Life beyond lager

Drinks: Beers
Other: People

In the first of his new series of features aimed at helping you to improve your beer offering, Ben McFarland gives you the dos and don’ts of how to put together a balanced list

There’s a real buzz about beer at the moment, a genuine sense that something exciting is emerging. Seriously, we’re not making this up. There really is. It’s not just anecdotal evidence. There are actual graphs and statistics and numbers to prove it too.

Cask ale, as you may have heard, is cool again and an increasingly integral element of urban elbow-bending. While keg is enjoying a renaissance and has healed its smoothflow scars, real ale remains the heartbeat of a vibrant domestic brewing scene shaped by both old school endeavours steeped in centuries of tradition and youthful, new wave boundary-breaking micros. If it’s not the best British beer’s ever been, it’s certainly the best it’s been in a seriously long time.


Last year, restaurateur and publican Charlie McVeigh launched The Draft House concept, a trio of stylish London beer bistros

‘We found that we were putting more and more beers on the list and on the bar and realised that by broadening our beer range we were actually doing something quite original,’ he says. ‘A pub serving good beer is really Emperor’s New Clothes but it’s not that easy to find such a thing, and at the time there weren’t many venues doing the same thing in London.’

When compiling the beer list, McVeigh took the decision to withdraw two mainstream continental lager brands. ‘When we had them it represented around 65% [of our sales]and it was difficult to gravitate people towards other fonts,’ he says.

‘When people walk in and see a forest of fonts before them you’ll get 1% of them who will turn around and walk out. The other 99% will give it a go. If you can engage them early and speak to them, quickly talk them through recommendations then you quickly get people on board.

‘If you don’t stock mainstream, instantly recognisable brands then make sure the beers you replace them with are right for your customer,’ he adds. ‘You’ve got to have substitute beers that are competitively priced like the big boys, yet aren’t that well known.’

McVeigh’s best-selling lager and ale are Mac’s Gold & Wandle Ale respectively. ‘They form the backbone for the beer business and then you need stepping stone beers followed by connoisseur beers and adventurous beers of extreme quality.’
The idea, says McVeigh, is that there is a core list focused on quality and price, and then room to experiment and innovate around that. ‘My mantra is to have global obscurity and local heroes that you can make more famous.’

Also, don’t be hoodwinked by pint culture – serve the more expensive beers in half pints or even thirds. ‘Some of the beers we serve would be £7 or £8 if they were served in pints,’ advises McVeigh.

Looking further

Beyond these borders, it’s simply incredible what bar and pub owners can currently bring in. The beer universe is shrinking like a woolly jumper in a hot wash, with dynamic distributors and innovative importers casting their nets further afield and shipping in some superb suds.

Face-twisting Lambic beers from Belgium; Japanese lagers in retro 50cl cans; industrial Altbier from Dortmund; American craft beers matured in Paraguayan Palo Santo wood; gluten-free pilsners; bourbon barrel-aged beers and Czech unpasteurised yeast beer from Budweiser Budvar.

Hell, you can even opt for a Danish breakfast beer brewed using coffee beans that have been through the intestines of a weasel and brewed by a chap who doesn’t even own a brewery. True story. And worth noting if the only beer you’ve ever listed is Budweiser.

Some of these beers aren’t cheap. Given the astronomical duty and distances, importing ales from across the globe can be an expensive undertaking  – especially if it’s a high ABV beer. But, even so, beer remains an absurdly affordable luxury. In these rather austere economic times, it’s worth noting that for less than a fiver, you can serve a half pint of some of the best beers on the planet. The same cannot be said for wine.

But, with such eclectic choice, which beers should you put on your beer list? Well much, of course, depends on the type of customer and outlet. A single-storey estate pub on the outskirts of Bridgend, for example, shouldn’t be serving a barrel-aged Imperial Stout during the meat raffle. Not yet anyway.

To the masses

There’s no point flooding your bar with acutely esoteric ales if they’re not going to shift but, equally, don’t underestimate the imbibing ambitions of an increasingly adventurous beer drinker nor, for that matter, the beers being offered elsewhere.

