Business of Better Beer: Draft beer selections benefit from thoughtful guiding principles

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No photos or videos, just words.

With the passing of Common Haus Hall in Jeffersonville, where I served for the past year as beer director, I’ve now reverted to the same role at Pints&union in New Albany (founded in 2018). In fact, I’ve been doing both jobs since last October.

Now the load will lighten, unfortunately.

It isn’t my place to offer post mortems, or to enumerate the reasons for Common Haus’ unfortunate demise. After all, they’re essentially the same reasons that always apply in situations like this. Trust me, you’ve heard them all before, and besides, mourning hasn’t yet concluded.

However, what you may not have heard explained, at least recently, is what my job entails. “Beer director,” a job title that works well enough, is one I invented for myself, unless of course it has been inadvertently borrowed. If so, thanks to whomever deserves full credit.

Having a job as beer director implies the existence of something beer-like to direct, in this instance a purposeful beer program, which in turn indicates that ownership desires such an approach and values beer highly enough to organize the establishment’s beer selection according to thoughtful guiding principles.

Otherwise bar staff could just easily order and stock Michelob Ultra. But what’s the challenge (or the fun) in THAT?

Consequently, these thoughtful guiding principles extend somewhat beyond asking “hmm, I wonder which utterly flavorless light beer sells the most?”

At this juncture there’ll surely be questions:

Q: What on earth are thoughtful guiding principles when it comes to a beer list?

A: They signify knowledge and experience, which separate my beer methodology from the mainstream.

Q: But the wholesaler reps choose the beers, right?

A: Not if I have anything to say about it, ever.

Q: Don’t you just sell beers that people want, and make lots of money?

A: Yes, after a fashion, although only after I help them to decide what they want.

The overarching point is that I’ve spent the past four decades exhibiting a stubborn certainty that in fact, precious few beer consumers know which beer they really want, and I can help them decide, while in the process providing a few interesting beer-related factoids to enrich their lives, as well as simple tools useful in separating what they prefer from what they don’t.

From this standpoint, it’s easier to understand why there ought to be “thoughtful guiding principles” prefacing the beers we’re selling.

The primary reason why this phrase might at first seem confusing when applied to a selection of beer, whether on tap, or in bottles and cans, is the rarity of such principles and instances of planning in today’s marketplace.

Bursts of social media beer porn measured in millisecond attention spans have produced a level of beer awareness that’s a mile wide and an inch deep, hence the contemporary preference for a “random beer chaos generator” theory of the selection process, witnessed most often on the draft beer side of the ledger, in which one observes a constant, spasmodic, kaleidoscopic rotation of choices—literally beer today, gone tomorrow.

Not only has this tilt-a-whirl approach somehow come to be regarded as the default, it’s also become entrenched and impervious to rational examination. There is a shared assumption that American beer drinkers have now separated into two monolithic blocs comprising polar opposites, just as Americans have done in social and political respects, and with predictably paltry results.

On one side, undiscerning consumers demand the same mass-market lager every time, and on the other, they refuse to drink the same beer twice.

Speaking personally, I don’t give a tinker’s damn about Liteweight mass market lager apart from acknowledging that it’s real (at least for now), and finding no compelling reason to refrain from leveraging it to augment the bottom line. Also, to me, the nation’s PBR drinkers form a ready, available pool of potential converts to better beer.

I’ll get to them eventually.

However, there’s no reason to take up keg space with these sorts of beers, because those who embrace a slavish brand loyalty to one or the other mass-market beer tend to accept it as swallowed from any package so long as it’s identifiable as THEIR brand, seeing as their self-worth is predicated on monogamy.

So be it.

Serve them Bud Light in glass bottles, aluminum cans or aluminum bottles, and it won’t matter. They’ll drink their brand and be happy. No worries, and that’s fine.

As for the others, who enter the bar with iPhone in hand, Untappd app primed and ready, eager to amass their badges and document the inevitable photographic money shots, they’re misdirected and harmless overall, so long as owners and managers avoid the mistake of thinking the random beer chaos generator these customers prefer resembles the most efficient and profitable business model.

It doesn’t, because catering to either of these two extremes ignores an increasingly restless majority of beer consumers who find themselves caught in the middle between strict brand loyalty and anarchic anti-loyalty on the other.

This restless majority of beer consumers is pluralistic and not snobbish, enjoying whatever light lager they’re handed at a friend’s cookout, but also finding pleasure in better beer exploration.

Their photos usually depict people, not beers, and they are unmotivated by ratings, giving little thought to polishing in-crowd credentials via social media.

