Helles Or High Water: How Smaller Menus Help Craft Breweries
There’s a scene from Hell or High Water where Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham’s characters walk into a small café while watching a bank waiting for their suspects. After sitting down at the table of The Famous T-Bone Café, a waitress played by Margaret Bowman approached them with the menu. “So, what don’t you want?”
Figure 1 - “So, what don’t you want?”
The question strikes the two Texas Rangers off guard. She further explains that the house special was medium rare steaks with baked potatoes and that regulars ordered corn on the cob or green beans as a side. Except for a New Yorker unable to read the room, that’s what everyone orders. So, the question is, “Either you don’t want the corn on the cob, or you don’t want the green beans. So, what don’t you want?” The bluntness of the elderly waitress would have the head of the average customer service manager spinning.
While it is an extreme example, there is a specific beauty in that level of simplification. When I start working with a new client, they often want a dozen or more taps in their taprooms. Part of it is that craft breweries have become destinations for beer enthusiasts who seek unique and flavorful brews. For the most part, though, this is the opposite of what should be done. A small menu of high-quality beers is often the better way of approaching the craft beer industry. It can simplify both production and customer orders.
Focus on Quality
Craft breweries can distinguish themselves by prioritizing a limited number of beer styles on a concise menu. This approach allows for greater quality control and consistency in brewing, allowing the brewers to perfect their recipes and create unique beers with distinct flavours and characteristics. These breweries can emphasize using local and premium ingredients to produce exceptional brews that genuinely stand out. By staying connected to their region's resources, they can adjust their offerings based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, promoting innovation and diversity in their beer selection. In contrast, extensive menus at other establishments may compromise quality and dilute focus, making craft breweries' strategy of a small menu a crucial factor in their success and reputation for producing exceptional and memorable beers.
Not everyone is good at brewing every beer style from day one. Getting close to the target beer typically takes much practice and repeated batches. Fine-tuning turns good beers into great beers, and its not difficult to get in the ballpark for the average product on the first or second try, but perfecting a recipe will take repeated efforts. The more beers in your catalogue, the more recipes that need to be worked on. Only delaying the time it takes to get from ordinary to extraordinary.
Expertise and Specialization
Craft breweries can become true masters of their craft by streamlining their offerings and specializing in brewing styles. This allows them to dedicate their efforts to perfecting specific techniques and familiarizing themselves with certain ingredients, resulting in a reputation for excellence that attracts a passionate customer base. As the brewery's expertise and commitment to quality become known, it becomes a go-to destination for enthusiasts seeking the best in those specific styles.
A small menu also allows breweries to experiment with seasonal and limited-edition releases when the occasion presents itself. If the core offerings are taking up the resources necessary for recipe development, finding time to make unique occasion products is impossible. The exclusivity surrounding these limited offerings entices customers to return regularly to experience fresh flavours and one-of-a-kind brews. By focusing on a select range of beer styles, breweries can establish themselves as industry leaders, continually captivating their audience through innovation and quality craftsmanship. However, like many things in business, there is an 80/20 rule where most focus should gravitate to the breadwinning products.
Lower Costs and Clear Marketing
Choosing a smaller menu has several advantages for breweries. It helps them streamline their operations and manage inventory more efficiently. By offering a limited range of beer styles, breweries can gauge demand better and produce quantities that align with customer preferences. This precision reduces the risk of overproduction, unsold beer, and associated costs. In addition, managing a smaller inventory simplifies the supply chain and purchasing process, leading to better supplier relationships.
One of the most significant costs of a new product is the time and resources behind the individual product branding. A concise menu is a powerful tool for creating a clear and captivating brand identity. Each beer becomes a chapter in the brewery's story, contributing to an overarching narrative that customers connect with. This storytelling fosters a solid emotional bond, turning visitors into loyal brand advocates. As a result, a smaller menu becomes a potent vehicle for expressing the brewery's essence, elevating the customer experience, and building lasting relationships that endure beyond a single visit. Whereas constantly new products with new marketing messages can feel disjointed, cluttered and can even alienate the core customer base.
Craft breweries can provide a better customer experience by implementing a simple menu, resulting in shorter wait times and faster table turnover. This is especially beneficial during peak hours and events. Breweries can showcase their best offerings to customers by featuring only a few high-quality brews. As a result, customers can enjoy exceptional beers and immerse themselves in the brewery's distinct atmosphere.
You know exactly what I mean if you have visited Cologne or received Kolsch-style service. Czechia is similar in a way as well, where the options are typically light or dark. If the one beer is spectacular, you do not often need to change orders with each glass. But a steady offering of exceptional beer served brilliantly, and consumed cold is memorable.
Building Trust and Loyalty
Craft breweries can build customer trust by offering a small menu of exceptional beers demonstrating their commitment to quality, consistency, and expertise. By limiting the number of options, customers can be confident that each beer has received careful attention and meets the brewery's high standards. This transparency and dedication help foster trust with customers, who can feel sure they are experiencing the best the brewery offers.
