Formerly relegated to beer alone, tap handles are now home to a myriad of drinks, from coffee to kombucha.
Raleigh, North Carolina’s newly opened Beer Garden has 366 taps in its two-story space—more than any other place on earth. There are old domestic favorites, imported novelties, and local brews all on draft, and the restaurant is courting a crowd that would be overwhelming to even the most prepared new concept by banking on a trend that has gone from zero to sixty in recent years. The face of taps is changing—and not just by switching out low-end brews for craft offerings, but also by throwing some beverages into the mix that have heretofore been reserved for mugs, bottles, or shakers.
Even for beer—the quintessential tap drink—changes have been coming down the pipeline. At Dog Haus, a gourmet fast-casual hot dog concept based in Pasadena, California, the iPourIt system has turned tap beer around, letting customers pour their own selections at the drink station.
The 10-unit chain has been testing the idea at its Santa Ana store, where customers can show their ID when they order their food at the register to receive a pre-paid beer card.
For Dog Haus co-founder, Quasim Riaz, taking bar service out from behind the counter improved operations in a myriad of ways, not the least of which was maximizing space behind the counter. “We wanted taps, but the problem was real estate in the kitchen,” he says. “So we decided to pull this out into the dining room, and that added a cool factor as well in that [customers] get to play with the gadgets and can sample drinks before committing to 16 ounces.”
The system, which offers four different beers at any one time, also saves time that would be lost to training by providing a screen with detailed descriptions of each drink, from its ABV to its flavor profile, which Quasim says gives customers the experience of informed selection that’s normally provided by a bartender, but without the inherent inefficiencies (For more on iPourIt and new tech in beverages, turn to p.10).
Riaz, who has been happy with the system’s success thus far, says he has plans to feature it even more prominently when he implements it in Dog Haus’s next location.
Beer’s second cousin, cider, has had catapulting sales in recent years (not without thanks to the gluten-free movement). According to the Washington, D.C.–based Beer Institute, production tripled between 2011 and 2013 (the most recent year for which figures are available) from 9.4 to 32 million gallons.
Jeff Smith opened what he says was the first cider pub in the U.S.—Bushwhacker Cider in Portland, Oregon—five years ago, with eight taps of the beverage.
Five months ago he opened a second location of Bushwhacker, in the Woodlawn neighborhood, with 12 cider taps and a full kitchen. The two locations go through 40 kegs of cider per week between them.
Smith says the tap system was implemented to allow customers to sample a greater variety of the local, national, and international ciders the pub offers without bringing up cost concerns. For instance, to serve up some of the more expensive international offerings, Bushwacker offers smaller sips at the same price point.
“I’m really passionate about giving everybody equal representation,” says Smith, who also carries 350 bottles of cider in his original location and about 50 in Woodlawn. At the Woodlawn location, he approximates that around 90 percent of the cider sold is on draft.
Ben Sandler, co-owner of Wassail in New York City, also adjusts its tap pours for more expensive drinks. “We usually serve cider in 8-ounce pours, though for some we make it smaller—say, 6 ounces—and the reason is most people don’t want to spend over a certain amount for a glass of cider.”
Wassail’s cider selection is generally rotated on a monthly basis, with about half of the options sourced from the Northeastern U.S. “Almost all are small producers,” Sandler says. “We tend to stay away from some of the larger brands.”
Today, seventy percent of Wassail’s cider sales come from its draft options, and there’s no shortage of products to fill the taps. Two years ago, Sandler says this wasn’t the case, but that cider on tap has (in part) been responsible for expanding customer’s horizons.
“Customers are more likely to try something new in smaller sizes,” he says. “Until recently, most cider from small producers was only available in 750ml bottles. This made it hard to sell dubious customers on a beverage they’d have to consume a lot of at a price that was far from entry level.
Why not wine?
Don’t confuse the new move to wine on tap with the box of Chardonnay your aunt has tapped in her pantry. Over the past few years, upscale restaurants and wine bars have been pushing the quality of tap wines to new heights.
For instance, the goal of Beat Brasserie’s owner, Bertil Jean-Chronberg, was to make high-end wines more accessible to customers by implementing by-the-glass options from its tap system. The Cambridge, Massachusetts—formerly known as the Beat Hôtel—offers 36 wines on tap, with plans to expand that number to 48 by next summer as a way to showcase the restaurant’s American wines, 95 percent of which are custom-made for Beat.
By offering wine on tap, customers are given much more flexibility with their consumption, with wines offered by the glass or the half-glass and by the pitcher or the half-pitcher.
Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco also offers draft wine in multiple pours, which co-owner Adam Jed says plays into the European feel of the restaurant. “Because in small French villages, you don’t buy the bottle, you fill up your jug,” Jed says.
Bluestem offers six taps for red wines, five for whites, and one for rosé, and the economics of the system are working out in Bluestem’s favor.
