What’s on your beer list? Carlsberg? Heineken? Red Stripe? If so, listen up, because there’s a growing sense in the industry that, if you’ve still got mass market beer dominating your tap list, you’re doing things very, very wrong. Right now, demand for craft beer is so strong – especially in major cities – that by ignoring its potential, you could be alienating a discerning audience.
Just ask Will Bucknell. As part of Kicking Horse, a beer merchant that helps restaurants spruce up their beer menu, Will’s seen the transition in interest from identikit continental lagers to small batch, carefully produced beers first-hand. ‘When we first started, we were taking lines off the mass-produced beers,’ says Will. ‘And people were nervous about completely moving away from those big brands. I think now, if you’re not doing that, it highlights how you’re not thinking about that part of your drinks menu.’
Those who have been thinking about that part of their drinks menu include Hawksmoor, Rosewood Hotel, The Ledbury, and Henrietta Hotel, all of whom Kicking Horse consult and work with to keep their beer offerings in tip top shape. These restaurants aren’t taking up beer just because everyone else is. In a similar way to wine, there’s the attraction to uniquity and the idea of something to suit every palate and every cuisine. ‘I think it’s to do with the variety in types of beer that have become more prevalent recently,’ says Will. ‘Beer used to be an add-on to a good wine list. But with the provenance of these sorts of things – like biodynamic wines, or where your meat’s from – you can now shout about beer in the same way.’
Catching up with the penchant for craft beer may seem straightforward enough. Lump a few beers on your menu every craft head is gagging for and hey presto, right? Well, no. Seeing as craft beer is so often compared to wine, there’s a little more finesse involved. By matching to a restaurant’s cuisine, choosing the right beer may be the easy part: it’s updating your staff’s knowledge to better that of your guests’ which may prove challenging.
‘Every new account has to take training with us to start with,’ says Will. ‘So they understand why certain beers are on the menu and why they sit well with a particular cuisine, or even the types of people coming in.’ Will says that, to help achieve this, staff’s prior knowledge or expertise is a good place to start. ‘With sommeliers and bartenders, it’s about linking things back to ideas and flavour profiles that they know already from their cocktail or wine training.’
That wine and beer parallel is a good thing to keep in mind. From terroir to tasting, there are innumerable aspects which carry over. And that’s especially true of pricing. While it’s easy to be put off by the cost of beer – particularly given the recent furore over a £13 pint – one has to take into account the costs of producing beer that’s of a much higher quality (we’re talking premium, high-in-demand hops; 9-month barrel ageing; and fresher brews that haven’t been filtered or pasteurised) to the mainstream, then make those points clear to guests.
‘With by the glass wine in London, you’re hard pushed to find anything below £5.50,’ says Will. ‘But I think these beers should be able to command a higher price. You can have your house-style lager, but when you want to make the jump to a saison [a versatile, fruity Belgian pale ale] or double IPA [a stronger, hoppier version of the IPA], there’s going to be a price jump. If you look at wine lists, you can have amazing wines by the glass and that’s all to do with customer experience – keeping them in there and showing them something different. We like to encourage the same thing with beer.’
When, or if, you recognise a new beer offering is gaining interest, Will suggests it’s worth getting more serious about the details. Details like glassware, for example. ‘It’s good to understand which beers sit well in which glass,’ he says. ‘We tend to not like pint glasses on a restaurant table, and neither to restaurateurs.’ Will says there are, of course exceptions. ‘But St John, who we work with – they really like having a pint on the table. It goes with their whole ethos of being unfussy.’
At the moment these details might not prick up the ears of most guests. After all, people will always want a lager or a pale ale – something that’s easy to drink and, for restaurateurs and staff, easy to sell. For restaurants looking to go that little bit further though, they might find they end up offering something guests never thought they’d take to. And as in the case of Haché Burgers, it could be the next best thing about your business.
‘We started working with Haché Burgers three years ago,’ says Will. ‘And they had three or four mass-produced lagers. We put on a small craft list for them. It went so well that they now don’t have any mass produced beer on there. They’re now thinking about the types of burgers and what pairs well with what, and what to offer at different times of the year. It shows you can still make your margin, you can do something interesting, you can improve the customer experience. All without losing out to having a Corona or Budweiser.’
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