When you ask for the beer list in a white-tablecloth restaurant that offers an extensive wine and spirits lineup, do you get a raised eyebrow? Does your server hand you a four-item offering of macro-brewed beer with similar flavor profiles? Beer is often the red-headed stepchild of beverage programs, especially in fine-dining venues. With the exceptional quality and enormous diversity of styles available from all over the world, beer should be viewed with the same respect and profit potential as are fine wines and spirits. World-class beer is significantly less expensive than wine or spirits of comparable quality, so building an exceptional beer program will not break the bank. Following are some strategies to introduce, upgrade, or freshen up your beer program.
A bigger selection does not necessarily mean a better one. If you feature wine and high-end spirits, you may not have the physical space to properly store and serve a 30-beer collection. Instead, you need to stock that one special beer for each style that suits your program. For instance, choose a world-class Hefeweizen from Bavaria that incorporates all of the characteristics of that style.
Pouring a Belgian strong golden ale into a pilsner glass is akin to dumping a 1982 Ppetrus into an all-purpose banquet glass. Each style of beer maintains its head and releases its telltale aromatics when poured into the appropriate glass. Proper beer service (e.g., presenting 750-ml corked and caged beers table-side, just as you would serve wine) adds flair to beverage service and opens the door for your staff to educate its guests. And stocking new glassware does not have to be expensive; most distributors are willing to supply you with specialty glassware to promote their products.
Make it visible.
Give beer the respect it deserves—don’t hide it on the back page of your bar menu! Present it before the wine list, particularly if your listings fit on one page. Use style headings, list the country of origin, and offer brief descriptors of the flavor profiles. On my restaurant’s menu, I suggest beers and wines with every item.
Beer is a wonderful and versatile accompaniment to food. Beer dinners are an outstanding way to introduce your customers to the joys of food-and-beer pairing. Base the food on the flavor and aroma nuances of the beer to tie the two together; people who think that they “don’t like beer” will soon be shaking your hand.
Use it as a complement, not as a competitor.
Unless you run a beer-themed restaurant or a sports bar, chances are good that beer sales lag significantly behind those of wine and spirits. Offer beer as an alternative, not as a replacement for wine or spirits. Focus on your profit margin versus cost of sales on beer, and you will find that you are offering your customers great value in high-end beers. A decent bottle of wine may cost you $10 wholesale, and you will then sell it for $28. An outstanding 750-ml bottle of beer costs you $6 wholesale, and you will sell it for $18. The profit margins are similar, but what experience is the customer likely to remember, a forgettable bottle of wine or a remarkable bottle of beer?
By focusing on quality over quantity and treating beer with the same respect as you would wine or spirits, you can add a new dimension to your program, offering your guests another reason to return again and again. I often receive compliments from beer drinkers who normally feel uncomfortable asking for beer in a fine-dining restaurant. And you will, too.
A Pairing Primer
Beer’s versatility makes it an excellent accompaniment to food. Yes, beer is still a natural with hot dogs at a ball game, but pairing possibilities should not end there. Consider the following matches:
• Lagers’ light body, floral notes, and crispness make them ideal with seafood, salads, and white meat.
• Pilsners are tremendous with lighter foods, and they work with spicy, robust dishes as well. Pair a crisp Bohemian pilsner with an arugula salad topped with blue cheese, or mate it with a spicy gumbo.
• Belgian beers love rich food, spice, and bold sauces. Substitute a Belgian strong golden ale for Champagne and match it with spicy Asian fare, shellfish, or barbecue.
• Hoppy American pale ales marry well with pizza, sandwiches, and grilled meats.
• Bavarian Doppelbocks, rich in color and malt complexity, are the perfect foil for rich meat dishes such as lamb.
• Fruit-flavored Lambics can pair with any dessert and are a bright aperitif.