Not only does Jed say that the taps keep the wine fresh, eliminating the need to toss old, opened bottles; he also estimates savings close to $10,000 a year through reduced spillage and more equal pours. There’s also the time savings of his bartender not having to open the 540 bottles that would be served in place of the 20 kegs of wine he goes through every week.
The real plus side, though, is that Bluestem is selling more wine. “People don’t count corks and ask if they have had enough,” Jed says. “The idea is bringing wine back to just enjoying it, whether they drink more or less. It takes some pretense out of wine—you’re drinking wine with friends and enjoying the vibe you’re in.”
Cocktails also work well on tap, although they do require some education, says Tony Gurdian, lead barman for both Imperial and Portland Penny Diner, two restaurants that sit next to each other in Portland, Oregon.
Gurdian started putting cocktails on draft in 2012 at Imperial, but focused on only spirit cocktails at first like Manhattans or Negronis—“things that only contain booze, fortified wines, liquors, water, or bitters,” he says.
However, this year at Portland Penny Diner he started introducing citrus cocktails like the Mad Hatter (a whisky sour with absinthe) and Between the Sheets (gin, brandy, lemon juice, and Cointreau) at Portland Penny Diner.
To maintain the integrity of the drinks, Gurdian also runs very short lines from the tank to the tap and replaces them every six weeks. “I have not seen any erosion or deterioration, but I’ve been doing it to keep safe, and we also shake the tanks every day before we start service to disrupt settling,” he says. He also never mixes the lines to keep flavors pure.
The key, he says, is “draft cocktails shouldn’t be seen as something you distill and forget about. It requires as much work as a cocktail but it’s all behind the scenes.”
The main advantage to draft cocktails is speed, Gurdian says, enabling customers to have their cocktails in-hand as quickly as they would a beer. On the downside, he does say that there can be a slight dip in quality with citrus-heavy cocktails, though Gurdian improves the mouthfeel and attempts to imitate the aeration provided by shaking a cocktail by serving all draft cocktails on the rocks.
The loss engendered by removing the visual aspect of crafting a cocktail and circumventing the distinct style of each bartender is another potential downside.
Imperial and Portland Penny Diner make up for this loss of individuality in the process by carving their own ice and creating fun presentations. “Remember,” Gurdian says, “you don’t want people to associate this with the easy way out or eliminating the craft of the bartender.”
Non-alcoholic drinks, too
Booze isn’t the only thing that translates well on tap. In early summer, Station Kitchen & Cocktails in the Embassy Row Hotel in Washington, D.C., introduced cold brew coffee on tap, “and we can’t keep up with demand,” says director of restaurants, Rob Yealu.
“We go through two to three kegs a day. People are excited because it’s something they haven’t seen before but also because it’s delicious.”
The hotel buys its coffee directly from local company Compass Coffee, which treats the cold brew with nitrogen under pressure to smooth out bitterness and acidity, while adding in a slight effervescence and keeping the brew nicely chilled.
Taking a local drink and presenting it in this unconventional way has garnered praise for the newly opened establishment.
“We’re seeing more people come in and care about the fact that we care about a local coffee brand that’s as new as we are,” Yealu says. “We really want to have an immersive experience bringing D.C. into the hotel, and this helps people deepen their passion for coffee.”
Buying and installing the tap system cost a bit under $2,000, Yealu says, “but we’re building new customers by having people come in every day of their stay so the benefit makes any cost secondary.”
And he says profit margins are good—about 60 cents per cup. “We’re seeing more in topline revenue because we’re selling more.”
Though less ubiquitous than coffee, kombucha—a sparkling, fermented beverage—is starting to pop up, adding to the diversity in tap offerings. At Protein Bar, a health-focused fast casual with locations in Colorado, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., kombucha on tap is having its test run. Starting with its Chicago location, Samir Wagle, president and CEO, expects to introduce it to all new stores and most of the 20 existing company-owned restaurants.
Since the store started pouring kombucha on tap, sales of the beverage have jumped by 50 percent. Some customers are thrilled to see the rare beverage on tap, Wagle says, while for others, “there’s a natural curiosity.” This leads to a lot of sampling, and higher sales. Protein Bar offers two taps of GT Dave’s Enlightened kombucha, pouring the Organic Strawberry and Organic Trilogy flavors, with plans to change out flavors seasonally. The 16-ounce pours cost $3.99.
Installing the taps, Wagle says, increased product visibility and opened up opportunities for interaction between team members and guests.
Installing the taps wasn’t a lot of work, Wagle says, and simply required converting a traditional standard keg cooler. The taps are behind the counter, “so are very visible and prominent and allows for a great level of interaction between our team members and the guests in discussing it.”
Putting both up-and-coming and classically popular beverages on tap facilitates this sort of customer interaction, while at the same time increasing visibility, sales, and speed of service with a delivery method that uniquely combines perceptions of quality with a lack of pretension. With all of that going for it, it’s unlikely that this trend will tap out soon.