Brewery collaborations and signature beers can keep profits flowing and guests coming back.
When Tasty Burger in Boston, Massachusetts, went searching for a beer it could offer its guests as a private-label tap handle, the growing chain, which has four locations, a food truck, and a stand in Fenway Park, wanted something that would pair perfectly alongside its burgers. It already carried plenty of Samuel Adams products, and both Boston-born entities carry significant brand recognition—Tasty Burger happens to be the official burger of the Boston Red Sox. “So we went to them and asked them if they would be willing to come up with a beer for us,” says Tasty Burger CEO Dave Dubois, “and Tasty Ale was born.”
The result is a readily available house ale that works seamlessly with its house burger. Dubois makes a point to emphasize the beer has to be—first and foremost—delicious, and that it needs to sync with the concept of the establishment. “People come in and they’re like, ‘Why sure, why wouldn’t
I try that? I come into your restaurant because I like the quality of the burger—why wouldn’t I try a beer that represents you?’”
Similarly, Niche in Clayton, Missouri, recently released a chestnut mild ale in partnership with Schlafly Beer in St. Louis, as part of a special Chestnut Beer Dinner. Orchids at Palm Court in Cincinnati has had multiple collaborations with nearby Blank Slate Brewing Co. The list continues, and one can basically make private-label beers as simple or as intricate as needed. The high number of U.S. breweries means finding a local partner has never been easier.
For El Palacio in Chandler, Arizona, the process was reasonably straightforward. “We either wanted to create something from scratch, or find a good beer and label it as our own,” notes Anthony Serrano, the owner and executive chef. The restaurant had already orchestrated beer dinners with Mother Road Brewing in Flagstaff, and ended up tasting through the brewery’s whole portfolio and finding a fit with Gold Road, a Kölsch-style ale. “We had it with our food, and we were just blown away by how well it paired with pretty much everything on our menu,” he says.
El Palacio worked with Mother Road to design the tap handle and marketing materials, and renamed the beer to Cantina Gold for its private-label purposes. Reps from the brewery have visited for behind-the-bar education—pouring an ounce or two of Cantina Gold for guests to taste. Six months after the project kicked off, it is tied as El Palacio’s top-selling beer, along with Dos Equis Amber and a Modelo offering. “We see it going long-term, and possibly adding another two or three private-label beers,” Serrano says. Of the next one, he adds, “It may be something a little on the crazier side.” Possibly a jalapeño or chipotle hefeweizen.
One major benefit to relabeling a current beer as a private-label offering is that there’s less of an issue with availability, as it’s already part of the brewery’s production cycle. For smaller volumes and tighter time frames, there’s much more flexibility in the forms these projects can take.
Bern’s Steak House, a destination restaurant in Tampa, Florida, that opened in 1956 and touts one of the world’s largest wine lists, has been leveraging the whiskey program at sister establishment Haven for its signature beers. “When those barrels come in, we just allocate them out to local breweries to age beers in,” explains Dean Hurst, Bern’s director of spirits. The collaborations started with Cigar City Brewing, also based in Tampa, producing a bottled 13 percent ABV barley wine for the restaurant—a short run of about 16 cases. That run, given the restaurant’s greater focus on wine and liquor, has actually lasted a few years. It releases a few cases each winter to customers, but the beer can only be served on-site.
The initial project with Cigar City was soon followed by others, and Bern’s has done collaborations with a number of Florida breweries in the period since: Legacy, Cycle, 7venth Sun, and Angry Chair, and encompassing barrels from folks like Four Roses, High West, and Buffalo Trace. In getting a new collaborative project going, typically reps will visit the restaurant, sample the whiskey that previously inhabited the barrel, talk about potential directions for the beer to take, and then, at the end of the meeting, the brewery reps take the barrel with them and give Hurst a call some months—or a year-plus—down the road when the barrel-aged beer is finally ready.
Bern’s Steak House also installed a draft beer system in 2014, which makes the entire process easier, as well as gives the restaurant wider options. “There’s some local craft brewers that don’t have bottling facilities; they only sell keg service. So it opened us up to a whole string of breweries when we made that transition,” Hurst adds. The restaurant has done an imperial rye stout and a Belgian-style dubbel, aged with sweet and tart cherries and orange peel. At Haven, it even set aside one tap solely for pouring Cigar City releases—available only at the brewery or the Haven restaurant.
“I like the added story to the single-barrel purchases,” Hurst explains of the program, which serves to further emphasize the relatively similar processes that go into creating whiskey and beer. For some customers, it bridges that gap between different parts of the beverage menu and serves as an inlet to highlighting the other collaborative programs at Bern’s Steak House—such as a specially blended whiskey with Compass Box, or Ken Wright keg-wine service.
Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, led by chef/owner Gavin Kaysen, had a collaborative beer in the works even before it was open. The effort with local Flat Earth Brewing Company yielded a Belgian-style dubbel, created to be versatile with the Midwest-inclined fare of the restaurant. A second collaboration with Flat Earth, an oatmeal stout called Spoon Thief—Chef Kaysen is known for pilfering restaurant spoons—was tapped in late 2015. Like Bern’s Steak House, Spoon and Stable is also just starting to get into barrel-aging projects, having recently provided Flat Earth with its last barrel from a barrel-aged gin done with a local distillery.
“We look at it as a collaboration,” says Robb Jones, Spoon and Stable’s head bartender. “What I find is people always want something local,” he adds. Five of its six taps are local (with one set aside for the exceptional AleSmith in San Diego).
In working with Flat Earth, he sees the projects as part of an ongoing conversation. “We tell them just to make sure it’s going to be food-friendly, because we want the beer to be paired with what’s happening on our menu,” Jones says. “We think about ABV a lot. We don’t want to get anything too crazy.”
The latest collaborative beer with Flat Earth produced about 20 barrels, equivalent to 40 full-size kegs. These beers are only available at the restaurant or the brewery taproom. The staff at Spoon and Stable encourages guests to visit the brewery, and vice versa. “I think if you can tell a story to a guest,” Jones emphasizes, “they’re going to perceive it a lot better than, ‘Here, try this beer.’”