It takes more than a wall full of taps for a bar to be a great beer bar. An establishment serious about craft beer needs to pay attention to every detail of the beer-drinking experience offered to its customers, and here are a few simple things that make a big impact.
Respect the Beer
The Los Angeles restaurant scene has always been hyper-trendy, and quick to embrace the newest fads in food and beverages – and even quicker to abandon them at their first sign of cooling off. The explosion in popularity of craft beers has presented a challenge for many establishments in Los Angeles as they attempt to emphasize their craft beer offerings, but all too often the bar or restaurant doesn’t give craft beer the attention and respect that it deserves. Craft beer is no foodie fad though, and establishments that are serious about supporting the craft beer movement need to look at four main aspects of how they serve beer.
It all boils down to giving beer the same attention and respect that restaurants have been giving wine for decades. Here are some simple things that are critically important for any establishment that is serious about their beer business.
What, and How Many, Beers to Offer
When it comes to tap-handles and bottle offerings more is not necessarily better. A focused and curated selection does a far better job at building a craft-beer clientele than a wall filled with 100 taps. Beer geeks love to mull over a tap-list with dozens of selections, but the challenges that an establishment faces grows quickly as tap-lines are added. Lines need regular cleaning that is time and labor intensive. Hoppy beers have a very limited shelf-life – even when in a keg – and require regular sell-through.
We’ve heard the “sweet spot” for the number of taps at a craft-focused bar is between 20 and 30. Gabe Gordon, owner of the Beachwood BBQ restaurant and brewpub, recently told us that his biggest regret in opening his second location was installing 36 taps instead of his hindsight-informed ideal of 28 handles. It might seem like a narrow distinction, but if anyone knows the ins-and-outs of keeping a curated and rotating beer-list vibrant and interesting it’s Gabe.
Bars with a focus on craft beer are simple compared to restaurants that have to also consider the cuisine they serve and education for their larger staff when designing a craft beer strategy. A restaurant should be sure to serve beers appropriate to the food they serve and the atmosphere of the restaurant, and they should use what tap-space they have to create a varied list that covers several key styles.
Any holes in the selection can always be filled-in with a bottled beer selection. Offering a range of single serving and larger bottles is important as the larger bottles are great for splitting amongst a table.
The best beer bars have a wide variety of taps covering many styles and variations, but not so many options that the list is overwhelming to the client and difficult to maintain.
The Beer Menu
What’s the downside to walking into a bar and seeing a wall full of taps? When the tap-list is just a bunch of names. It’s admittedly rare to see NO other info besides the beer name, but it is not unheard of especially at locations that have haphazardly added on a craft beer program. A local “saloon” – billed as proudly serving eight American beers on tap – lists only a mix of brewery names and beer names on their chalk-board tap-list.
A tap-list needs to be contain a few pieces of basic information that’s critical for the customer to make an informed decision on what they will be drinking. Ideally the tap list would include: brewery name (and even location), beer name, style, %ABV, price, and serving size. I am dismayed at how many establishments – even those with a focus on craft beer – neglect to provide the serving size of their pours.
When a bar’s selection of beers rotates regularly keeping the tap-lists and menus up-to-date can be challenging, but there are many solutions to keeping the lists accurate. Whether it’s a daily print-out or a webcam pointed at the physical list making it easy for customers to review what’s on tap is better than courting customer uncertainly. One of our favorite methods is the continually updated webpage tap-list that is displayed in the bar; both Blue Palms in Hollywood and Haven Gastropub in Pasadena use this method.
When it comes to craft beer servings it is not one-size-fits-all. Ideally an establishment will not only offer different sized pours based on the ABV and style of the beer but also offer the customer a choice in how much beer they would like to drink. Taster-sized pours are a good example, and I’m a sucker for a flight of small samples. I’m happy to pay a small premium for the ability to sample a bunch of different beers in one sitting, and taster flights are a great way to do this.
