How to Build A Better Guest Tap Beer List
In one of my previous articles we talked about why some taprooms and brewpubs choose to offer beers from other breweries, while others choose to sell only their own beer. There are great reasons for each option, but today we will focus on those establishments that have chosen to expand the beer choices beyond what they make in house. I know what kind of beers I gravitate toward (high gravity, get it?) and I know what Walter (code name for my wife) likes as well. But how does a manager/buyer for a brewpub or taproom decide on what to bring in? The choices can range from the hundreds to the thousands, depending on your state and the distributors you work with, so just what does it take to build a killer guest list? Well, it depends on what you care about.
If it were up to me, all the guest lines would be filled with Belgian dark strong ales and bourbon barrel-aged sours, but I suppose I could be magnanimous and throw on an IPA for the hop-heads every once in a while. Walter would serve nothing but IPAs, DIPAs, and TIPAs, with maybe the occasional quad because she loves me. Unfortunately, this strategy won’t work for a manager assigned to maintain a guest beer list; they have to take what other people like into account. When I talked to managers, owners and brewers about why they chose to serve guest beers, I also asked how they go about building a list over time, and the answers ranged from the obvious to the mathematical. In short, there’s more than one way to beat an egg, just please don’t put it in your beer.
Most of the people I talked to said that first and foremost, they have to choose beers that will sell well. Price point, style, and brand reputation all factor into guessing whether a beer will be popular, but it isn’t an exact science. To a person, they admitted that they had been surprised before; something they thought would languish on the line blew in just a couple of days, or a beer they thought would be ordered constantly rotted on the line as it saw its neighbors poured more often. It is sometimes hard to know what will sell, but that doesn’t keep a buyer from thinking that he/she knows the precise strategy for keeping their customers happy.
Different brewers/bar managers have different priorities when it comes to building a list, but some common themes did seem to arise during our talks. For example, many of the buyers acknowledge that ciders have become an important part of a beer list. Chris Weeks at Wasser Brewing in Greencastle told me that they are proven sellers that will be important to his idea of his brewpub being for more people than just beer geeks. Cory Hall at Black Acre said that they lost their ciders for a few weeks recently and noticed a drop off in the customers. It took a few weeks with the cider choices restored for them to get back to normal sales.
As far as beers go, many of the people I talked to wanted very much to help other local breweries by featuring their beers in their guest lists. Chris Jones at Blind Owl Brewery, home of one of the best guest tap lists in Indianapolis in my opinion, would like nothing better than to feature only local beers, but this is not possible logistically. The main reason is that in any one season, many breweries are brewingthe same styles of beers, ie. wits in the summer, stouts in the winter, pumpkin beers way too soon. It is hard to feature only local beers when so many offerings overlap in style – unless of course you’re the Koelschip; they really enjoy pouring four different goses at one time. I love that place.
Another factor that seemed to come up again and again in our discussions of choosing guest beers was style. The majority of buyers said that they populate their guest lists with beer styles that they themselves are not currently producing. This jibes with what my Facebook survey showed, 42% percent of respondents (the most popular answer) said that a contrast between house beers and guests is most important for them. Appropriately, Lizzie Hineman, marketing manager at TwoDEEP Brewing, says that contrasting style is the number one feature that they have been looking for in their recent foray into guest beers. This gives the total list the largest variety while not impinging on the beers that are made in house.
At Black Acre, style is the number one factor in selecting guest beers. Most often they look for beers that are different than they are making, and especially ones that may be out of season. Cory Hall, manager of the bar says that it is nice to hold a beer that will age well, such as the North Coast Old Stock barleywine that Walter and I had there a few weeks ago. Cory had been cellaring it since 2013, despite the limited storage space they have at Black Acre.For smaller systems, certain beers types can really tax the capacity limit. Chris Weeks at Wasser states that he will almost always have a good German pilsner as aguest beer because pilsners would spend too much time in his fermenter to make it worth the time lost brewing other beers. This will free up his five-barrel system for brewing several other styles since Chris intends to carry at least six house beers. It won’t preclude him from brewing a pilsner every once in a while, just not all the time.
