Simple Steps to Build a Better Beer Program
Ben Siegel called his boss to quit his job the moment the flight attendant announced: “Cell phone use is now allowed.”
He had been dreaming of opening a restaurant and bar since his days as a college student in Austin, Texas, when one night he noticed that the Best Wurst sausage cart on Sixth Street always had the longest line.
Ben Siegel was done dreaming.
“I realized in the middle of that flight home from a friend’s wedding that no one was going to give it to me—I had to make it happen,” he recalls. “So I quit my job as soon as we landed and dove head first into the hospitality business, a world in which I had zero experience.”
Two years later in July of 2012, Siegel opened Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden on Austin’s Rainey Street, an up-and-coming part of town that’s in the process of transforming from a neglected residential area into a thriving restaurant and bar scene, thanks to a neighborhood redevelopment plan.
Siegel’s concept was simple. “I opened a place that had everything I love and two things every civilization of all time has had—sausage and beer,” he quips.
Clearly more gourmand than historian, Siegel started a restaurant that sounds a little pedestrian on the surface, but the food and beer offerings at Banger’s are anything but. The restaurant offers dozens of sausages, from the humble bratwurst, to a sausage comprising duck, bacon, and fig, to one made with beets and goat cheese for vegetarians.
Banger’s also has a very ambitious beer program. At its heart is a massive tap wall boasting 104 beers. “My goal is to become the best beer bar in America,” Siegel says.
While he has yet to receive his crown, the way he approaches beer selection, staff education, and brewery relations is dripping with insights and good ideas that are sure to be useful to any operators looking to take their restaurant’s beer service to the next level.
Cover the Bases
Siegel says restaurants don’t need 100 taps to create a great experience for guests; they can do it with just five or six and a handful of bottled offerings—if they make smart choices.
“It comes down to how well you pick your beers,” Siegel explains. “You need to make sure your beer menu reflects popular tastes, and not just whatever the person who’s doing the ordering likes.”
Banger’s breaks down its beer menu into seven categories, arranged by flavor profile. There’s Wheaty and Smooth, Light and Refreshing, Hop Heaven, Dark and Roasty, Belgian and Farmhouse, Amber and Malty, and Category Busters (a designation for offbeat beers that don’t fit neatly into any other category).
This taste-based organization makes it easier for customers and staff to navigate the massive tap list and ensures that Banger’s has beers everyone will enjoy, regardless of their preferences. It also makes it easier for servers to recommend food pairings when a patron asks for guidance.
To make sure the tap list reflects a wide variety of viewpoints and taste preferences, Banger’s curates its beer selection by committee. “We have a seven-employee beer committee that meets once a week,” Siegel says. “Everything on our tap wall is vetted out, argued over, and compared to other beers.”
The beer committee gets together every Monday afternoon for two hours. The first hour is open to all employees, where they sample beers and invite brewers in to talk about their products. The second hour is a closed session where the committee votes on which beers will be rotated into the tap list in the future.
Sixty-five of the beers on the tap wall are what Siegel calls “tried and true,” well-loved beers that are adjusted quarterly to coincide with the seasons. The rest of the taps change more frequently, with a new beer list printed weekly, so there’s always something new and interesting for customers to try.
Like the beer menu, the wall itself is broken up by flavor profile, not brand. “It makes learning and recommending 100 different beers more manageable for the staff when the beers are arranged by how they taste and not who makes them,” Siegel says.
Of the 104 brews on tap, only one isn’t a craft beer. “It’s Texas,” Siegel, says laughing. “You have to serve Lone Star.”
Education is the Foundation
“Educating employees on the ins and outs of beer service and culture is critical if you’re going to do things right,” Siegel says. “You want employees to know as much or more than your customers do about beer.”
Julia Herz agrees. She’s a program manager at the Brewers Association, a trade group that evangelizes and educates on behalf of America’s craft brewers.
Herz thinks an educated server is a vital part of satisfying guests. “You can have the greatest selection, but if your server isn’t knowledgeable, it all falls apart,” she says.
Within a month of being hired, every staffer at Banger’s who handles beer has to earn certification as a Cicerone Certified Beer Server by completing a training program that teaches how to properly store and serve beer, as well as the basics of various beer styles and cultures. The employees pay the Cicerone course fee out of pocket, but are reimbursed after working at the restaurant for three months.
