How do you know what beers to serve? Unless you enjoy the widest of ranges of beer, you’re likely going to need to consider the varied likes and dislikes of your patrons to accommodate their expectations and build your brand. This applies to professional brewers but to home-brewers as well.
If you have the time and the will (and the resources), it’s best to brew a variety of styles to test the waters. Later, when considering your brand and limitations you may want to drop a few styles or maybe go extreme into the trendiest new beer styles. There will always need to be a balance between what you want to brew and what the masses want to drink.
To get this discussion started, below is a catalogue of the beers I brew.
Regardless of the finesse of nailing a classification, you can see that my menu encompasses brews from a few hundred years and a few continents. Serving an English Brown Ale, a Czech Pilsner, a fruit sour and an American IPA can challenge a brand, unless the brand is exactly that: all beers. But this is a good place to start. Brew a lager you’re happy with. Brew an ale, brew a hoppy beer, a dark beer and a wheat beer. Learn what sets them apart, learn what their specific requirements are (typically yeast and temperature, besides the obvious grain bill) and see who likes what.
Despite your plans, you may find that your equipment and brewing space can pump out fine Wheat beers, but you struggle to create an enjoyable lager, or vice-versa. Perhaps these physical limitations dictate your new direction.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about building a Menu.
Always have a lager
I’ve visited endless breweries and enjoyed endless flights. And a trend I’ve noticed more recently is a lack of lagers. At first I believed it to be just that – a trend: Juicy/Hazy IPA’s are all the rage right now with sometimes not a lager in sight. But then I started to observe the start-up and brewing processes and came to this realization: Start-up funding for small brewers is usually limited and thus excludes the lagering capabilities (expensive cooling and additional fermentation vessels). Also, speed is the key for these start-ups. If you can push an ale to two weeks you’ll have a better cash-flow than brewing six-week lagers. Better yet (from their point of view) try Kviek and pump-out a beer in one week, and if it’s loaded with phenols and haze, just call it something new.
But you need to serve a lager. Even my most adventurous beer drinking friends will resort to lighter beers after a barrel-aged imperial stout has conquered their tastebuds. And bringing along people like my wife illustrates that (for many) the “lighter the better.” Most people prefer a light drink. Since lagers came on the world stage they have dominated the business with no sign of slowing down.
Unfortunately, the mass produced beers have made beer enthusiasts turn their nose-up at the style. Home brewers tend to pack their beers with flavour or experiment with additional ingredients. They seldom want a clean, simple lager (since they are easiest to buy or find them boring). But for the keen palate there is still a lot you can do with lagers. And brewers should challenge themselves to do exactly that.
Hence my menu featuring seven lagers (although I’ll leave the dark lager out of this discussion). Each is different, each is refreshing and they are all amongst my most consumed beers.
If you cannot brew a lager, the solution is simple (as I’ve seen at some micro breweries): have a guest tap featuring lagers. This way patrons can come for your brand and ales and the poor saps they bring along, that rarely drink anything but Bud, can enjoy something too. As a commercial venture, guest taps also offer either some cash-flow, or (should that not be the case) at least they round-out your menu while you expand.
Beers should be crushable
Clear your beers. I’m of the old-school thought that a beer should have a haze when the style-specific-yeast has poor flocculation and remains suspended. Think of a great European Wheat Beer and that hazy look. That look is there for the flavour. Many hazy beers are now popular, but in too many cases they are the result of processes that normal brewing avoids. Haze is, in most beers, a defect or the product of a beer that had not been left to age properly. And I’ll give-in a little: Much of the haze is from trying to load a beer with an immense amount of dry hopping. Since those dry hop volatiles break down within days, serving the beer quick is essential. The result: flavour and haze. If that’s your style, go for it. Just do not mistake the haze from rushing a beer with the haze from a beer that’s intentionally hazy and know the difference in order to properly assess your own brews.
But remember: bubbles rising in a nearly clear glass, or light shining through a stout turning its shadow red is still viewed by the masses as a fine beverage. Allow the fermentation process to complete, use the recommended temperatures for each specific yeast, condition, and ferment will all the trub to clear that beer. The results are impressive.
