Should a Brewery Invite Guests?
I like guest taps, if for no other reason than there is always a first visit for my wife (code name Walter) and I to a brewpub or taproom. If there isn’t something on the house beer list that I find interesting or good, it’s nice to have a guest beer to fall back on. The second time we go to a brewery, it’s all on us. We will know what we’re getting into; either we like the brewery’s beers and are returning for them or we know they have guest lines. Apparently, we are in the minority in this feeling – my VERY unscientific and informal survey on Facebook shows that about 85% people don’t concern themselves with guest taps on their first visit to a brewery. However,respondents said they are more likely to return to a brewpub or taproom that they consider marginal if the establishment does offer guest beers (55% of respondents).
It isn’t always the case that Walter’s and my first taste of a brewery is when we walk in their doors. In the majority of cases, we have tried their beer at a festival or have purchased some at a bottle shop before we make a visit. But the issues of first and return visits do bring up a good question with respect to guest beers – how does a taproom or brewpub decide whether or not to sell other people’s beer? If they offer choices from other breweries, is it a sign that they don’t have faith in their own product? Do true beer geeks that run breweries want to educate/please their customers and that’s why they bring in outside offerings?
On the other hand, if brewpubs/taprooms choose to not offer other brewery’s beers, is it all about maximizing their profit? Are they allowed to serve other beer? Is a lack of guest lines a sign that this group of brewers aren’t part of the brewing community? I include this last one only to prompt discussion; I know for a fact that some people without guest taps are incredibly involved in Indiana craft beer. To educate myself on these subjects, I decided to ask several taproom managers, brewers, and owners about their philosophy on the subject. It turns out, like always, the answer isn’t simple and varies from establishment to establishment.
There are several factors that contribute to whether a taproom might opt for guest taps, the simplest of which is what kind of alcohol license they have. In Indiana, a straight brewer’s license allows one to sell only beer that is made on the premises. If the company in question has either a small brewer’s license (produce less than 90,000 bbl/yr) or a brewer’s license (more than 90,000 bbl/yr) then the issue is settled; they can’t carry anyone else’s beer. Of course, what license you get is a matter of choice in most cases. You can pay more and get a two-way (beer and wine) or three-way (beer, wine, and liquor) license that would include the right to serve other people’s beer, so why do some people choose only a brewer’s permit?
This was the path taken by Daredevil Brewing in Speedway. Co-owner Shane Pearson told me that from the time of design and construction, the Daredevil folks knew that guest taps did not fit into their plan. As a production brewery built after Daredevil already had a large following, Shane stated that most people that visit them are expecting to sample their beers when they come in. They always planned on focusing on their own beers – and why shouldn’t they, their house beer list is one of the strongest in the state. Most guest beers would whither on the vine waiting to be picked over the Daredevil and Raredevil beers.
Shane and his co-owners have always had a very concrete business model; they make and sell excellent beer and some locally sourced food. Anything beyond that just isn’t part of their plan. This is a similar attitude to that of Ryan Arnold, communications manager for Sierra Nevada. In his experience, guest beers are not what visitors come to Sierra Nevada for. “They want to taste our beer…..guest beers didn’t sell. They work when there’s maybe one of them, but it digs into what people are coming here for.” (J. Morgan, 2013, http://www.craftbrewingbusiness.com/business-marketing/tasting- room-tips-build-run- brand-brewery- showcase/).
Pride in your beers is a common theme among brewers – as it should be. In many cases, this is a hobby that they have thought long and hard about turning into a business. If they didn’t believe in their beers, why would a brewer step down the path of trying to get other people to buy his beer? This is reflected in the comments of Mark Swartz. Mark is opening Cannon Ball Brewing in the Kennedy King neighborhood of downtown Indianapolis in the next few weeks. He told me that he isn’t planning to offer guest beers, at least not for a while. Part of the reason is that he has a small brewer’s permit, but he could switch that over to a 2-way permit without too much trouble. The three-way permit is much more expensive, so unless his venture is successful from day one, this permit might have to wait. But he might not add to his license even if he could afford it. He said that he, “really wants my beers and our food to be the focus here.” Sounds like a good plan to me.
So, it would seem that business and pride in one’s product are major players in deciding not to offer guest lines – but that doesn’t mean that brewers and managers that decide to open up lines for other beers and ciders don’t feel good about the beer they make. There are other reasons why taprooms/brewpubs bring in outside beers. When Walter and I first walked in to Wasser Brewing in Greencastle a few weeks ago and saw only their beers on tap, I guessed I was going to talk to owner/brewer Chris Weeks about why he had chosen not to include guest lines in his brewpub. But this changed quickly when he told me that they are indeed going to carry a few outside beers and a cider, they just hadn’t finished their build out yet.
