Though this maxim underlies the three tiers of the brewing industry, there is thankfully some agreement as to the spark behind beer sales. Breweries are not built and sustained by the occasional curiosity buy. If you created a list of the top five factors influencing beer sales, you could be forgiven for any temptation to give all five spots to advertising. While there is great value in a well-executed ad campaign, great capacity for increased beer sales also exists in the trenches of bars and restaurants and in the aisles of off-premise retailers.
An often-overlooked factor influencing beer sales, both positively and negatively, is your staff's level of education about beer. Whether the students are servers or field representatives, beer education is important, if for no other reason, as a way to facilitate greater beer sales. While breweries and brewer associations engage in long-term, high profile attempts to teach consumers about the virtues of beer, educational efforts targeting members of the beer industry quietly slump forward.
Educating members of the trade is not limited to bartenders, but instead extends all the way up the beer chain to brewery presidents, according to Lawrence Miller, founder of the Otter Creek Brewing Company (recently purchased by the Panorama Brewing Company). "Well, I think beer education starts with me. I continue to go to a lot of beer technical conferences. I drink a lot of other peoples' beer, both domestically and abroad and try to keep learning. The wonderful thing about brewing is that, depending on how much detail you want to get into, it can be as complex as you ever want it to be. So it is really neat in that respect. You can virtually continue your education forever."
Fighting in the trenches of on-premise sales, the serving staff is critical to the success of a restaurant or bar. For a customer embarking on a dining experience, few things are more off-putting than a server who lacks knowledge about the restaurant's selection of food or beverages. "Servers are your front line sales people," says Pat Conway, owner of the Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in Cleveland, Ohio. "They will act as salespeople for your products and also as educators. They are the ones able to reach directly to customers and explain the nuances of beer. It's not me or the brewers. It's the day-to-day, on the floor, talking to thousands of people coming through our doors. They're the direct contact and you can't put a value on that"
When servers mix passion and knowledge, the restaurant and the consumer both benefit, according to Jim Solomon, owner of The Fireplace restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts. "It is definitely my belief that there is a very direct connection between the knowledge of the server and sales. When the server feels comfortable describing the attributes of the (products), and through a greater comfort level and enthusiasm, they are able to discuss our beers or wines with much greater passion. That comes through and I think it's very genuine."
Educating your serving staff about the selection of beer and other beverages offers additional benefits to the business owner. For a restaurant or tavern, an informed staff becomes a selling point that attracts new consumers, according to Jim Solomon. Informed servers create a buzz when discovered by discerning members of the dining public.
Another benefit for some businesses is additional exposure for the brewery's products, says Pat Conway. "Another reason for looking at (beer education) in a more profitable way is because we also have an eight million dollar brewery we just built across the street, and we have a lot at stake in selling our product on- and off-premise. We are constantly branding, and we're using very much our restaurant as a marketing tool."
As a first rule, experts suggest keeping it simple when talking to servers about beer and the brewing process. Otter Creek's Lawrence Miller suggests that managers focus "less on the arcane issues of beer styles, original gravity, terminal gravity, specific ideas and all the technical mumbo jumbo, but more how is beer made, the history of the beers they pour, where they fit in the world of brewing."
In putting together a beer education program, managers of on-premise accounts take several different approaches. At the Great Lakes Brewing Company, Pat Conway emphasizes the importance of knowledge mixed with approachability. By teaching his serving staff about beer styles and the brewing process, Conway attempts to enable his servers to speak competently without confusing or boring the customers in the process. "To walk the fine line of being able to talk in a sophisticated way about the product and nuanced without getting too technical and losing your customer tableside. When you go tableside, it's not beer school. You can't get so esoteric customers eyes glaze over, but not so banal as to say, 'What do you want: light or dark'. That is like scratching a blackboard for me. There's a middle road there for servers to follow, and they can do it effectively."
Another component of Conway's server education process involves the presentation of the beers to the customer. Managers instruct servers to bring the beers on a tray, with the different styles of beer offered in correct and clean glassware. "We also have an emphasis on presentation," says Conway. "Drinking beer is a multisensory experience. It's not just drinking; there are the optic nerves. There are also smells and visuals and aftertastes. Part of the process has to do with the bartender, part with a properly cleaned glass."
