Selling craft beer can be challenging, particularly at restaurants that aren’t known as beer destinations. Today’s customers expect servers to be able to discuss beer flavor profiles, styles, and food pairings. You don’t need an extensive beer list, but your servers must know that list intimately. Below are tips for upselling craft beer from beverage managers at restaurants that, while best known for their wine and cocktail menus, still take beer sales seriously.
1. Educate Your Servers
Servers need a basic knowledge of beer and should taste their restaurant’s beer options, says Mishelle DeTillio, the beverage manager at Tupelo Honey café in Asheville, North Carolina. DeTillio is a certified Cicerone—the beer world’s equivalent of a sommelier. “Our servers have to feel comfortable explaining ABV and tasting notes and what size pour a beer is coming in and why it’s priced as it is,” DeTillio says. “I tell them, You can’t sell it unless you taste it. If you’ve been working here for more than a week, you should have tasted the beers!”
She adds that server education should be ongoing and engaging: “When I was preparing for my [certification],” she says, “I made flash cards and the servers would quiz me. I put beer information flyers everywhere, even on the walls in the staff toilet. So they’re sitting there reading specs.”
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Presentations and tastings by brewery or distributor sales reps also help connect servers with what they’re selling. DeTillio organizes quarterly visits to local breweries for her staff. “Often, we’ll go to someone’s house after a brewery tour to taste more beers,” she says. “But it’s not just social—it’s super educational and incentivizes our servers.”
2. Engage with Your Customers
If you see a customer perusing the beer list, engage with them quickly, advises Ashley Adams, the bar manager at ChoLon Modern Asian bistro in Denver. “I try to jump in right away and say, ‘I notice you’re looking at the beer list. Can I tell you about this new beer that just came in?’ or ‘Have you tried this beer yet? It’s a great one to start with.’”
DeTillio notes that being able to ascertain whether customers want to be left alone or are looking for interaction can make or break a beer tab. Offering a personal tidbit or brewery backstory can help steer a customer to a certain beer, she says. “Sometimes people don’t want to make decisions. They make decisions all day, and they want us to decide for them. It’s my job to make a choice that they will enjoy. It’s a great feeling when I bring someone a beer they might not have chosen, and they say, ‘You were right. I really like this.’”
3. Offer Both Local Beers and Beers That Are Unique in Your Market
Bar managers comment that tourists typically want to try local brews, while locals often look for something new to try. “We’re lucky to be able to work directly with so many local producers,” says Adams, “but our goal is to keep our beer list interesting and not too benchmark. We don’t have many of the beers that everyone can get everywhere [else] in town.”
Natasha Samone, the beverage director at Bully Boy in Atlanta, relies on a similar approach. “Our bartenders get lots of questions from customers,” she says, “and we want them to be able to talk about the beers that aren’t Georgia beers, as well as give [customers] the opportunity to try beers that you don’t see much in Atlanta.”
4. Rotate the Beers on Your Menu
The proliferation of craft breweries means that brand loyalty has become rare. In this new climate, regular rotation keeps customers coming back. It also steers them to value new experiences above pricing. “We are primarily a wine-driven concept,” says Adams, “and in the past the beer menu was set, but since I came on, we’ve made it more fluid. We’re a destination restaurant in a city with a huge beer scene, and if you’re going to have a small beer list, it’s got to be killer. We think really hard about the list and what we put on it and when.”
Samone notes that she changes her list regularly. “We rotate our beer menu just as we rotate our food menu, and we include seasonal beers that pair with seasonal food items.”
5. Sell Specialty, Rare, and Large-Format Beers Like Fine Wine
“Higher ABVs mean higher prices,” says DeTillio, “and higher-priced beers can be harder to sell. I teach the servers to sell our high-end beers as they would a fine bottle of wine. People will spend $140 on a bottle of wine and not think twice about it. I think the same should be true for beer.”
Tupelo Honey has a high-end specialty beer menu called Ahab’s Locker. It includes “white whales”—rare, difficult-to-find brews that often come in wine bottles. When an Ahab’s Locker brew has been ordered, DeTillio springs into action. “I’ll often go out to present the beer as I would a wine,” she says. “I’ll introduce myself and say, ‘I’m a Cicerone and I get really excited about these special beers, and I want to tell you about this one.’ I’ll pour the beer in nice, polished glasses and leave the bottle on the table so people can read it.”
If someone in a group orders a high-end beer, DeTillio will offer tasting glasses to the table—which, she notes, often leads to the purchase of a second bottle.
6. Pair Beers with Menu Items
While some restaurants include pairing suggestions on their menus, many bar managers think it’s better to understand how different styles of beer complement different foods. That way, servers can offer different beer options depending on customer taste preferences.
“Our beer program is not very extensive,” says Samone. ”However, we have chosen our beers specifically to pair with our menu selections. For example, we have a Mole Porter that pairs well with our beef offerings.”
DeTillio trains servers to suggest specific beers to pair with desserts. “We have a barrel-aged stout that goes great with pecan pie,” she says. Another strategy is to offer liquid dessert. It’s a bonus for some customers that even high-ABV beers contain much less alcohol than most liqueurs.
Anne Fitten Glenn is a freelance writer and brewery communications consultant based in Asheville, North Carolina. She has authored two books: Western North Carolina Beer: A Mountain Brew History and Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing. Glenn lives within crawling distance of a dozen craft breweries. Follow her on social media at @brewgasm.