Behind the Bar: Elevating Service to the Level Your Beer Deserves

Whether in your taproom, brewpub, restaurant, bar, or shop, there’s never been a more important time to double down on improving guest experiences. Here are concrete suggestions for training and developing a team that can rise to that challenge.

Greg Engert Oct 7, 2021 - 8 min read

Behind the Bar: Elevating Service to the Level Your Beer Deserves Primary Image

Taps at 3 Sons Brewing in Dania Beach, Florida. Photo: Jamie Bogner

In the early days of my restaurant career, craft beer was simply not a draw. Sure, there were old-school aficionados—homebrewers and the like seeking out the good stuff—but before this beverage began to go mainstream, I found myself more consumed with the kind of classic service and hospitality that would guarantee consistent business and impressive tips. Thorough preparation for the shift, working cleanly and efficiently, providing attentive service, and cleaning up to do it all again the next night—these were my priorities. I aimed to host a dinner party nightly, looking to exceed expectations to get my guests not just excited to return, but to encourage their family, friends, and coworkers to do the same.

As time went on, I found kindred spirits in sommeliers and mixologists, the kinds of beverage professionals applying broader lessons of restaurant service to the promotion of wine and cocktails, respectively. In brewers, I also found immense kinship; I was—and remain—continually impressed by the single-minded dedication to their craft and by their tireless efforts to create memorable drinking experiences.

The more craft beers I tasted, the more obsessed I became—but not just with the staggering and often surprising array of flavors I was encountering. I also realized that there was a disconnect between the passion poured into the production of these brews and the ultimate service of them. My overarching goal in the hospitality space became applying the service approach of restaurant professionals to craft beer and, in so doing, to echo the brewing fervor so consistently showcased in the beers themselves.

That initiative has served me and my staff well. Our elevated approach to the service of beer attracted new interest in the burgeoning movement while reinforcing the appreciation of the initiated. The training and directives of those early days remain just as important now. Where a commitment to excellence in the service of craft beer was critical in spreading the word early on, it remains just as pertinent in differentiating one’s program today. With thousands of taprooms, restaurants, retail outlets, and bars vying for the attention of beer enthusiasts, raising the bar of beer service and hospitality has never been more crucial to success in the industry.


Preparations and Pre-Shift

Delivering an impressive beer experience begins with checklists. As our staff prepare for the shift, an exact opening checklist ensures that service runs efficiently; likewise, the closing checklist ensures we end on a positive note. The most important aspects for opening are cleaning and mise en place—that is, getting everything in its right place. Surfaces and glassware are sanitized and cleaned, and all areas are tidied up. We pour some boiling water down drains to keep fruit flies at bay. We stock appropriate glassware and polish generously with microfiber cloths. We make sure that draft lines, and especially faucets, are clean and ready for any new tappings. From here, we’re ready for pre-shift.

Pre-shift, also known as line-up, is the opportunity to get all staff together to further prepare for service.

  • A well-organized pre-shift sheet is our guide, as we run through important changes to all menus, expected VIPs, news and notes regarding upcoming events and initiatives, as well as the opportunity for staff education.
  • All staff and management stand, circled up, dressed for service, and ready to engage about the products on hand.
  • We taste some beer as a team and discuss flavor profiles, style parameters, food-pairing ideas, and more.
  • We like to role-play a bit during pre-shift, with management taking the role of the guest and asking questions about the offerings.
  • Staff also get the opportunity to practice their greet—the succinct and personally specific spiel that will welcome each guest to our business.

The key to all these exercises is that staff do most of the talking. By speaking up, generating information, and responding to inquiries during pre-shift, the staff become more prepared, more relaxed, and more confident to provide that welcoming, seamless experience we’re after.

Eyes, Ears, and Minds Open

Once the shift begins, it’s essential that all staff become expert at reading guests. Some want to pop-in for a beer, use Untappd to research retail offerings, and then take a few four-packs to go. Others want to immerse themselves in the full experience, tasting multiple beers and conversing with staff to learn about the property, the offerings, and more. We want to be sure to line up the proper experience for each person, whether it’s a series of quick hits or more expansive engagement. Also, no matter how busy the staff can get fulfilling retail orders or walking a guest through the menu, they must always have their eyes up with awareness of the space. New guests must be greeted upon arrival, with menus and water arriving shortly thereafter—even if it means excusing oneself from a current service experience. No one is ever too busy to welcome new guests, and an immediate greet sets the tone for a memorable experience.

Guest interactions are extremely important. While we strive for confidence in our staff, we also eschew misinformation. It’s okay to not have the answer to every question levied. Let the guest know that you’re unsure and then go find out. Stay positive about other breweries, taprooms, bars, and restaurants mentioned by guests. Don’t be afraid to learn a little something from the guests either—beer knowledge is at an all-time high, so there is an abundance of great information to be gleaned from the other side of the bar.

Keep Teaching

Speaking of knowledge: Continuing education for staff is paramount in the endeavor to elevate service.

  • Generate and provide training manuals that are consistently referenced and upon which your team is tested.
  • Go over the tests as a group, to put a finer point on required information. Continue to test until everyone is expert.
  • Create a library within your business and lend books at will.
  • Host seminars for the staff on everything from beer-pairing suggestions for this weekend’s food truck to the impact of new hop extracts on hazy IPAs to beer off-flavors and sensory training.

Beyond improving the guest’s experience, expanding a staff member’s knowledge base makes the workplace more rewarding. We believe that by combining education and the development of interpersonal skills, hospitality jobs can make a lasting impact on staff, whether this is a lifelong pursuit or just a pitstop.

There’s never been a more important time to double down on elevating experiences. As the pandemic lingers on and we eventually emerge from it—yet we continue to experience suppressed business and staffing levels—we have the chance to start fresh and incorporate systems that will attract new staff and guests alike. The commitment to communicating passion through service and hospitality could be the ultimate differentiator in the post-pandemic world.

Let’s get to work.

Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.