Another great option that we wish more bars offered is the half pint! Imperial (20 ounce) pints are great, but I don’t always want to drink that much of one IPA, especially when there are many different things to choose from. We’ve found that small pours are actually available at many bars, but they are rarely listed on the menu or tap list so be sure to ask you server if you can get a half-pour! It is a great way to drink a few different beers without getting too sloshed.
The best beer bars tap-lists are clear and provide all the detailed information on the available beers necessary for a customer to make an informed decision.
Serving the Beer
This one is easy to get right. A bar or restaurant should serve their craft beer carefully poured into beer-clean glassware, and served at the proper temperature for the style. I’m happy to give a bar with a lot of taps some leeway with serving temperature As long as the beer is in the ballpark as it can be tough to set-up tap-lines to pour at different temperatures. But clean glassware is critical, and style-appropriate glassware is always appreciated.
If a restaurant has 4 different styles of wine glass, each dedicated to a type of wine, displayed behind the bar, but the only beer glass behind the bar is a shaker pint glass it is a dead giveaway that they are not serious about their beer. Glasses should be matched to the beer’s style; it isn’t necessary for a an establishment to have every permutation of beer glass from Kwak to Pokal, but at least a modest selection of glasses should be available. A tulip, a snifter, some version of a pint and half-pint glass, and taster glass should be available.
The best beer bars pay close attention to the details of how they serve a beer and present a beer so that it can be enjoyed to its fullest.
Perhaps the most important aspect for an establishment serious about craft beer their staff. Servers and bar tenders who are educated and passionate about craft beer are the greatest asset to a world-class craft beer establishment as their interactions with the customer can influence and inform the customer’s whole perception of beer.
Bar staff and servers don’t need to be beer-geeks or Cicerones, but a working knowledge of the basics of beer and a respect for the beverage needs to be held by everyone in the house who will deal with the beer service.
In a recent piece for Food and Wine beer writer and Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster Garret Oliver has this to say about the state of beer knowledge in today’s dining establishments:
Despite what’s happening at the high end of restaurants and bars, beer is the only food or drink where if you go to a restaurant, the average customer knows more about the beer than the house, even if they have only 10 beers on the list. That’s a disaster. Can you imagine if you walked into a steakhouse and 70 percent of the customers knew more about steak than anybody who worked there? Cooking schools are only just starting to learn that they can’t send people out into the world with only three hours of beer training after one month on wine. Most people go into the restaurant business completely unprepared for the actual craft-beer-drinking customer.
The importance of server education for a craft beer bar is of paramount importance, and there are several strategies that an establishment can employ to increase their staff’s knowledge level. Thankfully many Los Angeles restaurants and bars have realized that spending time and resources on craft beer education will pay dividends as the beer-connoisseur client-base grows.
The best craft beer servers bring value to their bar by guiding customers on a personalized journey through craft beer which can lead the customer to new beers, new styles, and even revelations about the magic of food and beer pairings. The best craft beer bars have a staff that you can trust and who will help expand your appreciation for craft beer.
Elevate the Beer
By taking steps to present craft beer choices clearly, have a knowledgeable service staff who are trained on craft beer essentials, and serve the customer their beer with an attention to detail a restaurant can elevate the dining experience and grow their craft beer customer base. Craft beer is becoming a valuable draw to bars and restaurants, especially those that make it a point to present craft beer with the respect that it demands.
Beer is an everyman’s drink that is tightly woven into the American identity, but this doesn’t mean that beer, and those who love it, won’t benefit from a more reverent attitude towards the beverage. The best beer bars put great beer on a pedestal and spend more time and energy on the selection and presentation of their beer. Furthermore the very best bars and restaurants make it their mission to proselytize and educate their clients about craft beer; perceptions of snobbery be damned.
I’ll paraphrase Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch to end:
“Just because I care about what I put into my body, and I like good beer doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It means I have standards.”
What are your standards for an establishment that serves craft beer? What is the most important aspect of the best beer bars in your opinion?