Your regular customers are going to expect a consistent product from your taproom. While other industries benefit from minor differences, the frosty pint at the end of the workday is not always one of them. The craft brewery often replaces the typical small neighbourhood pub, where familiarity can work towards repeat customer visits. Having the same pilsner or pale ale on tap consistently is a great way to keep local customers returning.
So, what do you want?
One of the best beer menus I have ever encountered was at Against The Grain Brewery & Smokehouse. At their Louisville location when I visited years ago, it was simple. Six beers. When so many craft breweries have twelve or more offerings, they have six. They were not always the same six beers, but their customers could expect to have six beer types routinely.
Figure 2 - This menu was been on my wall since 2015.
This is a great way to make the most of a limited brewpub or production cellar. Having a few core products or concepts of beers that are standard offerings while still bringing in new ideas. If you only have four fermenters, you only have four beers.
Product #1: International Pale Lager
The most recognizable style in the world is an International Pale Lager. While initially influenced by the lagers of Pilz, a lot of the typical character is much more restrained. It is a drier beer, well-balanced and highly carbonated without intense flavours—a refreshing and thirst-quenching beer when served cold. At first, it might appear to be almost dull, but there is an incredible number of opportunities for focusing on small details and allowing the talents of your brewing team to shine.
“You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” – Frank Zappa
Typically, the largest brewery in a country will have this as a flagship brand. This beer will be ideal for customers new to craft beer or showing little interest. It is a “beer-style beer.” But for these reasons, it will likely be an in-house or local neighbourhood product, not one for distribution. Yes, yours can be excellent, but it is unlikely that you will have the same marketing budgets as Anheuser-Busch, Molson-Coors, or Sapporo. Therefore, it will be tricky to grow sales of this product; however, these beers are inexpensive to produce, so they can help keep the lights on.
Product #2: An IPA
Nearly every craft brewery should have an IPA. It is the product that the industry was built on. While the Pale Lager would be the target product for a general consumer, the IPA will be the target product for the engaged consumer. According to the Brewers Association, about one in four beers in craft is an IPA. Craft beer enthusiasts will ask about your brewery's India Pale Ale. It will be the benchmark for the entire portfolio regarding creativity and ingredients.
While making an IPA is easy, making one that is genuinely remarkable takes a lot of trial and error with a fair amount of contemporary brewing science behind it. Ultimately, this can be one of the more expensive beers in your portfolio, and any overproduction can quickly cause disaster. These beers are best when fresh using ingredients in their prime, and the longer that they sit out, the less impressive they will be. This would be it if there was one beer to make in smaller batches and more often.
Product #3: Embrace Tradition
This is where the demographics of your neighbourhood will help influence the overall portfolio. If your brewpub has a food menu, the kitchen style can also give much direction. Starting to pick a style for the overall brewery program is essential here. If your brewer spent years at a German brewing school, it might be necessary to showcase those styles of lagers. Should the local neighbourhood favour British brewing, having Bitters and Porters could help. If the brewpub chef is trained classically French, then the ales of Belgium would be a great companion to the restaurant program. Most importantly, this product will help determine your routine ingredients for the brewery. Lagers and Pale Ales can be easily made from just about any country’s malt, hops, and yeast, but choosing a starting point for the portfolio will significantly shape the overall product line.
Product #4: Let the Brewer Shine
Brewing is a labour of love; it is a physically demanding profession with lots of specific technical knowledge with relatively low compensation. The type of person that gets into brewing does so from a genuine passion for the product and the process. Why wouldn’t you want to harness that? They will have favourite styles and techniques that are often underutilized or appreciated. It also will give an insight into their philosophy of the brewing industry and how they approach the craft. Make it a spotlight at your brewery.
This is the one beer spot that will convert customers from the typical brewpub visitor to the devoted regular. More intense ingredients and processes can be used here with significant effect, as the overall lower volume of this product can allow for more expensive recipes or production techniques. At the same time, making this beer a leading flagship may cause lower average bill sizes or volume orders; it cannot stand alone in a portfolio as it may be difficult to gain market traction. But working with distributors when established and refined would be an excellent product.
To sum up, the movie Hell or High Water exemplifies the benefits of simplification, which can also be applied to craft breweries' beer menus. Focusing on a limited number of high-quality beer styles allows for better quality control, specialization, and consistency in brewing. It also helps to reduce costs, streamline operations, and build a strong brand identity. Craft breweries can attract loyal customers and distinguish themselves in a crowded market by offering a select range of exceptional brews, providing a memorable and enjoyable beer experience. Ultimately, simplicity and specialization can be crucial factors in a craft brewery's success and reputation for producing outstanding and distinctive beers.
Craft breweries can utilize a concise menu to showcase their expertise and dedication to their craft. By offering carefully curated beer styles, they can foster trust with customers who appreciate the brewery's commitment to quality and innovation. Furthermore, a smaller menu enables breweries to experiment with limited-edition releases and seasonal brews, enticing customers to return regularly for fresh and unique flavours. Emphasizing quality over quantity, craft breweries can create a lasting impact on their audience, foster loyalty, and establish themselves as industry leaders known for their exceptional and consistently outstanding beers.