What Makes a Good Craft Beer List

From the Producer, David Page: How not to mess up a good thing.

I went to dinner recently at a local restaurant touting its addition of craft beer. If only they had done it well.

I'm a malt and balance guy and this beer list was three IPA hop bombs married to some lesser examples of other random styles. Which got me wondering, as more and more pubs and restaurants embrace craft beer, what do they need to do to get it right. So I went to a true expert.

Bill Sysak - known as Dr. Bill to his legion of devotees - is a certified cicerone, a world-renowned beer collector, and one of the country's foremost beer authorities - especially on the pairing of beer and food. He consults restaurants and pubs all over the country and I'm lucky enough to have met him while shooting our Beer Geeks episode at Stone Brewing, where he is beer-and-food guru in residence. Bill is always kind enough to eagerly share his expertise so I gave him a call to get his guidance on what a beer list should be made of.

Obviously, it depends on the number of taps an establishment has behind the bar. As Bill says, 24 to 32 would be great, but many places new to craft beer have far fewer - so we're going to assume we're building a menu of a dozen different beers.

Broadly speaking, Bill says, "You want to have a wide range of beer styles and flavor profiles, so you can not only appeal to everybody from the novice to the aficionado, but also you want to have a range of beers that can be paired with different foods." At a minimum, that means the following assortment:

First, what Bill calls a gateway beer, an easy drinking beer that's a first toe in the water for someone who's been drinking the mass-market American lagers. But, he says, "One of the biggest mistakes bartenders make is, when people say they want a light beer, the staff figures that means sessionable, like Levitation Ale, which is very hop forward. What they really mean is light in flavor." Bill says a gateway beer cannot be overwhelming, so he suggests going with a pilsner, a kolsch, a hefeweizen, a witbier, or even a blonde. But he also says there's no need to overdo it on gateway taps - one or two is plenty. And, like any style on the list, they can always be rotated from brand to brand.

Next, Bill says, you've got to have your IPAs, as they are now craft drinkers’ most popular style. But again, one or two is fine, unless the pub has more tap space, in which case three or four makes sense. But don't make them all the same. Yes, many folks want a hop bomb. And you need to have one or two. But don't ignore the less hop forward, more balanced IPAs, and the increasingly popular session IPAs too, the ones with slightly lower ABVs. As Bill points out, "As a bar owner, wouldn't you rather sell three seven-dollar session IPAs at five percent ABV than two IPAs at nine percent," after which the patron says, "I think I've reached my limit" and cashes out?

Then, Bill says, any decent beer list must have a porter or stout (both if you have room) to keep the roasted malt folks happy, and a brown ale, which is very important, he says, "Because it has a tendency to pair with any kind of seared meat from hamburger to roast chicken."

Next, he says, a basic list should offer a pale ale and an amber or red ale, which have been fading in popularity as IPA's have ascended, but which offer something for the substantial number of craft fans who identify as maltheads, not hopheads. And ambers or reds are a virtual must for Italian restaurants as they work tremendously well with pizza and red sauce pasta dishes.

Still have taps available? Belgians have a huge constituency out there these days. And what else does the local clientele lust after? German lagers like dunkels or bocks? Saisons? Barrel aged beers? Barleywines? All bring something to the menu.

One more thing - pubs and restaurants need to train their staff to know what they're selling. When you ask a server, what's in the dinner special, the answer isn't "Some kind of meat." When you ask about a beer, your server should be able to explain its profile - and be quick to offer a sample as well.

And don't be afraid to tell the folks behind the bar what you think about their beer selection and what you'd like them to carry. For many places, adding craft beer is like building the dinner menu. The good ones really want to get it right. 

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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