At the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Los Angeles, Phil Baxter has taken beer education to its logical conclusion with the creation of a beer sommelier program. Baxter trains and then tests his staff of servers about the brewing process, different ingredients and styles, and about the predominant world beer regions. He wants the servers to associate beers with certain flavors, like hoppy or malty, or in the case of Belgian ales, as being "a little bit funky". Servers who pass the test wear a beer sommelier notation on their nametags and are qualified to suggest beers to the hotel bar's customers.
Baxter also highlights the importance of teaching servers the art of selecting the right beer for each individual customer. He encourages his staff to ask questions of the customers. The servers ask about the customer's preferred beers or styles and then try to classify the customers, for example as an experimental type or as a beer novice. If a customer normally prefers Coors Light, the beer sommelier may suggest trying a Spaten Lager or a Czechvar. If the customer enjoys Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, servers may suggest a range of hoppy, West Coast-style beers. If the customer is a homebrewer or a beer geek, then the beer server can suggest a challenging brew from the hotel's vast cellar of vintage beers.
Another important factor in guiding customers is the nature of the drinking occasion, according to Baxter. "If people are going to sit down for a session, you're not going to want them to go straight to the barleywines" says Baxter. "If it's a nightcap, then Old Rasputin Imperial Stout is a great nightcap beer."
Baxter is confident that his servers possess a balance of beer knowledge and ability to read customers. "We can recommend your first beer and get pretty close. But the second beer will be spot on. The second beer will blow them out of the water. That is our goal."
Owners and managers agree that any approach should accentuate the fun of beer and encourage learning. At The Fireplace restaurant, Jim Solomon believes in fostering an environment supportive of learning. While he administers a test to servers regarding the menu and beverage options, including questions ranging from food ingredients to specifics about wine, spirits and beer, Solomon warns that server education should not be a punitive experience. "They do have to pass it before they go on the floor, but we do not treat the test as a screening tool to weed anybody out from becoming a server," he says. "Rather, we use it as a measuring stick to see how far up the learning curve they have climbed. Then we sit down with them, a bar manager or chef, to go over whatever areas they need the most shoring up in. Then we send them back to do some more studying."
The benefits servers derive from the education process extend beyond simply increasing sales in the restaurant or bar. "My experience has been that the staff loves to learn - and enjoys it. One thing we press upon them is that this is a great opportunity to learn more and take this knowledge with them whether they stay in the business or not. It's a rather unique opportunity to get schooled on a regular basis on wines, spirits and beer. Because it comes from the heart with regard to our teaching and its not done with a carrot and stick mentality, they really appreciate the time and they appreciate the learning. Then they go out and it really comes across to the guests."
A final and oft-neglected group requiring education is a brewery's sales staff of field representatives. This group is responsible for covering all bases for a brewery, from training servers and meeting with on-premise owners, to managing product stocks and placement with off-premise retailers. This shadow force of beer salespeople requires a different level of education, depending upon the products they are promoting. For larger breweries, the education component may be secondary to insuring proper shelf-space or influencing tap availability. For craft breweries trying to hold their edge in a segment built upon the proclamation of the benefits of better beer, an undereducated sales force undermines the entire mission.
Surviving craft brewers know that a consistent, flavorful product guarantees neither increased sales nor proper shelf-space. For smaller brewers unable to afford large advertising budgets, an educated sales force is crucial. "We have field reps that cover our distribution territory who are full time employees of the brewery," says Otter Creek's Lawrence Miller. "They have a couple of parts of their job distribution which include supporting our distributors and getting out and interacting with consumers and retailers. But one of the most important things that they do is go to accounts which are serving our beer and tell them a little bit about our brewing, the history of our brewery, the history of specialty brew, where it is today, and to talk generally about beer styles."
Lawrence Miller also focuses on the importance of tact in field representatives. "Our field reps are expected to introduce not only Otter Creek, but also to place the other brands that restaurants sell in context in a positive light when they go to do server education." In restaurants, the field representatives should talk about the beers and how the styles compliment certain foods. Miller notes that if field representatives do their jobs well, their education efforts should pay off in higher gratuities for the servers.
