Right beer, right now: Boost your business with speciality beers

Drinks: Beers
Other: Business

Want to know how putting a bit of va-va-voom into your beer offering can make you more money? Nigel Huddleston provides a quick rundown of the strategies to look for and gimmicks to avoid

Still looking for that key ingredient to make your drinks offering stand out from the crowd? Are cocktails looking a bit ostentatious for a clientele in the grip of the credit crunch? Is Aussie Shiraz blended with a bit of Viognier just not cutting the mustard as the next big thing in wine after, er, Aussie Shiraz?

Beer could be the answer. There is now more choice and quality on offer in the UK beer market than ever before, making it easier than it’s ever been for venues to make their beer offering crackle with excitement.

So set out on the road with Imbibe’s quick guide to the dos and don’ts of selling speciality beer…



If you think we’re advocating a £20k budget for someone to pontificate about malt germination and late hopping, you’d be justified in suggesting we should be quickly dispatched to the nearest loony
bin. But we’re not and you shouldn’t.

The title ‘sommelier’ may be a bit grand for many venues but, just as for wine, it can be a big help to have someone who knows what they’re talking about doing a bit of hand-selling. In some cases this will be talking to beer buffs on their own level and in others it might mean enthusing about beer to people with scant knowledge, so it needs to be a good all-round communicator and, naturally, someone who’s got a genuine passion for the subject.

Putting your ‘beer sommelier’ in charge of beer buying could also give some coherence to the offering, taking into account different price points, menu matches, styles and target audience.

They can also play an important role in disseminating their knowledge to the rest of the team through staff tastings; further improving your venue’s communication about beer at the point of contact.


No one would buy Britain’s favourite confectionery selection if every tin only contained the shiny yellow caramels that look like someone’s trodden on them. Similarly, no one’s going to get excited about your beer range if it comprises seven different shades of lager.

Beer’s strength is its diversity: refreshing lagers and golden ales for a hot summer’s day; gloopy, rich, dark beers for cold winter nights; salty, dry stouts that go with seafood; fresh, fragrant fruit beers as an aperitif or with light puddings; challenging IPAs to sip and savour; wheat beers to cut through fragrant Thai spices.
You get the idea.

Suggest food matches for individual menu items and think seasonally for beers just as you would for the food you serve. Refresh the range through the year and offer a genuinely eclectic selection that will both enthuse and surprise your customers.

And what is Quality Street made for? That’s right, sharing. Wine-sized 75cl bottles of continental beers look as good on the table as any wine and can raise customer spend, cash margin and GP.

Beer-mad Market Restaurant in Manchester sells Belgian brews Duvel and Chimay Cinq Cents for £13.25 and £12.95 respectively, while the champagne beer Deus – also favoured by several posh London restaurants – has a £27.50 price tag, making it more expensive than most of the 27 wines listed.


Tucked away in a corner of many a stock room lie a few unloved cases of Honduran lager, bought long ago because it’s always useful to have something on hand for the odd bloke who doesn’t drink wine – plus it was the cheapest thing they had on offer in the cash and carry.

The manager thinks it doesn’t sell because no one wants to drink beer, but in fact it’s because everyone else has forgotten it’s there. The situation is compounded by the fact that its name doesn’t appear on the drinks menu, there are no bottles on display behind the bar, no branded glasses in evidence on the table. No restaurant worthy of the name would dream of keeping the fact that it sells wine hidden from the customers, yet for beer it sometimes feels like anonymity is a requirement.

Attractive display, provision of appropriate information on the story or flavour, and simply a presence on the drinks menu, are all basic first steps towards putting your venue on the map for beer.


Imagine where wine would be were it only served in giant, masculine beakers and promoted around football and darts. Such an approach has been to beer’s detriment over the years and plunging sales figures for many major brands are to some extent a just reward for alienating the female population.

Kirsty Derry, MD of the Bittersweet Partnership, a Coors initiative to transform the way beer is marketed to women, says venues need to pay more attention to getting their ranges and presentation right.

‘Around eight out of 10 women say that they make a decision on beer based on taste,’ she says, ‘but there’s a whole lot of baggage before getting to that stage around the packaging, the glassware and the presentation. Glassware is generally regarded as inelegant. A lot of women don’t like holding a big chunky pint glass – they’d prefer the continental model where the glass is made to suit the beer.’


Yes, you heard right. There’s a big education process to go through to get more people drinking beyond mainstream lager, and tasting samples are one of the best ways to do that. After all, what’s the first thing you do with a bottle of wine when you take it to the table? It may be to check if a wine’s corked, but the free sniff and sip still runs the risk of the customer rejecting the wine, for whatever reason. They’re always right, after all.