Just what house and seasonal beers are being made at one particular time is crucial to the selection of guest beers for Jesse Trent, manager of the Triton taproom in Broad Ripple. He goes to brewery each week to see what is coming down the pike and therefore knows what he should be looking for to contrast their beers. If it is summer and people are drinking the wits out of witbiers, then he will surely have Namaste from Dogfish Head or similar – if Triton is currently not making a white ale.
In the opposite direction, Triton makes several good IPAs so Jesse doesn’t feel the need to put one on the guest list. The only buyer I talked to that mentioned complimentary style beers as important for their selection was Chris Jones at Blind Owl Brewery. Chris puts together one of our favorite guest lists in the region. You can disagree with Walter and I – that’s fine if you don’t mind being wrong (Blind Owl had the W00tstout 4.0, Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca and a Stone Enjoy by all at the same time – ‘nough said). Chris says they often have a German pilsner on tap to compliment their own pilsner. He likes to have people try both and see the similarities and differences. He also buys beers that fill gaps in their style palette, but a piney IPA is just fine for him if they have a juicy IPA of their own. He also gets highly scientific with his tracking of beers; time to blow kegs, ranked by style and brewery so that he can better predict what people are liking most and how he should proceed in the weeks to come. I appreciate that Chris is willing to do math in order to enrich my drinking experience.
As long as the buyers can get the styles of beer they want, almost all of them talked about first contacting people with whom they have a personal relationship. Jesse at Triton says it is the primary way he procures beers for his guest taps – brewers, brewery reps, and distributors he knows and trusts are his first phone calls. Personal contact is also important for Chris at Wasser Brewing. He did a brewing internship with Schlafly in St. Louis, and the guys at Black Acre let him brew with them to help him decide if he really wanted to do this full time. Chris says that this makes him want to return the favors and feature their beers when he can.
In a similar fashion, Lizzie at TwoDEEP used to get many calls from local brewers wanting their TapRoom to carry one of their beers – of course they didn’t have guest lines at that time. Now that their canning has gone so well, they have a bit less capacity to produce as many seasonal beers as they once could, and are filling 3-4 of their lines with guest beers. Now Lizzie is reaching out to those contacts she made two years ago seeking beer for the TwoDEEP TapRoom. As an example, they have a good relationship with Broad Ripple Brewpub and that is how they ended up recently serving BRBP’s Northern German Altbier.
Finally, brand and reputation figure prominently in how Indiana taproom/brewpub staff buy beers for their guest lists. Again, this parallels the top answers in my Facebook survey. The second most popular response as to what people wanted most in a guest list was rare, high quality beers from good breweries (31% of respondents ranked it as the number one factor), while the number three answer was brand reputation in general (20%). Having beers on your tap list that beer geeks know and covet is a great way to sell beer, but several of my interviewees also mentioned name recognition as more important than individual beer reputation.
Cory at Black Acre, a neighborhood pub as well as a brewpub, said that he looks for beers that regular folks will recognize, but also for things that beer geeks will travel for. Likewise, Jesse at Triton said it is better to stick to brands that have high name recognition – something that casual drinkers will recognize. Not coincidentally, these are two of the establishments in my group that have the most walk up business.
Chris at Wasser told me that brand and reputation definitely will play a role in his buying, but there is always room for “whim and whimsy.” This is a very similar philosophy to what Chris Jones at Blind Owl stated. He is a fan of Taxman and they almost always have one or two beer from Bargersville on their menu, but he likes to include a lesser known brewery from time to time as well. This explains the Einstok (Icelandic) beer that I had there a week or so ago. Chris says that the high name recognition and high quality guest beers they offer sell well enough to make it possible to take a flier on a lesser known beer every once in a while. This would be akin to Chris Weeks’ whim or whimsy. For Cory Hall, he likes to put on a lesser known beer that he found while out and about drinking. He hopes that others might like it as well as he did, and this expands everyone’s beer horizon. What more can you ask from a guest beer list – brewers helping other brewers train better beer drinkers, while also helping each other get ahead in the beer business.