Better beer is no longer niche according to Christian Townsley, co-owner of the North Bar – a legendary beer venue in Leeds. ‘I was out last night in a pretty lousy sports pub and I saw Brooklyn Lager and I wasn’t sure whether to be gutted or happy,’ he says. ‘The major pub and bar chains are finally catching up and realising that brightening up your beer brings people into venues. It appeals to a broader range of customer and attracts a new kind of customer. I’m baffled that it’s taken them this long to get it.’

Lest we forget, business is all about the bucks. Expanding choice is all very well, and rare beers may cause a stir in the beer blog-o-sphere but, in the real world, the beers need to sell. ‘As long as you can offer customers something that’s an improvement on what they normally drink, and can explain
why, then people tend to be very receptive,’ adds Townsley. ‘People are willing to be won over.’

‘Drinkability is key,’ says Scott Collins of the Capital Pub Company, whose venues boast broader beer horizons than most  – with the likes of Duvel, Coopers Sparkling Ale, Mac’s Gold, Vedett Extra White and Brooklyn Lager in the chiller and Estrella Damm, Budvar Dark, Erdinger, Birra Moretti and Palm from Belgium on draught.

Keeping it real

‘One of the reasons we opted for Estrella Damm was that it was recognisable without being everywhere, there was money behind the brand and the glassware was good – Peroni built much of its success on its glassware – it’s important.

‘People will pay extra for new beers and try something once but if it’s overly obscure then the vast majority won’t buy it again,’ he says. ‘You can’t build a beer business on one-purchase-wonders.’

Beer List Top Tips

Be sure of your ‘bread and butter’ beers An Alaskan Imperial Stout brewed using chimp hair is NOT a house beer. Drinkability, price, glassware, brand support and quality are all-important here.

Specialist suppliers Develop a good relationship with specialist suppliers such as Vertical Drinks, James Clay and Cave Direct. They can often source limited edition beers and exclusive one-off beers.

Muck around with the margins Applying a standard 70%-ish margin to all beers won’t work with the more obscure and esoteric imports. Christian Townsley aims for an overall margin of 68%.

Question the phrase ‘premium’ and scour the supermarkets Beware the exotic illusion. Just because a beer is brewed in Mauritius doesn’t mean it’s ‘premium’. Check out what’s going on in the off-trade. If a beer is being sold in crates for a fiver then, chances are, people are not going to pay a premium for
it in your pub or bar.

Write a beer menu Strangely, beer menus remain a rare thing. They shouldn’t be, as they give customers an unpressured opportunity to peruse your brews. Some divide the beers by place, style
or price. At Mason & Taylor, a new beer bar in Shoreditch, the menu is changed every two months and divided into
the following: ‘Pale (white gold and blonde)’; ‘Amber, Brown & Red’; ‘Oddities’; and ‘Fruit’.

Dan Fox, manager at the rightly-revered White Horse in Parsons Green, agrees. ‘There’s a lot of talk about extreme beer but we’re not yet at the point where most people are buying 11% Imperial Stouts and wanting 100 IBUs [international bitterness units].’

Packaging, glassware and the level of brand support are all worth taking into consideration along with, of course, the cost. Jason Wills of Heineken UK (perhaps unsurprisingly) advises working with recognised, established brands. ‘People want choice but it’s important to have a number of well known brands that act as signposts for the category,’ he says. ‘Every outlet needs base brands that act as your anchor point for your pricing  – that will vary from outlet to outlet but it’s key to get the core brands right on both draught and in the chiller.’

‘You need your bread-and-butter beers that can prop-up the quirkier stuff,’ adds Collins in agreement. ‘In terms of cost, we find that the more quirky the beer the more wastage there is. As a pub rather than a specialist beer bar the worry is that you can make beer intimidating and a bit baffling for your customers. But at the same time, there’s no excuse for not having quality on offer and there’s absolutely no point in having 10 bottled lagers that all taste the same.’

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