How to Create a Bad Ass Craft Beer Tap Program

You remember Cheers, right? You know, the one with the bar “where everybody knows your name.” It’s considered by many to be one of the funniest and most successful television shows of all time. This sit-com broke new ground with witty humor, quick one-liners, and the age-old story of a guy meeting a girl in a bar. Growing up, Cheers was one of my favorite shows (go figure). Now, at the tender age of 35 and thanks to Netflix, I can relive the great moments that happened at Cheers whenever I like, as well as experience episodes that aired before I could put together sentences and actually understand some of the jokes that floated over my head when I was just a little tike.

Norm PetersonOne of the most notable characters from the show was Norm Peterson. He’d walk in, and no matter what time of day or who was present, they knew his name. “NORM!!” cascaded through the lively Boston-area pub as he made his way to his favorite stool at the end of the bar and ordered his favorite beverage: Beer.

Through 11 seasons, Norm drank beer. LOTS of beer. In fact, the amount of beer Norm drank over the course of the hit series was enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. OK, I totally made that up, but you get the point.

In my journey back through the history of the series, one big thing I noticed about Cheers vs. the incredible craft beer destinations of today is the options. Or, in Cheers’ case, the lack thereof. Perhaps the Cheers gang was content drinking just plain old-fashioned ‘beer’ from one of the two tap handles behind the bar (probably because none of the regulars ever seemed to pay their tabs), but today’s craft beer fanatic has evolved by leaps and bounds and demands much, MUCH more from his or her pint of suds. Two taps…that’s just sacrilege!

See, when you pull up a stool at a watering hole, no matter what watering hole it is, you have an expectation. When you look at that billboard of breweries in your locale’s tap handle lineup, you expect to see a couple familiar faces, a few staple go-to’s, some beers that aren’t in your wheelhouse, and one or two you have yet to experience. Typically, there’s a diverse selection of beer styles to satiate those looking for the most hop-forward IPA to the richest, maltiest of stouts, and everything in between. And as a craft beer enthusiast, you can’t honestly say you’re a happy camper when this expectation isn’t met.

Today’s bars are making names for themselves by installing lineups of craft beers that give everyone who frequents something they’ll gravitate towards. For all intents and purposes, the word “bar” has been replaced by “destination” when it comes to the places who are doing things right with their draft programs. They deserve a different distinction from the locales who simply stick to the status quo and offer the same old macro beers that peaked in popularity years ago.

Developing a diverse, exciting, and constantly-evolving craft beer tap program is a science. You can’t just throw a bunch of beers on tap at any given time and expect to win the world over. There has to be variety, name recognition, style diversification, and a certain amount of intrigue.

In order to adequately compile proof of what a well-crafted tap program can do for a bar, I reached out to four extremely successful craft beer destinations in Pittsburgh for their take on the subject. All of them feature beers you’re looking for, all of them keep things fresh, and all of them champion mindsets and strategies that ultimately deliver a tremendous experience for Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Beerdrinker.

And go.

Craft BeerFrom Nick at Caliente…

Nick Bogacz, owner of Caliente Pizza & Draft House in Bloomfield and Hampton Township, has a very simple philosophy when it comes to his tap program thought process. “I listen to my customers.”

Those familiar with the Caliente brand know Nick and his wife Angie are committed to delivering an exceptional lineup of craft beer, both from the local scene and nationwide. One thing you’ll never be able to complain about at Caliente is drinking a boring beer. Caliente has become synonymous with great events, great pizza, and great beer selection. And a large amount of that selection comes from consumer demand.

“Our customers are quick to tell us whether they like a beer or not,” Nick explained. “When a certain offering gets good reviews, we tend to rotate it in more frequently and also find similar beers from other companies. Also, if our customers tell us about a beer they like and we can get our hands on it, we’ll do it. Our philosophy is to always meet expectations by getting feedback directly from those who are consuming and enjoying the product.”

Caliente has quickly risen to the top of the Pittsburgh craft beer destinations list and it all started by what was pouring from those 24 taps. By keeping the lineup fresh, unique, and diversified while pairing these beers with tremendous events and a welcoming, relaxing atmosphere, you can guarantee your Caliente experience will always be one you tell your friends about.

From Cassie at Hough’s…

When you travel to Hough’s Taproom & Brewpub in Greenfield, the world is your oyster when it comes to craft beer availability. Think about it. Cheers: two taps. Hough’s: 73. I would rather they know my name at Hough’s.

So, with 73 taps to manage, how does Hough’s keep their lineup fresh and continue to deliver that craft beer goodness you’re looking for?

“After being open for eight years, we’ve realized what kind of beers work in certain seasons and what breweries move more quickly,” Cassie Hough, co-owner of Hough’s, said. “Seasonal drafts and new releases are coming out all the time. And some of the more limited beers we get become available from certain wholesalers depending on how quickly we move other beers they bring us.”

In other words, it’s all about knowing your business, your customers, and what’s hot in the market right now.

“We are fortunate to have a large draft selection, so we’re able to experiment with some beers…giving a few lines up for that experimentation isn’t a big deal,” Cassie continued. “We’ve also been pretty event-orientated in terms of trivia sponsors, pint nights, tastings, flight nights, etc. so we’re really lining up the calendar and the beers based off those types of events planned in advance.”

