The craft beer movement shows no signs of dying down anytime soon, so it’s worth investing some time and energy into cultivating the category. How you can bring craft beer to the forefront for your customers? Here are a few ideas.
PERFECT YOUR PAIRINGS
“Beer-pairing dinners are definitely popular right now,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director with the Brewers Association. “Oftentimes you’ll find that craft beer lovers are your more adventurous consumers. They want to experience different beers with different meals as a way of enhancing their overall experience,” she notes.
Park Restaurant & Bar in Cambridge, MA, has hosted several beer-pairing dinners, often in collaboration with craft breweries. These four-course dinners are priced at $40 per person and promoted in advance via social media and in-house flyers. For instance, Park partnered with Portland, ME-based Peak Organic Brewing Co. this past July. Menu items for the craft dinner included grilled calamari (paired with Peak Organic’s Summer Sessions), seared and glazed sweetbreads (paired with Weiss Principal), grilled pork tenderloin (paired with Nut Brown Ale), and chocolate goat-cheese cake (paired with Espresso Amber Ale).
Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has sponsored several beer-pairing dinners in its restaurants: The initial launch was a popular Wine. vs. Beer dinner at the Aureole restaurant—which is best known for its four-story wine tower.
“It was important to have the first event there, because at Mandalay Bay it’s been all wine all the time up until now,” says food and beverage director Sarah Johnson. “We’re working on a comprehensive, craft-beer pairing dinner calendar to hopefully roll out in 2014 that will feature events across multiple restaurants.”
Johnson has been a pioneer for expanding craft-beer offerings. Under her direction, Mandalay Bay was the first major casino to offer a craft beer (Lagunitas IPA) as a free drink on the gaming floor. The initial response was overwhelmingly positive, so this past August Johnson upped Mandalay Bay’s craft beer offerings to five additional selections, including North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner, Hoegaarden, Firestone Walker Pale 31, Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale and Anchor Porter.
These craft beers are available throughout the casino and in lounges, pool areas, and convention spaces at a cost of $7 each. Johnson says that adding craft beers to the menu has actually reduced Mandalay Bay’s overall beverage menu expenses.
Food and beer pairings are making their way into airport dining venues as well. OTG, which operates more than 175 restaurants in 10 airports, recently launched Biergarten in the Delta Airlines terminal of New York’s LaGuardia International Airport. Biergarten offers a variety of craft beers, many of them from the greater New York area, and all selected by Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver. As with the other restaurants in the Delta terminal, guests can order beers and food via iPad.
Biergarten’s craft selections will rotate seasonally; fall offerings included Brooklyn Lager, Bronx Pale Ale, and Greenport Black Duck Porter. All beers are priced from $8 to $12.
Guests can pair their crafts with a selection of hand-rolled pretzels, salads, and small plates. OTG concept chef Michael Coury, who has a deep interest in brewing, believes that beer can be easier to pair with food that wine is.
What’s more, beer’s traditional, unfussy appeal makes it a great fit for airport clientele, Coury says. “This is really our opportunity to educate people about great beer,” he explains. Operators are in a position to expand guests’ horizons “and introduce them to the broader world of beer.”
MIX IT UP WITH BEER COCKTAILS
Beer cocktails are hot, and craft beer in particular is a good match with spirits. The Corner Office Restaurant and Martini Bar in Denver in October launched a punch-bowl series of drinks, most of which feature craft beer-infused mixes.
“We’re always looking for ways to bring our great craft beer offerings to the forefront, and these punch bowls allow us to do that in an exciting new way,” says general manager Eric Liebtag. The first beer-infused recipe was the Calvado, which mixed Samuel Adams Octoberfest with Calvados brandy, cider, fig jam, lime juice and bitters.
The punch bowls serve four to six people and are priced at $45 each. Liebtag estimates that each bowl contains enough for two or three drinks per person, making them a good value.
But he notes that the main goal of the punch bowls is to energize social cocktailing. Liebtag thinks the punch bowl concept is a great way to encourage people to come into the restaurant with their coworkers after hours and enjoy having a drink together.
At Jasper’s Corner Tap and Kitchen, an upscale gastropub in San Francisco, beer cocktails have been part of the menu ever since the restaurant opened more than two years ago.
“A lot of people say beer shouldn’t be mixed with cocktails,” says bar manager Kevin Diedrich. “But if you’re mixing it well and you know what you’re doing, it’s going to taste good.
The cocktail scene continues to expand, “and the craft beer movement is growing like crazy right now,” Diedrich says. “It makes a lot of sense to combine the two.” He changes his cocktail menu on a quarterly basis, and he always makes sure to include two or three beer-infused cocktails on the list.
The Weissen Sour is one of Jasper’s signature beer cocktails, and it remains on the menu year-round. A mix of Bourbon, lemon, orange marmalade, house-made orange bitters and white beer, the Weissen Sour is priced at $11. Diedrich says it’s a great introduction to the craft-beer cocktail trend because of its refreshing taste and light orange notes.
Seasonal beer cocktails also rotate through the Jasper’s drink menu, which includes more than 60 beer offerings. This past summer’s Hapa Haole proved to be popular. Priced at $12, the cocktail featured an infusion of rum, Aperol, passion fruit, lime, and Kona Wailua wheat ale, which is brewed in Hawaii.
Park also rotates its cocktail menu on a regular basis. The listings always include several craft-brew infused drinks.
The first craft beer cocktail offered when the restaurant opened a year and a half ago was the $10 Tom Terrific. A fresh spin on the classic Tom Collins, this cocktail incorporates Hayman’s gin, Cherry Heering, lemon, simple syrup, and Slumbrew’s Flagraiser IPA.
