How to Design a Beer Menu... Maybe Four IPAs is One too Many
In a way, nothing sounds more exciting than getting to choose delicious things for people. Curating a collection of wonderful libations, like designing a beer menu can be an incredibly fulfilling experience, but also a daunting one if you don’t go into it without a plan.
Context is everything when designing a beer menu. Whether you’re picking crushable, budget-friendly thrills for a dive bar or choosing beers for a fine dining tasting menu, there are tons of factors to consider. So we decided to ask Dave Riddile, co-founder of Here Today Brewery & Kitchen, slated to open in Seattle later this year, how to think about picking the perfect beers to compliment any bar, restaurant, or general space that aims to serve people great things and make them happy.
Define Your Audience and Vibe
If you’ve walked into any bar, you can usually come up with a good idea of what the vibe is within seconds. “It’s fair to say that you're putting the cart way ahead of the horse if you aren't super sure what your whole vibe is going to be and you attempt to design a beer/beverage menu,” Riddile says. If you’re making intentional choices about the atmosphere you want to set up and the customers you want to attract, your beer selection should reflect that.
That’s not to say you can’t mix and match things, but you should consider the clientele of your establishment and what your beer choices say about the space. “Not saying I haven't seen it work, but it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to open a rough-and-tumble dive and only have, like, $30 bottles of gueuze on the menu.” Riddile suggests asking yourself the following questions: “who your people are, what kind of place you're going to be, and how the beer menu (and menu at large) is going to serve your business.”
Set A Number
Everyone has been to a bar with either a handful of beers to choose from or a never ending list of beers on tap. Finding the sweet spot can be tricky — you want to have at least a few core beers that stay on the menu continuously while leaving you space to rotate in and out new offerings. In general, you want to have a mix of styles ranging from lighter beers (think Lagers and Pilsners) to heavier styles (IPAs and dark beers like a Stout or a Porter) and then room for a few lesser-known or seasonal styles. With this range, you’ll have something for everyone without things getting too unwieldy.
Riddile suggests no more than 16 beers on tap, although that’s not a hard and fast number and it depends on if you’re serving beer in a restaurant, a bar, or a brew pub. If you want to be ambitious with your tap selection, keep in mind that the more taps there are, the more cleaning there will be and the more you’ll have to keep an eye on inventory. “Keep it simple, rely on what you know sells to your audience, but leave a little room for creativity and special occasions,” Riddile says.
Hospitality is Everything
You have to be mindful of what your customers want and are looking for, but instead of approaching menu design as a puzzle to unlock, Riddile suggests going in with a hospitality mindset. “Don't assume that you can serve everyone but do your best to throw the party your guests want to have when they walk through the door. Some of those special beers can be like letting them in on a cool secret, which is a rad experience to share,” he says, noting that just because a beer is rare or maybe isn’t well-known doesn’t mean it can’t appeal to a larger audience — the key is in how you sell it. Everyone enjoys getting a recommendation from a bartender or learning what their server likes, so take opportunities to share interesting beers by bringing customers along a journey with you.
However, there’s always a balance, and sometimes it’s your job just to get a drink in peoples’ hands. “Also I'd leave some room for a bottle of High Life or whatever local drinkin' beer is kicking around your area,” he says. Regardless, it’s not so much about picking an exact list of beers as it is giving your drinkers something to be excited about and to share with friends. “Beer is effective at accompanying and driving a conversation, create a list of beers that do one or both of those things well and you'll probably be alright.”
When Making a Menu, There Are No Rules
There’s no one playbook for how to design a beer menu — it’s a balance of responding to your customers, picking beers you are genuinely excited to share, and being open to trying new things. “I think it is incredibly important to not be overly dogmatic,” Riddile says. He does have a few straightforward suggestions — “have a good Lager on tap,” and “more sessionable Lagers, Pale Ales, ANYTHING” — but it’s not about following a rigid set of guidelines nor is it about having “the best” or most sophisticated menu.
“Again you can't serve everyone but you don't want to take that advice to the point of exclusion,” Riddile says. “Know what sells, have some fun, and leave room for guests to find the experience they're looking for.”