Draft Picks

Adding the top craft beers to your menu will boost the bottom line.

Diners will be knocking down your door demanding better craft beer options—if they aren’t already.

Craft beer production grew 18 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Brewers Association, and restaurants can grab a growler of that consumer demand. The check average for food and craft beer totals $86, versus $73 for food and any macro beer, reports GuestMetrics, a Virginia-based firm that analyzes sales metrics for the foodservice industry.

That’s more money, and a more satisfied customer base. It doesn’t take the most bearded beer geek to curate a craft beer list full of personality and profits. Here are six ways to nail an expertly crafted beer list. 

Diversify Selections: At The Tripel in Playa Del Rey, California, Chef-owners Nick Roberts and Brooke Williamson have options for every type of beer drinker, which means no one’s out of their comfort zone. Ninety percent of their Belgian and local American-leaning 14-tap system changes weekly. Stylistic diversity and seasonal releases are important, Williamson says, but so is keeping one or two staple drafts that customers order time and again.

At Eiderdown in Louisville, Kentucky, co-owner James Gunnoe balances his beer menu between accessible brews and India pale ales that appease hop heads. “I have a list of styles in my head that we want to hit: saison, pilsner, hefeweizen, an esoteric German style like a gose, a Belgian quad or other dark Belgian, definitely a tripel,” he says.

Find Your Style: A restaurant’s beers should always reflect its identity. German and Belgian restaurants like Eiderdown and The Tripel can latch onto the beers that culturally tie with their food. If your concept feels more esoteric, find a framework to guide your list, and don’t forget to mix in accessible, domestic options alongside more specialized offerings. For example, The Hay Merchant in Houston, Texas, crafts its bar food menu around its premium beer selection. Chef-owner Marc Vetri’s Italian-inspired birreria Alla Spinain Philadelphia offers the typical Italian macro, Peroni, alongside unusual fruit-forward and wine-barrel selections from artisanal producers.

Pricing: The price of a wholesale bottle or keg determines the cost to customers, though that’s not the only factor. Large-format (750 milliliter) bottled beers can be marked up in a fashion similar to wine, while craft beer kegs can generate profits of more than three times the cost of the keg. If rare or exciting beer demands a price tag that might make customers balk, Gunnoe suggests serving it by the 12-ounce pour, not the pint, and selling it at a lower price. Sometimes, you might be willing to eat a bit of profit to show customers an especially memorable beer.

Match Your Menu: Gunnoe estimates 80 to 85 percent of his customers eat a meal when they order beer, so making sure brews are food-friendly is paramount. “We try to have a couple wheat beers, which go well with food,” he says. “With some of our heavier winter dishes, we can do Belgian dubbels and quads or even hoppy and sour beers to cut the richness.”

While IPAs and sour beers have traditionally been seen as too aggressive to pair with food, Mekong Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, proves they’re an ideal match for bold Vietnamese dishes like pho and banh mi. Owner An Bui has a brewpub in the works, where the team will produce barrel-aged beers and sours to complement a menu of Vietnamese street food.

Get Educated: Except to the most seasoned drinker, craft beers won’t sell themselves. Staff education (see sidebar) and menu descriptions are just as important as the suds. Always list a beer’s alcohol content, style, full name and brewery, along with a brief description, which can come straight off the beer’s packaging. Make sure your staff has tried your draft beers and can transition new craft drinkers with “If you like X, you might want to try Y” suggestions.

Know Your Audience: Above all, stay flexible and responsive to your customers. What styles are they liking? Is there a new brewery in town diners are crazy for? “When we first opened [three years ago], we saw a lot of specific craft beer drinkers, but now people in general are more educated in beer,” Williamson says. “It’s opened our clientele a bit.” Keeping an eye on trends—like the rising popularity of sour styles and low-alcohol, sessionable beers—and an ear to your patrons makes you more likely to strike liquid gold. 

Kate Bernot is the nightlife editor at RedEye Chicago and is always up for trying a new craft brew.

Tell Me A Story

Servers should always be prepared to answer as many questions about beer as they would about a burger on the menu, says Ray Daniels, founder of the Cicerone Certification Program, a professional certification and education program for beer servers and sellers.

From new beers to slower-moving labels, Daniels suggests a “refresher course,” tasting one standby beer each week. Let servers offer sample pours to customers who are on the fence about a new beer, and make sure they’re able to compare it to more familiar ones. If the staff seems enthusiastic but overwhelmed, that’s the best indicator to downsize the list and keep the tap count reasonable.