By Fred Crudder, Industry Brew Expert
It’s official: high-quality, real, flavorful beer is hotter than ever before. If this is news to you, well, then, let me welcome you to what we here call “Planet Earth.” Hopefully, you come in peace. But if you came here with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, may I recommend the wine drinkers over there? We beer drinkers, based on our propensity for hops, tend to be a little bitter. You wouldn’t like us at all. But the wine drinkers are very juicy. Eat them.
All joking aside, if you are in the restaurant business, you already know that good beer is where it’s at these days. What you might not know is how you can craft a beer list that shows the beer lovers of the world that you know your stuff when it comes to suds. It’s no simple task, but just like a well-chosen wine list, the right beer list can tell your customers a lot about your place. Whether you run a corner pub, a casual restaurant or a white-tablecloth dining room, you need to pick your beers carefully. And I’m here to show you how.
Identify Your Identity
Who are you and who are your customers? Your beer list needs to reflect who you are and it needs to make sense to the people you serve. Do you serve upscale, Asian fusion to middle-aged suburbanites? Probably wouldn’t need to go too heavy on the dark and mysterious Belgian ales. Are you doing traditional Italian fare? Then you might not need too many of those IPAs you’ve been hearing so much about. But by choosing beers that make sense, you can offer your guests a beer list that shows a great deal of forethought and consideration, regardless of your restaurant’s concept.
What you absolutely do not want to do -- if your restaurant has any sort of ethnic theme to the cuisine -- is to fill your beer list with commonplace beers from the country your cuisine is based upon. (I’m talking to you, pretty-much-every-Asian-restaurant-I’ve-ever-been-in-besides-that-one-awesome-Thai-place-in-Las-Vegas.)
Generally, the common imports from every country are the worst, most mass-markets beers they have. No one will be impressed that you carry them, so don’t.
A Little Effort Goes A Long Way
Most styles of beer have a well-known, go-to brand that most people recognize. They are, for one reason or another, what people think of when they think of that kind of beer, and it can differ by region. You can have those beers, sure, but do they constitute a “world-class” beer list? No. You can do better than that. Do a little research, maybe a little asking around, taste a few on your own and try to come up with a high-quality replacement for the well-known brand.
Here’s an example: a Belgian Witbier is a style of beer that is popular these days, pairs well with many types of foods and is light enough to be enjoyable to just about anyone who doesn’t hate beer. The two main brands are both made, despite their labeling to the contrary, by huge international brewing conglomerates. Again, you can do better than that.
There are examples of the style made by American craft brewers across the country that are not only far superior in flavor, but also their positioning on your beer list will show your customers that you actually thought about the beers you put on there. And if you happen to have the one of the select few that are widely known to be the best American has to offer, then you really hit a home run.
Fill your beer list up with more of the reputable choices that are a few degrees from center and you are on your way to that world-class beer list. Don’t forget about imports! Most of the beer styles we know of were created in Europe. American brewers emulated them for a reason. You can find some incredible beers from the imported beer ranks the same way you can find them among American craft: just a few degrees from center.
Make Your Choices Relevant
A well-chosen beer list does not do all the work on its own. The employees who sell them need to know what they are talking about. Train your people. Any customer looking for help with a beer selection is a customer ready to be prepped for their meal selection. Customer looking at a hoppy pale ale? That guy is going to love the Chile Verde with queso fresco that you have on special tonight. Also, put helpful yet concise descriptions of the beers on the menu. Add suggested food pairings. Nothing too wordy: “Pair with seafood, salad, and dishes served in a light sauce.”
That’s it. Based on the preparation of your staff and your menu, the beers you choose can be as relevant to your menu as you allow them to be.
The “L” Word
I wouldn’t be doing you any favors if I didn’t remind you about the love for all things local these days. It’s great, I support it and I hope it nevers goes away. If the places we go to eat and drink continue to stock locally made items, it shouldn’t. You can decide what percentage of your beer list is local. I would base mine on the quality of local beer that you have available. Regardless of how densely populated your area is with breweries, you won’t be doing yourself any favors if you don’t have a decent sized chunk of your list comprised of local offerings.
You Gotta Have Style(s)
You need to have a diversity of beer styles, but it does not have to be exhaustive. No need to cover every single nook and cranny of the beer world. You should represent the major beer styles of the world, and by that I mean lager/pilsner, wheat, pale ale, IPA, something amber, something dark, and -- if you feel like it -- something with fruit in it. Your cuisine will tell you which places to go heavier on the number of offerings and which ones to represent lightly. Keep in mind that the preparation of your servers and the beer menu will do what you want them to do if done properly.
For example, IPA is the hottest beer style going these days. You’d better have a few. But if you want to stand out from the crowd, help your customers discover new things and also rediscover old favorites. Those popular IPAs are not right for all types of food. In fact, they are downright bad with many. Too bitter. But you can excel where others fail by offering well-chosen beers that are food friendly and knowing how and when to sell them.
Here’s an example: a Vienna Lager is a very well-balanced, amber beer that is extremely versatile. It may get overlooked from time to time in this era of hop worshipping. But a well-made Vienna Lager, paired with some herb roasted chicken, is outstanding. A classic Bavarian Hefeweizen is a beer style whose heyday has come and gone (for now), but this cloudy, fruity, refreshing beer paired with a goat cheese and roasted beet salad is a masterpiece. Help that customer out of their IPA rut, even if just for a little while. Differentiate yourself from the crowd by giving your guests new and unexpected experiences.
To have a truly world-class beer list, it takes a little effort. But once you have spent the time and energy to create the infrastructure, the rest is easy. With the incredible number of breweries in the world (a number that is growing every day), people are truly enjoying the variety that quality beer has to offer. You can switch out brands to keep things fresh while maintaining the same core of styles, menu suggestions and server training. While the nuances between brands will definitely occur, a beer of a certain style has the same basic characteristics of that style regardless of who makes it. Once you have laid the foundation, the rest is not only easy, but also it’s fun for you and your customers. Enjoy!