However, denizens of the restless majority recognize accommodation when they see, feel and taste it. They’re ready to reward recognition of their innate pluralism by extending their loyalty to the establishment—and shouldn’t this be the overarching objective?

Thoughtful guiding principles are a way of tailoring one’s beer selection approach to appeal to minorities and majorities alike, to actually provide a little something for everyone, to make a few dollars more, and in the process, to become known for a unique, characterful beer selection in the same way as diners regard an establishment as the place they go for cheeseburgers, ravioli or pho.

Let’s look back to the evolution of draft beer to see how we got here.

In ancient times beer was “kegged” in clay pots, and later wooden barrels, which often were hoisted onto the back bar at the tavern and poured by gravity feed. Aluminum kegs came into existence in the 1930s, and stainless steel became the norm beginning in the 1950s.

Prior to Prohibition, “free houses” (when publicans choose which beers they prefer to offer) were far less common than “tied” houses, which reflected the reality of breweries running their own retail outlets, buying competitors outright, or paying independent proprietors for beer placement.

Having deemed these practices as anti-competitive and subject to abuse, the post-Prohibition regulatory milieu saw the nationwide mandating of middlemen in the form of a wholesaling tier through which alcoholic beverages passed from producer to retailer. Breweries could neither own their own pubs nor tie products to them contractually.

Of course as the American beer market consolidated into ever larger mass-market breweries with deep pockets and national reach, and as dispensing technology left gravity-fed barrels behind in favor of kegerators and draft systems, some of them with multiple beer spouts, the chicanery simply shifted from direct payola to (generally) legal, if periodically shady, tactics on the part of wholesalers.

Permanent draft beer placement could be achieved by offering swag (trinkets as well as more valuable articles), carefully calculated discounts, visits by the Swedish bikini team, or inviting the publican’s family for an outing to St. Louis, then charming the kiddos with a Clydesdale romp while mom and dad dined gratis on veal parmigiana and chianti at a secluded Sicilian spot on The Hill.

(And why chianti? Famously August Busch III, otherwise known as “Three Sticks,” wouldn’t dare drink even his own industrial swill.)

Of course when it came to waxing imperialistic about draft lines, there was an element of self-reinforcement for bar and eatery managers, who might as well acquiesce to kickbacks, given that alternatives simply did not exist.

Absence of choice forever reinforces the status quo, but it also inspires challenges to the prevailing hegemony, hence the advent of the Better Beer Era, which kicked off in 1976 when the pioneering New Albion brewery opened in California.

What became known as microbrews, and later “craft” beer, was in most instances a luxury product from the standpoint of cost per ounce, compared with the prevailing swillocracy’s race to the bottom, which from the standpoint of a typical bar meant far less in snob appeal than the fact that better beer’s mark-up brought a greater return per transaction than High Life, from which you’d make a buck each, while but $2 or $3 came back from a Sierra Nevada.

By the late 1990s megabreweries rushed to reclaim spouts they regarded as rightfully theirs, creating an assortment of competently rendered but ultimately timid mockrobrews, which quickly fizzled.

However, in the process of pushing its short-lived portfolio of insipid imitators, Anheuser-Busch managed a genuine act of innovation, touting the use of slender 1/6 barrel kegs.

The idea, unfamiliar at the time, was that a conventional keg box capable of holding three standard half-barrel stainless steel kegs could be converted by the addition of couplers, beer lines and a snazzy draft tower, adding five or six more draft beers, and thus being magically transformed into a taphouse.

Savvy operators realized they could deploy hardware intended for mockrobews, and use them for the genuine article. They also came to see that craft’s profitability suggested using any available beer line to trade up, especially since those for whom Coors Banquet was the only beer they’d drink would in fact drink it from any available package, and not insist on draft.

Through the decade of the 1980s and even into the 90s, it wasn’t common in metro Louisville to find more than three or four taps. But once 1/6 barrels became a viable options and product availability began broadening, existing restaurants and bars began adding draft lines, and start-ups factored them into their build-outs.

I’m not sure what the average number of draft spouts would be in a typical bar and restaurant today. My sense is between 6 and 12, and as many as 100, which reminds me: Whatever happened to Hop Cat?

Microbrews symbolize the pre-internet era, and craft beer the age of social media.  A thicket of beer ratings aggregators successfully passed from one period into the next, exemplified by RateBeer and Beer Advocate, but the contemporary zeitgeist is probably best summarized by Facebook and Untappd as the ideal portals to post beer photos and accumulate ratings credentials, respectively.

