A masterclass presented in The Academy, Imbibe Live, 4 July
Fifteen years ago, choosing a range of beers to stock was pretty straightforward: you had a choice of brands in premium and standard lager; Guinness, a Smoothflow bitter, maybe a real ale or two – and all those were standard or best bitters, mid-brown between 3.6 and 4.2% abv – plus a clutch of bottled beers that were either the same lagers you had on tap or different brands in the same style.
Since then, the number of breweries in the UK has at least trebled, and the craft beer boom has thrown beer choice wide open. Putting together a decent range of beers now requires knowledge, thought and judgement. Otherwise, you risk low sales and spoiled beer, which can rapidly become a vicious circle.
No matter how big, the perfect beer range provides variety across a number of variables. Here’s my top tips on what to look for.
If you want to make money, you’re going to have to sell a lager. But why stock five or six that are all the same? With a solid dependable lager brand as your first beer, consider stocking a pale ale next, and then maybe a best bitter or ale such as Doom Bar. After that, a porter or stout provides a darker counter-point. With the mainstream, traditional bases covered, you could experiment with sour beers, wheat beers and stronger IPAs.
I once went to a bar that had 18 beers on tap, all of them either below 3% abv or above 6%. Some drinkers want to session all day at 3.6-3.8%. Others want to taste small volumes of strong, complex beers. Still others want to progress from light to bold as the evening goes on. A good range should stretch from 3-7% abv, with the option to go further each way.
Only a few specialist bars can get away with a constantly changing range of new and unfamiliar beers. Beer drinkers do want novelty, but not as much as they think. Try rotating guests, but leave them on for a few weeks at a time. And always have one or two staple favourites, even if you think they’re boring. These are your cash cows.
Five porters and stouts in the middle of a heatwave? Really? Maybe think about darker – and stronger – in winter, lighter and fresher in summer.
Having a local beer isn’t the most important factor in a drinker’s choice, but it’s part of the consideration. At least, sometimes it is. Other times they want something exotic. Craft beer and real ale are driven by the desire to support local businesses, but the really exciting stuff in craft also comes from America or Belgium. And then there are the cool brands everyone is asking for from 100 miles north, or 50 miles south…
Putting together a good range is a question of judgement, not rules. No one knows your clientele better than you. Maybe they’ll go for five different IPAs, or perhaps they’ll only touch low strength session ales. But it’s worth drawing up some kind of table based on these parameters, seeing what works, and adjusting accordingly. You never know – it might also be fun.
Award-winning writer Pete Brown’s latest book is Miracle Brew, Hops, Barley, Water, Yeast and the Nature of Beer