Cum Laude Brand Ambassadeur outside of Europe.”
The Lizardville Beer Store and Whiskey Bar is a hybrid concept in Bedford Heights, where guests can choose from 650 beers to go or served on-premise, Lane says. Winks Bar and Grille is a local concept, with 18 of the 33 tap handles from Ohio breweries and the rest from surrounding states.
“We chose the MBAA Beer Steward program because I felt it was the most pertinent for my serving staff when dealing with our guests,” Lane says. The training sessions were also focused on the Winking Lizard’s menu to create memorable pairings.
“Sales are certainly a measurement, but we are known as the place to go to get a quality beer—clean glass, proper glass, best tasting draft beer, proper pouring techniques, proper hygiene techniques,” Lane says. And according to the Ambassadeur title for Orval, Winking Lizard Taverns must properly pour the Trappist golden ale, he adds.
Rick Seemueller, a brewer for Anheuser-Busch for 38 years, is now an instructor for the Beer Steward program. “We start with the premise that everybody has a different palate, and nobody is wrong in their preferences,” he says. “After tasting liquids that are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, trainees discover their own thresholds of sensitivity.”
Good training gives staffers the right words to convey the character of a beer. “The beer geek wants to know that there are Centennial hops in the IPA,” says Ockert, “but the average consumer needs to know that the beer is hoppy and bitter, with pineapple aromas.” The Beer Steward program teaches descriptors that are recognizable and delicious for four basic flavors of beer: malty, hoppy, fermentation-forward (yeasty) and flavored (such as fruit or spices).
New brewing techniques have expanded the range of fermentation flavors, from lambics and sour ales, as well as blended and barrel-aged beers, from breweries such as Jolly Pumpkin Artisanal Ales (Michigan), Russian River Brewing Co. (California) and Jester King (Texas). Sour beers are popular with the most discerning beer drinkers.
Flying Saucer Draught Emporium focuses on “knowledgeable—but not snobby—service,” says Wynne. “The geeks are only about 10% of the market, so chasing people away by making them feel like they don’t know enough won’t help the cause.”
Jen Eller, corporate trainer at the Flying Saucer and its sister restaurant Meddlesome Moth, notes that the company has 15 Flying Saucer locations, and trains about 15 to 20 people per unit, per year. “The Saucer environment is funky and friendly, the kind of place where you can hang out. We are huge supporters of local brewers and often host brewer visits.”
Off-the-shelf tools that Eller chooses for staff education include the Brewers Association’s Craftbeer.com website, the just-published World Atlas of Beer by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb, and tapping the knowledge of more seasoned staff such as Wynne.
“We use Skype to test the presentation skills of servers at 30 and 90 days post hire, to assess how well the employee describes and sells beer, face to face,” says Eller. “If an employee’s answer to a beer question isn’t the traditional response, but is correct and something that the customer could understand, we love that too.”
What sets the Flying Saucer and Meddlesome Moth apart from others, Eller says, “is our staff’s ability to tell you about any beer on our wall, top to bottom. We know what it looks, smells, tastes, feels, and finishes like, and we can find beers for even the pickiest guests!”
Guest service is at the heart of the Best Brews program at the Four Points by Sheraton brand, which consists of over 160 mostly franchised hotels in nearly 30 countries around the world. Each hotel has differing formats for bar size and seating, but in the U.S., the Best Brews draft averages $5 to $7 per pint.
According to Jeremy Cooper, director of food and beverage, specialty select brands for Starwood Hotels, “the Best Brews program can be an attraction for business travelers—such as knowing that in our Nashville-Brentwood hotel bar, there’s always Yazoo [local craft] beer on draft.” Hotel general managers are encouraged to visit local breweries and develop relationships for seasonal promotions, including Oktoberfest.
The Siebel Institute’s Beer and Food: A Hands-on Encounter program stands out for its guided tastings with Jared Rouben, a professional chef turned brewmaster at the Goose Island Clybourn Pub, Andrew Hroza, chef and Cicerone at the Goose Island Clybourn Pub, and Randy Mosher, partner in the 5 Rabbit Cerveceria in Chicago. (Mosher is also author of Tasting Beer, which is used as a textbook in the Cicerone program.)
In this course, the emphasis is on pairing, and what makes a beer’s flavor compatible with chocolate, cheese, salads, main dishes, desserts. It also covers beer that’s blended with fruits or wines to make beer cocktails.
Given the accelerated growth in craft beer, staff training is a smart investment. “We have seen a correlation between our P4B training program and growth in share of sales,” Libonate says. “Since launching, we are up 25% in accounts where the staff has been trained, and in some accounts, sales of Heineken draught are up by 50% or greater.”
Mixing it up with beer drinks
Beer cocktails offer a bridge for training and tasting. A cofounder of the blog Beermixology.com, Ashley Routson also directs social media for the Bison Brewery of Berkeley, CA. She expands appreciation for beer through collaborations with bartenders on beer cocktails and blends.
“I’ve worked with Nat Harry, mixologist at the Revival Bar + Kitchen, who makes a lot of her own tinctures, bitters and syrups,” says Routson. “For the Mad Botanist cocktail, I made hibiscus syrup, tart and a beautiful red color to match the Bison Saison de Wench ale brewed with hibiscus, roses, lemongrass and pink pepper corns.”
The recipe was a creation for a Mad Hatter promotion at the bar and restaurant, which features a farm-to-table menu, and average drink prices of $9 to $12. Other beer-enhanced cocktails at Revival include the Great Pumpkin, made with Diplomatico anejo rum, candied pumpkin syrup, Anchor Brewing Co. porter and nutmeg foam ($11).