(Yes, I’m aware of TikTok, but I’ve yet to tick my first tock, with no plans to do so any time soon.)

Social media has reshaped the entirety of beer appreciation, and of course many of these changes are for the good—right up until the tail begins wagging the dog like a majorette jiggles a baton.

To wit: If one consumes a beer and fails to post a photo on Instagram, was it even real? Did it even happen? Shouldn’t a reel have been posted?

The point from a bar operator’s perspective is that while a minority of better beer lovers have, in effect, a quota to fill, which cannot be achieved unless they never drink the same beer twice, they’re still a minority in terms of overall clientele.

Meanwhile the majority of better beer drinkers frequenting any bar or restaurant find that if they come to prefer a certain beer brand or style, there’s no guarantee they’ll find it available when they visit again. They’ve variously confused and annoyed, because it’s utterly fascinating the way beer selections have come to be so shambolically organized.

No one would expect for a moment that the principle of the random chaos beer generator might be applied successfully to other aspects of the typical bar’s or restaurant’s operations, either for food or drink. Cocktail programs evolve, but certain spirits are constant. Pizzerias don’t morph into Dim Sum purveyors overnight, although they might rotate a handful of daily specials.

The preponderance of food menus, bar programs, wine lists and even business addresses (apart from food trucks) displays evidence of thoughtful guiding principles.

But when it comes to beer, we throw the cards in the air each week—sometimes each day—and see where they land.

And why?

If thoughtful guiding principles are effective everywhere else, why not as an approach to populating a draft beer selection?

And remember, an equally thoughtful list of canned and bottled beer can provide another co-existing set of options, and it needn’t be extravagant.

So, briefly stated, here’s the way I approach a draft beer selection.

I believe there can be a balance between fixed and rotating draft lines, and that advantages exist for incorporating both approaches.

Fixed taps, whether delineated by brand or style, allow the majority of regular customers, who by nature are less enamored of “beer today, gone tomorrow,” to become attached to their favorites, which in turn promotes loyalty and moves kegs faster.

Whether fixed taps are sourced from a tiny new brewery around the corner or a big one in Germany that’s 500 years old, it’s better for most of them to be session strength (4.5% or under is best, but at the very least, not above 5.5%).

Sessionable fixed taps allow for repeat sales. A customer can enjoy an extra pint without bending the needle on the breathalyzer, because shouldn’t responsible consumption be everyone’s goal in the first place?

This is not to suggest the elimination of rotating taps, merely re-contextualizing them. Rotating taps should be seasonally oriented when possible, and chosen with diversity in mind.

Use the fixed taps to enhance the uniqueness of the rotating taps, and the rotating taps to build off the strength of the fixed ones. Don’t choose the same specific style of IPA as a seasonal as you did for the fixed tap (make one West Coast and the other Hazy). Provide a range of flavor characteristics and colors.

Ignore the siren’s call as it pertains to Untappd and other beer-collecting and ratings aggregators. They are clamorous but proportionately unrepresentative.

Better to brand a draft beer lineup as anchored to the interests of the restless majority among the customer base, by offering more fixed drafts that spinning ones.

And, admittedly the hardest part, do whatever is possible to enhance the level of staff education (I know, but the dividends are sizeable).

Best of all, by incorporating thoughtful guiding principles there’ll be immediate differentiation from nearby bars and restaurants, most of whom will persist with the random beer chaos generator.

After all, the best way to stand out from the lemmings is to run in the opposite direction from the cliff’s edge.

5 COMMENTS

  1. […] Are you an owner or manager of an establishment that serves draft beer? If so, is the random chaos model of draft beer selection making you dizzy? It doesn’t have to be this way. Read my latest blog post here: “Business of Better Beer: Draft beer selections benefit from thoughtful guiding principles.” […]

  2. Why did I not know this page existed? I guess I am too glued to Twitter to notice other places. Mea culpa.

    “Do whatever is possible to enhance the level of staff education.” This should become a section heading for every article you write from now on, regardless of the content. This is so, so important and rewarding to the customer. I know when I plop down at my favorite watering hole — which avoids the “let’s throw spaghetti against the wall” approach of IPA saturation — the bartender has drank enough of everything on the menu, and talked to the brewmaster, and can tell me exactly what I want to know.

    • I haven’t gone out of my way to promote this page, which may be changing since the demise of Common Haus provides extra time to devote to it. My comment about staff education (and several other bits herein) is intended to become the topic of further commentary. Thanks for commenting.

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