It was easy to miss, but the fall and winter of 2022 delivered some good news for our industry. Autumn beer festivals brought customers out in droves, and they kept coming into our bars, taprooms, and restaurants straight through what was certainly a more celebratory holiday season than we experienced the year before. Without major COVID spikes to derail the second half of our year, business seemed like it was getting just about back to normal.
But was it?
Even as on-premise sales came roaring back, with holiday travel and office parties signaling a long-anticipated rebound, something was clearly different on the ground. The sales of draft beer, whether experienced through over-the-bar business or keg distribution, were clearly slipping. Now a familiar cast of characters, the litany of craft beer–crushing competitors had struck again—only this time hard seltzers, flavored malt beverages (FMBs) more broadly, spiked kombuchas, nonalcoholic (NA) offerings, cocktails, ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs), and the like were specifically choking off the flow of craft beer at the tap.
The truth is that draft’s dominance—in the wider craft-beer scene—has been in decline for some years. Internet-fueled interest in collecting and trading rare beers helped shift the initial focus to packaged product, and the pandemic rendered kegged offerings almost obsolete for much of 2020. As customers emerged to imbibe outside their homes once again, they encountered a saturated beer market far too often lacking in singularity; craft beer was everywhere, but regularly unexciting. The gleaming taps of celebrated draft towers and arrays of sparkling glassware filled with frothy brews were no longer as inviting because they were often difficult to find. In bars and restaurants, drinkers turned to other options for new and exciting flavor experiences—but they were also forgoing a format that had grown tired for lack of attention.
It’s not too late to reinvigorate draft beer if we can remind our staff and guests—whether they’re working or drinking at any number of our breweries, taprooms, bars, and restaurants—that enjoying craft beer straight from the tap can and should be an exceptional experience worth celebrating.
And it all starts with taste.
Protect and Promote Draft Beer
Draft was the go-to option for on-premise beer drinking when it could guarantee freshness. A beer served on tap could be counted on, compared to bottles and even cans, because it was presumed to move at a much faster rate and was known to keep the liquid in its optimal state for longer. Then, as now, kegs slow the effects of temperature, light, and time on the beer. When all goes to plan, draft beer should come the closest to delivering the flavor experience intended by the brewer, right down to proper carbonation levels and generous aromatics.
However, far too frequently, draft beer falls short. When it is served in shaker pints with little-to-no head and covered with internal carbonation bubbles, the drinker will expect subdued aromas, a lack of effervescence, the taste of detergent at the least, and—depending on the cleanliness of the lines—something worse. As brewers, taproom managers, and publicans, it’s up to us to educate ourselves, our colleagues, our retail partners, and our guests on the importance of draft-beer handling and service.
Glasses, Lines, Faucets
Utilizing particular glassware—from tall, narrow pilsner flutes for crisp and refreshing beers to stemmed snifters for the richest and most complex offerings—will best showcase the specific tastes and aromas of a freshly poured brew. Keep a slew of small glasses on hand to provide taster pours of your draft selection, embracing the full flavor variety that is key to craft beer’s allure, along with sample splashes to help the guests confidently make their selection; you’ll be hard pressed to find the ability to do either with cocktails or packaged beverages on premise. (For many more suggestions, see “Behind the Bar: Why Glassware [Still] Matters,” brewingindustryguide.com.)
Employing high-temperature dish machines will keep the glasses squeaky clean and ready for the proper amount of foam to be built atop each pour. Cleaning draft lines—and just as importantly, faucets—between each brand change (and every two weeks otherwise) will keep the beer free of off-flavors while contributing to the foam formation that’s required for proper aromatic intensity and rewarding textural complexity. (Also see “Behind the Bar: Why Foam Matters,” brewingindustryguide.com.)
Investing in specialized taps will allow for differentiated levels and types of carbonation, with flow-control faucets delivering a precise amount of vibrant effervescence, while Czech-style side-pulls can add a mound of creamy, dense foam. Your taps, in concert with bespoke glassware, provide the ability to make the beer look as impressive as it tastes.
Social Media, Signage, Menus
From design to décor, atmosphere has always been important for on-premise drinking. In the social-media age, its importance—and opportunity to impact the guest—has only multiplied. Pouring the perfect glass of beer can make waves online, through your website imagery as well as Instagram, Facebook (to a degree), and—increasingly—TikTok. The latter’s ascendence, along with Instagram Reels, has to do with the current infatuation with short videos; the perfect pour provides great fodder for these, as do scenes of enlightened service and of guests enjoying draft beer done right.
Draft signage and menu design are also key to impacting the guest’s experience of drinking on-site. Besides keeping the beer lists updated in-house and online, expanding the information presented can be enticing. Think beyond the basics of brand name and style and add a depth of nuanced detail that could attract new drinkers. Broad flavor profiles (crisp, fruit & spice, tart & funky) and mainstream flavor comparisons (Fruity Pebbles instead of pomelo pith with an underpinning of clementine) will make your drafts more accessible, as can notes on brand-name references. Provide keg tapping and line cleaning dates to gain and maintain the trust of the guest. Lean into the interest in mindful drinking by listing your calorie and carb counts, as well as drawing attention to all of your low-ABV beers (whether you brewed or procured them).
Training and Customer Engagement
Encouraging renewed interest and enjoyment in drinking craft beer on draft is not only the provenance of the taproom, bar, or restaurant manager; it takes a raft of well-trained brewers obsessed with producing great and dutifully packaged draft beer. Once beer is ready for sale, small brewers—along with their teams—should get out into the market and engage with purveyors as they would their own staff. Forget offering up glassware and draft-cleaning services—I’m talking about training restaurants and bars on the finer points of draft-system maintenance and draft-beer service (including the points mentioned above).
Offer to help curate lists that include your beers, but not exclusively so. With draft sales declining, larger wholesalers and brewers are cutting back on their on-premise sales teams. That can leave openings for involved self-distributing brewers and smaller, boutique distributors to make an impact on draft service while increasing their bottom lines.
Twenty years ago, craft beer in the United States was new to a generation of drinkers. Since then, it’s exploded, adding almost 8,000 breweries and finding its way onto most retail shelves and bar taps. With success has come ubiquity and a feeling that craft has lost its edge; what was once defined as new, innovative, and singular has become mainstream, often uniform, and routinely underappreciated by staff and guests alike.
What keeps established products interesting over time is quality and passion. As guests continue to come back to on-premise accounts, we have the chance to impress them anew by creating memorable service experiences around the enjoyment of some really great beers on draft.
So, let’s get to work.