Anatomy of a Beer List
How a restaurant organizes its beer selections is as important as the selections themselves.
I’ve been covering the beer business in its many iterations for nearly 14 years, and in that time I’ve watched attitudes toward the beverage transition from indifference and disrespect to unabashed reverence.
Consumers, especially those of the millennial generation, are savvier about beer than they’ve ever been at any point in modern history. They also like to explore and they crave variety, so carrying just a handful of brands doesn’t always cut it.
The market research company Mintel found that only 12 percent of craft beer drinkers stick with a single brand of beer, versus 33 percent for the macro drinker. And, increasingly, as beer drinkers dine out, they expect restaurants to keep up with their varied tastes.
While many restaurants get this, and have expanded their beer offerings to reflect the explosive growth of the craft beer industry and offer their guests the level of choice they’ve come to expect, a considerable number of restaurants still aren’t effectively communicating the extent of their selections.
Though it happens far less than it did a decade ago, it’s still not an entirely uncommon occurrence for a host or waitperson to hand a guest a wine list—an epic one at that, demarcated by region and varietal—and ask if, perhaps, the diners would prefer a cocktail before dinner. There’s no mention of beer, even in cases where the restaurant has a fairly robust selection of the malt-and-hop-based beverage. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion as a civilian restaurant guest, when I wasn’t necessarily wearing my professional beer writer hat. (Figuratively speaking, of course. I would never don such an obnoxious piece of headgear.) I would ask, “What beers do you have?” and the response would be, “We have the usual stuff; what brand are you looking for?”
Having an expansive and diverse collection of brews is one thing, but it’s only taking up valuable space if it’s invisible. Communication is key.
Take a cue from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group of Washington, D.C.—the poster child for effective beer list design.
Not only is beer director and managing partner Greg Engert nationally (and internationally) renowned for running a world-class beer program across multiple independent eating and drinking establishments with an array of disparate personalities, he’s also adept at making his beer range meaningful for an inclusive cross section of consumers—from the complete novice to the seasoned beer geek.
At locations like D.C.’s Churchkey, Birch & Barley, Bluejacket, and the Belgian-centric gastropub, Sovereign (its newest venue), as well as at its concepts in Alexandria, Virginia, Rustico and Columbia Firehouse, Engert segments the menu by flavor. And not with esoteric geek-speak, but using key words that anyone can pick up. It involves section headings like Crisp, Roast, Tart & Funky, Fruit and Spice, Hop, and—in the locations with hand pumps—Cask. Rustico has a sign on the wall that further explains some of those flavor groupings in greater detail.
“I developed that flavor profile scheme at Rustico, which was our very first beer property,” Engert tells me. “Now, I operate the beer list at 15 venues. It was born out of the need to make these craft beers accessible.”
Many other restaurants might take a page out of the wine playbook and design their lists to reflect country or region of origin. That works to an extent, especially if the venue is trying to convey the global scope of its repertoire. But it does little to explain what the beers actually taste like.
“On the off-premise retail side, it makes sense to go by country, but on the restaurant side it makes sense to go by style and which foods to pair it with,” advises Adam Vavrick, the newly minted beer director at Chicago’s The Publican, a rustic, pork- and beer-forward spot (with plenty of oysters and other water dwellers thrown in for good measure), located in the Fulton Market section of the Windy City’s West Loop. The venue is modeled after a sprawling European beer hall with long communal tables and high-backed wooden chairs. Vavrick, who began in his role in April, is in the process of reorganizing The Publican’s beer menu, moving away from what he calls “a bit of a hodgepodge,” broken down by style and country.
Engert is also of the mind that regionality does not work quite as well for beer on the restaurant menu. For instance, a menu can include a section for Belgian offerings, but these days there are more Belgian-style beers being brewed outside their country of origin than within its borders.
Not to mention the fact there really is no such thing as “Belgian beer” per se—at least as any sort of stylistic unifier. It’s really a vague umbrella term covering such idiosyncratic styles as saison, witbier, dubbel, tripel, lambic, gueuze, Flanders oud bruin—just to name a very few. And let’s say you were going to demarcate the list with those specific style headings. You’d make the die-hard enthusiasts happy, but you might alienate the dabblers.
“That’s where I came up with this flavor profile system,” Engert notes. “You wouldn’t need to know very much of anything about the brewery or beers. And back 10 years ago, that was really important as few people had this depth of beer knowledge that they do today.”
But what about now, when folks are far more hop-and-malt literate than they were a decade ago? It’s actually just as important today—if not more so—than it was back in the early 2000s. Back then there were about 1,500 breweries in the U.S., a fraction of whose products were available in Engert’s backyard. “I felt like I had a full grasp of anything I could get my hands on in the Mid-Atlantic; I knew every beer that was coming out,” he recalls.
But that’s a borderline impossible task, even for someone with Engert’s level of expertise. There are now more than 4,200 breweries—and that’s just in the United States. The flavor headings work as a sort of shorthand as newer, less familiar breweries and brands come on the scene.
It’s an invaluable tool not just for the restaurants’ guests, but for the staff as well. Many of Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s concepts boast upward of 300 beers each (700-plus at Churchkey). There’s really no way any single bartender or server will have tried all of them, especially considering the speed at which much of the selections rotate. “By combining the broad flavor category, subcategory, style, and some ingredients, all of our staff can have a base knowledge,” Engert explains. “They can tell you about the flavors in the glass without ever having tasted the beer.”
And that’s really where it counts, because no matter how descriptive and how pretty a printed beer menu may be, there is absolutely no substitute for the personal touch. The physical document should complement, not replace, the human element. It really should pique a diner’s curiosity and fuel the conversation with an engaged, knowledgeable serving team. Let it be the map to help navigate through this increasingly complex world called beer.