While it’s no longer on Park’s standard menu, the Tom Terrific is available by request to those in the know. This secret cocktail menu has received some local publicity and it’s also shared by customers via word-of-mouth.
GO LOCAL AND SEASONAL
Seasonal beers in general have become incredibly popular, and the rich flavors of craft brews makes them highly desirable to customers. One of Park’s fall offerings is Southern Tier’s Pumking beer, a pumpkin ale-style beer available in a 22-oz. bottle for $15.
While seasonal beers are generally well-received, Park bar manager Chris Balchum advises retailers to pay attention to their particular customer demographics and preferences when choosing seasonal selections. “Over the summer, fruit beers may be the seasonal trend, but they don’t do super well for us,” he explains. “I’ll keep some around in bottles, but would never put one on draft.
At the same time, he notes, “we offered Lobstah Killah Imperial Red Ale last summer, which is definitely more of a fall ale, and people just crushed it—they loved it. So it really depends on who your customers are and what they want.”
P.F. Chang customers are embracing seasonal crafts as well. While regular beer menus are created at the store level (all of which feature at least three local crafts), every location of the Asian bistro chain celebrates the same Happy Hour promotion daily from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Samuel Adams Seasonals, available for $3.25 each (normally $5).
“Craft in general is still considered a specialty category for us, but sales are definitely reflecting the trend,” says Mary Melton, director of beverage of P.F. Chang’s. “It’s been a nice growth pattern for us.”
Several restaurants and bars are further embracing the craft beer trend by creating a private-label beer for their specific establishment. The Corner Office recently partnered with the Denver Beer Co. to produce its own craft beer, TCO Red Ale.
Launched in October, the development of TCO Ale was planned to coincide with the annual Great American Beer Festival, which is held near the restaurant. The brew will maintain the international food and drink flavor of the restaurant, and will be rotated on a seasonal basis. Liebtag hopes to eventually start bottling the custom craft in the future.
“Local craft is so popular with our community of patrons, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” he says. “Our restaurant is also attached to a hotel, so we get a lot of tourists coming through here.”
Denver is a great beer town, Liebtag notes, and many hotel guests from out of town want to sample the local craft beer as opposed to a national brand. “It’s part of their overall experience,” he says.
EMBRACE CRAFT SERVICE
Any operator looking to focus more heavily on craft beer must realize that such a distinctive and complex beverage category requires an investment in terms of customer service and education. Craft beer has requirements of its own that differ from wine, or even from more mainstream beer offerings.
For one thing, storage is key: Craft beers need to be stored cold in order to stay fresher longer. Many craft beers aren’t pasteurized and therefore have stricter storage requirements.
What’s more, the inclusion of craft beers on tap often means installing enhanced draft systems with extra bells and whistles, such as additional faucets and more capping of kegs. These features require additional steps to keep the systems properly cleaned and maintained.
Retailers also need to make an effort to stay informed about the latest trends in the industry in order to keep up with their customers. “Craft-beer consumers are educated,” Herz says. “They’re often choosing restaurant and bar locations based on the craft-beer selection and service offered.”
And these customers are going to notice things, such as whether the beer is served at the proper temperature and in the appropriate glass, Herz says. “Those observations are what will keep the customer from coming back, or going someplace else.”
Many bars and restaurants have taken advantage of the Cicerone Certification Program, which is the industry standard for recognizing beer experts in the field. Diedrich estimates that 75% of the staff at Jasper’s have participated in the Cicerone Certification Program.
Jasper’s, which tries to recruit employees who have strong knowledge of and experience in the beer industry, also offers comprehensive beer and spirit training for all employees. And the operator often invites different breweries to come on-site and run training sessions themselves.
Mandalay Bay staffers receive the appropriate training so they can be viewed as craft-beer experts by their guests. Johnson recently offered the first beer-training workshop for casino staff: It was the most well-attended training she’s ever had, with 97 employees participating.
Johnson herself became the first female Certified Cicerone in Nevada, which makes her beer’s equivalent of a sommelier. That notable distinction (there are only 14 Cicerones in the entire state of Nevada) gives her a comprehensive knowledge base to share with casino executives, staff members, and guests.
At Park, one staff member is currently completing the Master Brewers Program, an intensive 18-week course offered at the University of California, Davis. That employee plays a key role in the education of the rest of Park’s staff members.
Balchum enjoys doing blind taste tests with his team: “I’ll put two IPAs in front of them and not tell them anything about them, and they’ll just start talking about what they’re tasting,” he explains. “I find these kind of sessions very effective because the servers are engaging with each other, talking about the beers as they learn more about them.”
MAKE IT FUN
Operator say that while there is a lot to learn and share about craft beer, you don’t want to get so serious about it that you take all the fun out of it.
“Sometimes people tend to get a little pretentious about craft beer, like they do with wine,” Liebtag says. “Our goal is to take the pretentiousness out of it. We want people to be able to enjoy great beer at a good price and be able to enjoy themselves.”
Craft beer is a great thing to be a part of right now, he adds. “No matter how good your wine or cocktail list is, people are going to come in and want a beer,” and the craft beer trend provides plenty of fresh options.
Balchum agrees. “The coolest thing about beer right now is that everyone is trying to have fun with it,” he says. “Enjoy yourself. Don’t be afraid to get a little weird.”
For instance, he says, “take styles and cross them with other styles.” Don’t take yourself too seriously, Balchum advises. “Be knowledgeable and have information on hand in case your customers ask about it, but otherwise just relax and be excited.” ·
Melissa Niksic is a Chicago-based freelance writer.