With lower unit prices and the consistency of delivery of bottled beer, the risks are lower for the venue in doing the same as with wine – and could enhance your reputation as a venue that takes both its customers and beers seriously.



The Porterhouse in London’s Covent Garden is a model for how beer can and should be served. Floor-to-above-head-height fridges along the back bar, packed to the gills with beers of all styles and geographies, and set far enough back to give customers a clear view of the lot.

Guests coo and aah like primary school children looking at the crown jewels. Packaging advances mean continental bottles no longer come with scuffed, peeling labels and caked in a crust of dust as they used to 10 years ago, so putting beer on display can be a turn-on rather than a turn-off. The club-shaped bottle of Orval Trappist beer knocks spots off a dozen lookalike New Zealand Sauvignons any day of the week.


T-shirts, hats, key rings and other associated tat are all very useful if you’re the sort of place that needs a ready supply of karaoke prizes, but at the top end they will do little to improve the image and sales of your beer.

However authentic branded glassware, whose shape and style enhances the presentation of the beer in question – and frequently its flavour – may well do. It’s difficult to quantify, but the thick-walled Hoegaarden beer tumbler has certainly played at least some part in the brand’s success in the UK over the past 10 years.

When proper glassware first came on the market, many beer brand owners expected venues to pay, but this policy appears to have relaxed somewhat, especially for prestigious outlets that brands crave to be associated with, so badger your rep accordingly.

And if suppliers do say they want to give you stuff for nothing, suggest they spend their money on something that could help you sell more, such as beer training for staff – the Beer Academy (020 7499 8144) is a good starting point – or blackboards and beer menus.


Any bar or restaurant that carries a wine list comprising nothing but 20 different Chardonnays from around the world, would rightly be regarded as bonkers, so why do the same venues frequently think that stocking six pilsner lagers from different countries constitutes a strong and varied beer list?

Contemporary Indian-Nepalese restaurant The Chilli Pickle in Brighton is a fine example of what a more considered approach can achieve, with an eclectic list including top-quality Belgian beers such as Vedett, Orval and Duvel, flavoursome IPA and Viennese-style lager from London’s Meantime, plus German wheat beers from Erdinger and Paulaner that show off the diversity of that country’s brewing heritage.

The menu is displayed on a huge blackboard that details alcohol strengths, with brief and precise tasting notes, plus prices. So it’s easy for the staff to engage in conversation about them with the same confidence that they would with the house wines.

‘Beer does have a lower margin, but we do make about 40% on most of them,’ says owner Alun Sperring. ‘However for me it’s about more than the margin, it’s about bringing people through the door and getting them talking.
The idea of the range is to provide quality that goes beyond the norm in this sort of restaurant. It has become a talking point and something we’re noted for doing that’s different.’


Pilsner lager takes about eight hours’ fridge time to get down from cellar to optimum serving temperature. Aim for between 5˚C and 8˚C – any lower and you’ll kill the flavour. Ales and most
other fuller-flavoured beers need to be at between 8˚C and 10˚C. Borrow a probe thermometer from the kitchen to check the actual temperature of the beer in the bottles, which could differ from that shown on the fridge’s own gauge.


The fact that something’s new or unusual doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good. So – purely for the sake of argument – your new raspberry wheat beer from Papua New Guinea might get people talking, but if it’s no good they’re not going to order a second, and the credibility of the rest of your beer list could go down the toilet.

The Belgians have a had a few centuries practice at getting raspberry wheat beer – and many other things – right and probably provide a safer, and better quality, bet. If you’re offered something new, get samples, try them out on the staff and a few well-chosen regulars, and use the web to track down independent views rather than taking a flier.

Beer in numbers

  • 3 Number of lagers that you really need to kick-off your range (ish).
  • 5 Target ˚C for easy-drinking pilsner lager.
  • 8 Number of hours in a fridge it can take to properly chill lager.
  • 16 Number of Belgian beers sold by the Market Restaurant in Manchester.
  • 20 Approximate number of other classic beer styles you could list besides lager.
  • 37 Percentage of the on-trade beer market that isn’t lager.
  • 50 Realistically attainable GP on bottled beer for quality on-trade venues.
  • 120 Number of beers sold at The Rake beer bar in Borough Market.
  • 300 Number of beers to choose from on list of speciality supplier James Clay.
  • 10,000 Number of years speciality beer market has been in the making.
  • 114,000 Approximate number of Google results found by searching for the words ‘beer’ and ‘new wine’ together.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009

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