Drop the ABV: Want to serve more beer? Easy, don’t make patrons unable to drive home after a tasting flight. Beers with high ABV have their place, and should be on a menu. But ensure some beers are light and therefore “sessionable.” I have two full bodied ales below 4% and one below 3%. I have three lagers below 5%, a porter and a “west coast pale ale” below 5% as well. When I get home from work and don’t want to get sloshed, I grab a low ABV beer. The same is with patrons that have somewhere to be after tasting your beers. Keep in mind, higher ABV often allows for greater flavour, and some guests want exactly that. My dark ale and West Coast IPA are upwards of 7% for this reason.
Nice and cold: Other than a true beer snob, no one wants their beer warm. And even then, I’ve never come across someone who was angry at my stout being served at the same temperature as all the others. My advice: serve them cold. If they want it warm, they can wait a moment and hold it in their hands.
Provide a connection beyond the brew.
As much as I enjoy a tasting flight I enjoy reading descriptions of beers especially when it includes a story or the source of inspiration for the brew. What I’ve found people love is a name for the beer that is recognizable and memorable. I also like to write a paragraph or two to both describe the beer and give it a story. Look at the example below: Where I come from (Vancouver Island) our community is split by the highway that terminates with the Ferries that take thousands of vehicles to and from the Mainland every day. “Ferry Traffic” is a pain, but so too is a busy ferry line-up when you plan on traveling. So, there is no one here that wouldn’t recognize this name “One Sailing Wait” as a term very specific to us geographically. Take a look:
If you’re not one for writing, but like this idea, have someone else do it. Or, skip it. It’s the connection you want, so choose a catchy name and brew a good beer. Then consider the artwork:
For this you may want to have a brand in place. I had fun with this part of setting up the brewery so I had a brand in mind when I started. I wanted simple black and white labels with only one or two colours to identify the beer. So the example above is also my “light green” beer, where as the one below is “light blue”. This makes it easy to identify a beer off the shelf. But that’s just an example. There is amazing beer label artwork out there and if you nail that, you will have certainly made a connection.
In truth, I’m still figuring this out. The catalogue at the top is all the beers I have brewed and have been enjoyed. I try to do the seasonal beers once annually. As for the rest, it’s a combination of what I want and what others want, and thus we get to the true core of Building the Menu.
As mentioned, Lagers are the top beers at Spencer Brewing, however I brew a lager at a six week minimum. So as soon as a lager is finished I brew another so I always have: 2 lagers on tap, 2 conditioning and 2 fermenting. Since I only have four taps, I reserve the other two taps for (typically) a hoppy beer and an ale. My dark beers and heavy IPA’s and some seasonal beers are put directly into bottles, so while they are available they aren’t taking up tap space. For example, a keg of my “Harvest Moon – Rye and Pumpkin Ale” would last well beyond the autumn season, as everyone wants a taste, but no one is filling growlers of it. So what’s left are my pale ales, West Coast pale ales and English style IPA’s to satisfy the hoppy tap and some of my traditional ales, Kölsch and wheat beer for the other. I also just bottle some beers so anyone can grab a six pack and head to the beach, so with 4 taps and a variety in the fridge, I have a pretty darn-good line-up.
As a home-brewer it’s most important to brew beers that you’ll enjoy. None of the above applies to someone who is supplementing a diet of a variety of commercial brews with one fresh home-brew or someone who’s just looking to save a few bucks. For for anyone looking to serve, host or expand their brand, a properly constructed menu is important.
If I did only the top beers of local patrons, it would look like this:
Madrona Beach – Summer Cervesa
Salish Sea – Salal Berry Sour
Rugby Sweater – Clubhouse Common (red ale)
The Wall – California Lager
Luff Sail – West Coast Pale Ale
Duff Beer – American Ale (I know, I had to).
Summer Rain – Wheat Beer
Based on top hits of Brewer’s Friend (which suggests only what people look to brew, however), it would look like this:
Summer Rain – Wheat Beer
Luff Sail – Pale Ale
Windswept – West Coast IPA
Finish Line – Märzen
Madrona Beach – Summer Cervesa
If I dropped my seasonal beers, my rotation would be as follows:
All 6 pale lagers (just excludes the dark lager)
Rugby Sweater and War Stories (two non-hoppy ales)
Summer Rain Wheat Beer
One Sailing Wait and Luff Sail as my two hoppy beers
Straight to bottle: Windswept (7% IPA) and Pandemic Porter.