For many restaurant-goers these days, beverage choices are as important as the food options on your menu. As the drinks editor of Serious Eats, I hate to see restaurants that offer great wine lists and carefully crafted cocktails but fall short on their beer offerings. As a restaurateur, you have an opportunity to showcase your taste by crafting a special, destination-worthy beer list.
Beer is the perfect partner for every kind of food and ignoring them is a missed opportunity. Here are a few tips to improve your beer program.
Showcase the beer from your state. Small but excellent breweries are popping up all over the country. Check out the brewery search engine on Craftbeer.com to find ones in your local area. You'll stand out from the pack and lend the smaller breweries a hand by featuring their best efforts.
Beer isn’t just about what’s on tap, it’s about community. Bring local brewmasters in for a special happy hour tasting or a monthly pairings dinner. This can be a great way to fill the house on a quiet Tuesday night: four courses, four beers, chosen (and introduced) by the brewmaster himself.
Take it further by commissioning a special brew just for your restaurant. Sixpoint Craft Ales makes an oyster stout for the John Dory Oyster Bar, which pairs perfectly with the Dory's freshly shucked Kushi oysters. Kelso of Brooklyn collaborates with Blue Hill at Stone Barns to craft special beers made with seasonal ingredients from the restaurant’s farm, including honey lavender, and even freshly picked beets.
Work with your distributors to offer seasonally-appropriate suds. These beers aren’t available all year and beer fanatics get really excited when they first start appearing around town.
In winter, capture the excitement for winter warmers (our favorites include Clipper City Heavy Seas Winter Storm, Smuttynose Winter Ale, Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale, Anchor’s Our Special Ale, and Odell Brewing’s Isolation Ale). Throw in a smoky Rauchbier (which goes especially well with smoked and barbecued meats), a brooding Belgian Dubbel (the perfect accompaniment to warming winter stews) and a chocolatey porter.
If you serve chili in the fall, be sure to pour a pumpkin brew like Wolaver’s Will Steven’s Pumpkin Ale or Elysian’s Night Owl. In summer, swap the darker stuff out for food-friendly Saisons and session-able summer ales like Bell’s Oberon, Blue Point Summer Ale, and Boulevard Brewing’s ZON. These refreshing beers call out for the dishes on your summer menu: grilled fish, chicken, and sausages, fresh herbs, salads and shellfish.
Of course, for hopheads, fresh IPA knows no season.
Think About Pairings
We’d love to see more beer-pairing suggestions at both fine dining and more casual restaurants. If you’re not that familiar with pairing beer and food, start out by reading Garrett Oliver’s excellent guide, The Brewmaster’s Table. And don’t be afraid of experimenting until you find a match that is really compelling: Try your shrimp appetizer with a Belgian pale ale, hefeweizen and pilsner. Match your cheesecake with a fruit lambic or an imperial stout. Try pork belly with doppelbock, and crispy roast chicken with a biere de garde or an amber ale.
Print your recommendations under each dish on the menu; customers will appreciate your advice. If you’re not confident with pairing, consider hiring a consulting cicerone (that's a sommelier for beer) to help out. Flights and half-pours allow your customers to try different beers with different dishes, encouraging them to try -- and order -- more.
Offer Help (and a Taste!)
Make sure your staff has tasted all the beers and can describe them, and consider adding a few tasting notes (as well as alcohol levels and serving size) to the menu so that customers who haven't tried your beers can get a sense of what they taste like.
Train your staff to ask uncertain customers what beers they normally like to drink and recommend beers from your menu that will appeal: if you normally drink a light lager, you’ll likely enjoy Full Sail’s Session Lager, Goose Island’s Summertime Ale, or Ballast Point’s Calico Amber. If Guinness is your drink, try tasting St-Ambroise Oatmeal Stout from Quebec or Founder’s Porter from Michigan. If you’re a Heineken drinker, it’s likely that Victory’s just-a-bit-bolder Prima Pils will appeal.
These smaller-batch brews are often more flavorful than the mass-produced options, and will help the food you're serving really shine.