Curating the Perfect Craft Beer List: A Certified Cicerone’s Guide
Too often, when perusing a bar or restaurant’s beer menu, I shake my head and think to myself. . .
This list makes absolutely no sense.
You name it, I’ve seen it: months old seasonals, all objectively terrible ‘local’ beers, lists littered with fake craft beers like Shock Top, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel’s etc. Or, perhaps worse, beers so esoteric and trendy that not even the savviest of craft beer drinkers has a clue what’s going on.
Sometimes it isn’t even an issue of the beers themselves (though it often is), but how they are arranged. Examples include: categories that don’t make any sense, or the name of a brewery and a style, but not the actual name of the beer. Which of Stone’s dozens of double IPA’s are you pouring?!?
Here are my tips for curating the perfect craft beer list:
1.) Select a wide variety of styles.
There are nearly 100 unique beer styles according to the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines. Make sure there is something for everyone on your list, not just you. Sure, you love IPA’s and dammit they’re popular; that doesn’t mean your whole list should be hop-bomb after hop-bomb.
Let’s say, for example, you have 20 taps at your beer bar. IPAs are ~40% of the market share of craft beer right now and our thirst for them hasn’t slowed down. It should make sense that at any given time, 4-8 of your beers are variants of IPA. But, you can still have a wide variation there: session, double, black, wheat, Belgian, West Coast, East Coast, New England, etc. Anything “hoppy” (even though I hate that word) will work.
Keep it interesting!
2. ) Pick a few tried and true seasonals, and some other “new” to market beers.
Craft beer drinkers love to try new things. Plan to have at least three or four seasonal and rotating beers to tickle people’s fancies from brands you trust. Shy away from the Cinnamon Vanilla Latte Lager from that brand new brewery you don’t know anything about just because it sounds cool.
It’s probably terrible, and now you’re stuck with it for weeks or worse.
3. ) Always offer a “light beer” replacement.
Going all craft? Awesome!
You still need to make sure that everyone feels welcome in your craft beer bar. Snobbery is never cool. Offer a domestic beer drinker an alternative or two. This is also a great way to increase your check averages and build trust with new craft beer customers!
“No, sir/ma’am, I don’t have Bud Light, but why don’t you try a sample of this delicious _________ (German pilsner, blonde, kölsch etc.) and see what you think.”
Craft is still less than 13% of the volume of beer consumed in the US – we have to meet people where they’re at. That means converting domestic drinkers one sip at a time (as aptly pointed out by this great article on mistakes made when introducing people to craft beer).
4.) Offer a few time-tested craft beers that always seem to sell.
Sometimes when I go out, I don’t want to risk ordering a beer I hate, so I’ll fall back on an old love. I’m talking about craft beer classics that are still relevant like Dogfish 60 Minute, Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Founders All Day IPA, or Allagash White. You should have at least a couple of these types of beers on your list at any given time.
In the 20 tap draft list example, I’d suggest at least 3 or 4 taps dedicated to these standbys (~20%). Whatever classics are still popular in your region of the country of course.
5. ) Provide a nice range of alcohol percentages.
This point sort of goes along with variety, but is important enough I wanted to give it a separate mention. Too often I see a list with a vast majority of the beers above 7% ABV. Your list should have a nice range of ABV, from the 3% Berliner Weisse, up to the burliest 11% barley wine, with a good median of your beers in the 5-7% range.
6. ) Make sure you provide all the relevant, accurate info on the list itself.
Craft beer drinkers want to know what they’re ordering. More importantly, from a business perspective, any confusion on part of the consumer will decrease beer sales.
Even if you have limited space for info, at minimum you should include: The full name of the brewery, the name of the beer, the style, alcohol percentage, and price. If you have space, throw in the IBU, and a short description. It’s also helpful to indicate what size pour you’re serving.
7. ) Keep it fresh!
This is perhaps the most important thing for beer buyers to be aware of when ordering for their list. Don’t be afraid to get real with your distributors. That 1/2 barrel of wet-hopped citra pale ale might have a steep discount, but it’s definitely not fresh. It’s worth paying extra for fresher product. And, there’s another reason to keep your hop-forward beers on the lower percent of your list. They’re bound to taste lackluster much faster than those where malt and yeast are the dominant flavors.
If you do end up with beers that don’t taste their freshest, or are past season, i.e. pumpkin beers in November, winter seasonals in March, etc. make sure to discount the beer so you can free up the line for something that will sell. It’s worth it!
8.) Want those highly sought after releases? You’re going to have to play favorites.
Having worked on the distributor side, as well as the brewery side of things now, I can tell you that getting those specialty beers is a numbers game. And it makes sense! Breweries want to reward the businesses that truly support them with their coolest releases.
My suggestion here, is to find a few breweries you adore, that are cranking out top quality beers, and dedicate a serious chunk of your lineup to them. Maybe a permanent handle, or at minimum, heavy rotation. Breweries notice high volume accounts and will reward them with highly sought after specialties. If you’re not into the permanent handle idea, you can also snap up some cool beers by hosting brewery specific events.
What do you think? Anything I missed?