While exposure to an uneducated server or retail staffer is a disheartening experience for a consumer, equally frustrating for a restaurant is dealing with undereducated brewery field representatives. Many restaurant owners who receive extensive assistance from wine representatives in the creation of wine education programs, report a dearth of support for such programs from beer representatives. "Every week we have our wine person do a wine tasting with the servers," says Jim Solomon. "They spend an hour and a half with the staff, going through maps of Washington State and Oregon and going over everything from service to the differences in varietals. Wine has been a greater part of our concentration because we have had greater expertise in this area."
Solomon describes at great length several upcoming programs and innovations with regard to wine sales at his restaurant in comparison to his efforts with beer. "We're doing that with wine and I would love to do it with beer. But I don't find quite the same support. It's something that is on my plate and if it were easier to do, I would hop on it more quickly. Particularly, walking into summer, I would be all over it because it is such a great time for drinking beer. But the support is not there, and I find myself in the same boats as many restaurateurs - you're always running and busy."
Solomon offers several concrete examples of how the quality of beer representatives pales in comparison to that of wine and spirit representatives. "I brought in a scotch guy before we opened the restaurant, and he happened to be here on the same day that one our beer reps was in to talk about beer. I was sitting there listening to the single malt guy and was just blown away by the level of detail he was getting into and the depth of his knowledge was beyond impressive. And I turned to the beer guy and said, 'So what's your agenda, you know what are you going to focus on?' And he said, 'Well, jeez, I brought some beers and I thought we'd crack them open and have a good time.' I said, 'You know what, I'm not trying to throw a party. I'm trying to educate people about beer and about pairings. So why don't you go home, and I want you to work on some notes and why don't you come back tomorrow and do a real presentation.' And you know he came back terrified I was going to chew his head off for being disappointed. I came just short of that. I don't yell at people but I definitely let him know I'm disappointed."
Following this sobering experience, the situation with his beer representative still failed to improve. "Even after I went through that with this guy, I later had this tasting - that was back in August, the tasting was in April - and this same guy said he wanted to get involved and was really interested in educating people. We pour exclusively his company's beers on tap - all six beers are from the same company. I got a better presentation but it was still so half-assed. I was really surprised."
In comparing sales techniques for the various beverages, Solomon rejects the argument that wine and beer require different approaches. "You know, wine guys are used to swirling and smelling and discussing the components and the processes. I think a lot of beer people can claim that the consumer does not think of beer as something to pair with particularly finer foods, and complain that beer sales are lower at our establishment than wine sales. However, I think that they really miss the fact that their level of support is far inferior than the wine representatives from their own same company. So that to me has been really interesting. A lot of them seem to me to be old fraternity boys that like to drink, and maybe they've got a little bit better tastes for different brews and styles than the average consumer. But, they bring little more to the table."
Despite poor experiences with previous beer representatives, some that might have turned other owners away from beer altogether, Solomon still remains keenly interested in integrating quality beers into his restaurant's menu and tasting events. "To me, there is real opportunity for the beer industry to educate consumers on a wide, grassroots level. First through educating the staff, secondly through educating the guest . . . So I think that if the beer industry were to realize, as the wine industry has really begun to do, that most people never receive an education about beer, and that if they were to step in and educate people: 'What are hops? What is barley? What does it bring to a beer? What is a porter? What is an ale?' If they were, instead of spending money on t-shirts, if they were to instead help put together a program that they could approach a restaurant with and say, 'Look, we've developed tasting glasses that we're willing to supply you with - short tasting glasses - so that someone can order a flight tasting of beers. That might be a first step."
Solomon further suggests that brewery representatives provide servers with detailed information regarding their products. "If (the representatives) were to take it a step further, they could provide some literature about their own products, so they could go and say, 'Here are the glasses for a flight, here are the different beers we have to support it. Even if you only want to carry our line for the two weeks of this promotion, that's great.' Then you can do a fun promotion that really teaches the staff and the customers as well. To me, that's really the way of educating and involving customers in the process. Then they would come back and experiment a little bit more with purchasing beer."