Chris opened Wasser just a few weeks ago, so their tap lines hadn’t yet been installed when Walter and I visited them two weekends ago. He poured us a flight from half barrels submerged in ice baths; the English pale was outstanding and actually benefited from being a bit warmer than usual. When the build out is finished, Chris anticipates they will have twelve lines – six for their beers, one or two for meads and ciders, and four or so for guest breweries. Why, you, ask, does he want to carry guest beers? In his words, “’Cause we like beer.” Guest taps will allow Chris to indulge in his beer geekness. And, as a new restaurant in the relatively small downtown, he wants to play to a wider audience than just his fellow beer nerds. By offering guest beers and ciders, Chris wants to bring a greater selection and breadth of beer styles to town, and give local brewers a place to display their craft. It’s about being part of the craft beer community.
Tin Man Brewing in Evansville shares this desire to expand people’s choices and knowledge about local beer. Their menu states, “To further assimilate Indiana into craft beer culture, we feature a rotating beer selection from Indiana craft breweries.” This friendly, though competitive, relationship between brewers in a locale or state is a common theme, MIA (Miami, FL) owner Eddie Leon said recently, “We’d like to have other local brewers on tap as well … We also want to further develop our own beer style in Florida. With the local ingredients — fruits and whatnot — and even culturally. There’s a different taste down here. We want to make beers that will succeed in our local communities.” (J. Morgan, 2013)
The warm fuzzy feeling about working together with other breweries is noble and helpful to the beer drinker, but sometimes there is a much more practical reason for selling beer from other breweries. Some brewpubs/taprooms just can’t make enough of their own beer to keep their customers in suds. For assistant brewer Chris Jones and the Blind Owl crew on the Indianapolis northeast side, the size of their restaurant and bar (and the fact that both are packed just about every night) means that demand outstrips the supply of their beer. Offering guest beers is a business imperative for them. Chris does put together a fine beer list; we’ll talk more about how he does that next time.
Jesse Trent at the Triton taproom in Broad Ripple has got of the same philosophy on guest taps. If he could fill all 15 of his lines with Triton beer, he would. But the Triton brewery in Lawrence and their outside accounts limit what he can put on tap at any one time. With whatever lines he has left over, he goes for quality guest taps. Lucky for him, and us, Triton beers can fill all his lines about 50-60% of the time and it is going higher. Remember, these people are in the business to make money, not just satisfy every beer whim you might have. Selling a beer you made is going to bring in more profit than buying a beer from another brewery, so can you blame anyone for filling their lines with their own beer?
Not being able to fill all their lines hadn’t been an issue for TwoDEEP Brewing and marketing manager Lizzie Hineman until recently. They have had 15 lines running since they opened in 2014, and at first they had enough styles to fill their lines, or nearly so (some duplicate lines or nitrogen versus carbon dioxide). However, recent canning success has led to more demand on their system for house beer production and less capacity to produce seasonals and one-off beers. With fewer beers of their own, Lizzie and the Tap Room staff have begun to reach out to breweries for half barrels of quality Indiana beer to offer alongside their own creations, especially if a lager is tying up a fermenter or a brite tank for a longer period of time.
Finally, a taproom or brewpub might offer guest beers because they consider themselves to be more than just a destination for their craft beer. Black Acre makes awesome beer, but their taproom is more than just a place to taste their own beers. Located in the neighborhood of Irvington, Black Acre gets a lot of walk up traffic. They’re a local hang out for food, drinks and talk, and as Probrewer has written, Brewpubs often succeed or fail based not on their beer, but on the total dining and drinking experience.” (http://www.probrewer.com/library/nano-breweries/finally-time- to-sell- your-beer/) Therefore, Old Rasputin (on nitrogen) is always on tap at Black Acre, and bar manager Cory Hall says they would hear about it if it ever went dry. Additionally, a cider or two is always on tap, because Cory has learned, like Chris at Wasser, that ciders will bring in dates/spouses/customers that don’t drink beer. Yes, there are people who don’t drink craft beer.
I still like having more choices rather than fewer, but after these discussions with brewers and managers, I have a much better understanding that there are individual reasons why a taproom is set-up the way that it is. I always hope that a brewery’s beer will be outstanding, or at least some of it will, but that isn’t always the case. In that case, guest lines can save a trip. Yet my new found understanding of the issues involved in deciding on whether to have guest beers or ciders means that I will try to take brewpubs/taprooms as I find them and appreciate them for what they are.
Moving on, this discussion of why people decide to have guest beers brings up another question – how do they decide what beers to carry? There are personal and business reasons, but a buyer can’t just buy what they like – there are systems to building a solid guest beer list. More on this next time.