Perfecting One's Craft | Food Newsfeed
Neil Braybrook

HopCat, which opened its flagship Grand Rapids location in 2008, touts 48 draft handles.

Perfecting One's Craft

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Beer programs that put restaurants on the map.

By Ken Weaver May 2015 Beer

As more full-service restaurants include a heavier focus on the beer side of their menus, implementing an elevated taps program opens up less-familiar service turf. Questions abound, such as how to manage tap rotations and bottle selection, better hire and educate beer-savvy staff, and fine-tune a beverage menu to work with what the restaurant already has in place.

Even the most successful beer destinations had to address these very concerns at some point. Among the most highly regarded beer-focused restaurants are a 20-year-old Vietnamese restaurant in Richmond, Virginia; the flagship restaurant of a six-location success story that began in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and a Brooklyn, New York, bar with a secret restaurant that focuses on craft beer pairings and was recognized with its first Michelin star when the 2015 Michelin guide was released last fall.

Vietnamese Menu Pairs Perfectly with Beers

Mekong Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, originally started with a wine focus when it opened in 1995. Fast-forward 20 years, and Mekong has been named to CraftBeer.com’s list of Great American Beer Bars for the past three years—including first place overall in 2012 and 2013, when overall winners were ranked.

Owner An Bui explains that the shift away from wine was due at least partly to the fact that wine didn’t pair particularly well with the Vietnamese menu. The beverage shift began in 1998, and Mekong soon became the go-to spot in the area for bottled Belgian beers. By 2005, the restaurant was shifting to more draft options and now it features 52 tap handles in constant rotation.

On the food side, menu highlights include grilled pork chops with cucumber, pickled carrots, scallions, and nuoc cham, as well as a variety of clay-pot-style dishes with accompaniments such as fresh ginger, garlic, and pepper sauce. Of the menu, Bui notes, “It’s great with maltier beer. It’s great with Belgian beer. It’s great with IPAs—you know, fresh and spicy go great with IPAs.”

Maintaining the proper freshness across the beer selections is a major part of managing substantial draft and bottle lists, and Mekong has its draft menu broken down into broader style categories like sours, IPAs, and Belgian-style beers. The IPA selections in particular require monitoring for proper freshness, and the grouped menu makes it easier to swap out one beer for another. This also makes it easier to manage keg inventory, with quickly emptied IPA kegs kept in steady rotation.

Similarly, Mekong’s bottle list has shrunk from about 200 options to about half that number. “The only thing we keep nowadays,” Bui says, “[are] high-ABV stouts, barleywines, sour beers, the Belgians, the malty stuff—beers that can sit a little longer.”

Mekong also makes a point to serve its beers in proper glassware, with about eight types of glassware used. And on occasion, the restaurant has contracted with a local manufacturer to produce custom glassware.

The restaurant’s success in service and with building customer relationships over the years has made it difficult for Bui to host as many events as he would like. As he explains, “We don’t want to push the regulars out.” Which is part of the reason that he opened The Answer Brewpub in September: a 12,000-square-foot space next door to Mekong, with its own operating brewery.

Multi-Unit Success with Draft Rotation and Service

Like Mekong, HopCat’s location in Grand Rapids, Michigan, earned acclaim from the Great American Beer Bars contest for the past three years, placing second only to Mekong in 2012 and 2013. This is HopCat’s original location, which opened in January 2008, and the brand has since expanded its operations into five additional cities, including Madison, Wisconsin, and Indianapolis.

HopCat is a full-service destination, with food centered around amped-up pub fare and 11 signature burgers. It offers 48 draft handles, a hand-pulled firkin, and 180 bottles.

As with Mekong, HopCat has its draft menu broken into five or six categories that facilitate variety and streamlined keg rotation. HopCat’s beer director, Rick Martinez, notes, “Our draft list rotates very, very quickly.” The restaurant typically does three printings of its draft menu each week, including a side mention of 17 to 23 “On Deck” beers that are coming up.

Unlike many beer spots, the flagship HopCat only keeps four regular handles, with the others rotating constantly across new offerings. (In contrast, newer HopCat locations have around 100 taps each, with about 30 of those remaining fixed.) The company works closely with local breweries to get access to new releases, though the process has become more competitive. “It’s like a feeding frenzy every time something opens,” Martinez says of acquiring the newest beers.

Aside from the beer, hiring and training are major factors in HopCat’s success. The restaurant looks for servers with at least three years of high-volume experience, and potential hires are asked to review a few beers after their initial interview. “We’re not necessarily looking for something that’s correct,” Martinez notes of the exercise. “We just want to get a feel for how a server would describe beer, basically how they would perform on the floor.” New hires eventually take a test the restaurant developed in-house to help evaluate their beer knowledge and service expertise.

HopCat also uses social media to highlight its events—it does about 100 each year, some simultaneously at all locations—as well as to promote new openings. The company also established a private Facebook group for staff members to better facilitate schedule changes and share ideas. “It’s a fast-paced industry,” Martinez says. “You’ve gotta keep up.”

No Price Barrier for Beer in a Michelin-Starred Restaurant

Luksus, the secret restaurant nestled in the back of Brooklyn, New York’s popular bar Tørst, offers a more upscale counterpoint to the two casual-dining beer programs. For starters, the area has only a couple dozen seats, and the restaurant features five or six beers on any given night—all bottled. Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø from Evil Twin Brewing, also based in Brooklyn, serves as the beer consultant for Luksus, while Chef Daniel Burns heads the food side. The restaurant, which is highly regarded for its culinary expertise and beer pairings, was awarded a Michelin star this fall.

The plans for Tørst didn’t initially include a restaurant component, but the original space included a full kitchen that seemed foolish to remove. Chef Burns, who previously worked at Copenhagen’s Noma and The Fat Duck in London, employs seasonal ingredients in a tasting menu that Jarnit-Bjergsø describes as Scandinavian and “northern European” in tone. Five courses, plus a substantial starter, are served individually with paired beers. Like the seasonal menu, the pairings are constantly reworked and remain the subject of near-daily refinements.

Unlike wine selections in upscale dining, the existence of $1,000-plus bottles of beer is exceedingly rare on restaurant menus; most often such pricey beers are confined to a few auctioned outliers. What it means for Jarnit-Bjergsø is that the restaurant can conceivably bring in just about any beers for its pairings. “There’s no beer we can’t put into the menu because of the price,” he says.

Chef Burns’ culinary preferences set the tone for those pairings, with a menu centered upon vegetables, fish, grains, and earthy flavors such as beets and mushrooms. Jarnit-Bjergsø has found that these dishes frequently work best with some of the funkier and tart beer styles, often ones that use Brettanomyces yeast. He regularly features brewers such as Crooked Stave and Prairie, which focus on these types of beers, because as he explains, “that’s the kind of food that Daniel does.”

While the accompanying bar Tørst, with 21 taps and around 200 bottles, looks more like the more casual Mekong or HopCat in terms of overall scope, Chef Burns points to the importance of tuning a restaurant’s beer program to its own situation. “That’s what we focus on,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “To give people a very unique experience.”