Banger’s also has a Minister of Education who works with employees who need a little more training, or those who simply want to know more about beer.
Surprisingly, one area that doesn’t see a lot of educational emphasis is beer and food pairings.
“When we started out, I thought food pairings were going to be important,” Siegel says. He had even planned to feature beer pairing notes next to each sausage on his menu, but the design became too busy and the idea was abandoned.
“As it turns out, the majority of our customers aren’t overly concerned with pairings—they just want a certain sausage and they want a certain beer.” However, employees still receive training in the basics of pairing the restaurant’s beers and food, even if they don’t flex their knowledge very often.
Keep it Clean
One cornerstone of a good beer program is making sure the beer is well cared for, from the moment it rolls through the door until it hits the customer’s sparkling clean glass.
“Someone on your staff needs to learn the ins and outs of tap maintenance, including how to properly clean the lines,” Herz says. “Bad hygiene is the No. 1 factor that affects draft beer quality. Beer is a living beverage and can take over a system with microbes if it’s not cleaned at least every two weeks.”
Banger’s relies on a cellar master to make sure everything is pristine from delivery to draught. On Mondays and Tuesdays, he cleans the keg coolers, maintains the tap lines, and accepts deliveries from beer distributors. Even with 104 taps this isn’t a full-time job, so the cellar master works as a bartender the rest of the week, making it economically feasible for Banger’s to keep a specialist on staff.
“Learn to maintain your system or hire an expert to do it—don’t ignore it,” Herz advises. “If you’re doing draft, do it with excellence—or use bottles and cans instead to ensure quality.”
Get the Good Stuff
Siegel believes that offering the best service means having hard-to-find beers available for customers. “There are two ways to get the rare stuff,” he says. “You can sell a lot of that brewery’s beer, or you can have good relationships with the people who make it.”
Siegel and his team focus on fostering strong relationships with brewers. They invite them into their weekly beer committee meetings to educate the staff at Banger’s about the beers they make. This gives employees the chance to learn something new and the brewer a chance to make his beers top of mind with the decision makers and servers at the restaurant.
Once a month, the committee rents a van and visits local breweries to taste their wares and get a little face time with brewers in their natural environment. Committee members also contact local breweries, as well as a few national ones, on a weekly basis to keep the conversation going.
“Brewers can dictate where their beers go, so it’s smart to build and maintain strong relationships,” Siegel says. “Plus, it’s a great way to stay in the middle of the local beer culture.”
Don’t Overlook the Fine Touches
In the end, it’s the little details that separate a decent beer program from a stellar one, and that goes beyond just making sure the beer is served in the proper glassware or that the staff is conversant in craft beer. It’s about creating an interesting guest experience and finding ways to connect with customers.
In the case of Banger’s, crafting the right atmosphere means no booze and no TVs. In a world where most bars have almost as many televisions as they have tables, this is a pretty radical approach.
“TVs suck the life out of the place,” Siegel says. “Craft beer is about experiencing what’s in your glass. It’s about talking to the bartender and the other patrons, not about watching a flickering box in the corner.”
While this means Banger’s doesn’t get the football crowd when the Longhorns play, Siegel is very satisfied with the tradeoff.
There are also sacrifices when it comes to not selling hard liquor. “Well vodka is the most profitable thing you can sell, but for us it diverts attention from our focus,” Siegel says.
Not selling booze also cuts down on revenue from late-night weekend bar hoppers, but Banger’s is doing just fine without them, having more than doubled its first-year revenue targets.
In the future, Siegel is thinking about adding a roaming beer sommelier on busy nights. “Sometimes our servers are moving too fast to talk with our patrons about beer,” he says. “I want to have someone dedicated to approaching each table to talk about what’s in their glasses and answer any questions, or to suggest a beer based on what flavors they are into.”
Another very creative way Banger’s has left a lasting mark on its clientele is by offering free tattoos of its logo through an arrangement with a local tattoo artist.
“It started out as a joke—we figured no one would go for it,” Siegel recalls. “But we had our first taker, a rep for a local brewery, get tattooed before we even opened our doors to the public.”
Since then, over 200 people have taken Banger’s up on its free tattoo offer.
Of course, restaurants don’t have to offer patrons an indelible reminder of the restaurant to keep them coming back. Simply being smart about beer selection, educating the staff, keeping things clean, and establishing good working relationships with local brewers can help transform a collection of beer taps into something more special.