Cassie also stressed the importance of establishing great relationships with brewery reps. That beer you’re drinking as you read this article came to you because those who represent these breweries have their finger on the pulse and know what types of beer will satisfy your cravings.

“When you get that connection with a brewery rep, they’ll stop in and chat with you about what to expect coming up and that builds some hype leading up to the release of a beer,” Cassie said. “Certain breweries have also come up with a series of beers that come from their pilot batches, which seems to work and has taken off well. We know our customers are always looking for things like that…something they know will be different and delicious.”

From Pete at The Independent…

Speaking of “different and delicious,” another great way to construct a bad-ass tap lineup is to keep things in your own backyard and go strictly local. No destination in Pittsburgh has done a better job implementing this strategy than The Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill. Their name, and subsequently, present-day philosophy, is derived from the Independent Brewing Company that formed in the early 1900s to represent the interests of small, local breweries from the Pittsburgh region. They sought to band together to compete against the bigger regional and national brewing companies, a battle still being fought to this day.

The Independent features 12 rotating craft beer taps, and from each of those pours a delicious offering from a brewery within a 100 mile radius of their establishment. Our local beer scene has undergone an uprising the likes of which no one could’ve predicted and, quite frankly, is showing no signs of slowing down. The Independent has captured the essence of this revolution by always giving you the very best of beers Pittsburgh has to offer under one roof, and co-owner Pete Kurzweg always looks to shine the spotlight on what our local brewers are bringing to the market.

“The advantage of working with the local guys is that we can offer beers that you may only see at the brewery itself,” Pete said. “When I purchase beers, I always try to get a good balance from each brewery. I’ll order two or three kegs at a time, but not always that amount from the same brewery. I always try to keep the purchase as balanced as possible so I can show off as much depth and spectrum for each brewery as possible.”

Supporting local business is a belief that’s grown stronger in recent times and with so many options available in any given business niche, it makes perfect sense. Implementing a local philosophy allows Pete and the Independent crew to offer a unique experience with their tap lineup. A lot of bars have a dedicated tap for a specific brewery, but The Independent has 12 that constantly cycle. When a keg kicks, there isn’t a backup of the same beer…something new comes next.

At any given point, you may see three beers from the same brewery on tap. But once those three kick, you may not see that brewery back in the rotation for a couple weeks. Typically, The Independent kicks a keg in a few days. This allows maximum exposure for our local breweries and a pretty damn good way to experience new local beers all the time.

“We are a craft beer bar created by craft beer nerds for craft beer nerds,” Pete said. “We worship trying new beers and our strategy allows us to always have new ones available to try.”

Beer TapsFrom Jerry at Blue Dust…

When you walk into a craft beer destination and discover their first rule is “No Crap on Tap,” chances are you’re about to find a beer you’ll enjoy. This philosophy has done wonders for Blue Dust in Homestead, an establishment whose constantly-rotating tap lineup of 26 craft beers always offers something new and exciting. Owner Jerry Miller has implemented a strategy that has yet to let him down in his three-plus decades in the beer business.

“Being around beer for over 30 years, I’ve become very knowledgeable about the nectar of the gods,” Jerry said. “My thought process starts on Tuesday when the sales reps come to visit. The quantity I order depends on my inventory. I do have a few taps that never change and the rest depend on availability and the season.”

The vast availability of different beers throughout different seasons make it critical to keep your ear to the streets and understand what’s going to move based on the time of year. If there’s a hot seasonal beer available and you can get your hands on it, do it quickly and sell the crap out of it! This type of thinking has helped Jerry construct a solid tap program from front to back that offers consistency, diversity, and popularity all at once.

“My rule of thumb is to always have about eight IPAs of different strengths from a variety of breweries on at once,” Jerry explained. “I also have four standard beers, four darker beers, four mid-range brews from ambers to browns, and six of whatever sounds good at the moment. Everything can change depending on the season.”

“In short, know your beer, breweries, and clientele…and never have all of one type of beer on tap.”

Redefining Loyalty = More Taps!

One opinion tossed around these days is that loyalty to one craft beer brand simply isn’t feasible due to the seemingly unlimited amount of options at our disposal. In the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to be a ‘Bud’ man or a ‘Miller’ girl and drink said beer ad nauseam. Today, it seems a beer drinker’s mission is to try as many different beers of similar or varying styles from one of the thousands of breweries across the country as possible. But while that may be the case, I’d like to argue that that doesn’t hurt loyalty. If anything, it strengthens it…and thus, gives us more options at the taps.

In your beer travels, you’re likely going to find a few staple breweries you come back to time and time again. They could be in your backyard, they could be miles away. Regardless, you’ll come back to that brewery’s offerings often, while still seeing what the other breweries have for you. If the new brewery has something better, it won’t make you shun your staple beer…it’ll just give you another option. In that, your loyalty to CRAFT beer grows, and your voice of advocacy becomes louder. And this ringing voice gives bar owners all the incentive they need to give you what you want by creating killer tap programs.

So many people, including myself, answer the question “What’s your favorite beer?” with “The one in my hand.” With loyalty to the overall craft beer culture growing every day, it’s easy to see why.

To Wrap It Up…

From a bar owner’s perspective, it’s imperative to realize the changing of the guard. Beer isn’t just ‘beer’ anymore. Craft beer has made it a way of life for many people. Customers aren’t after what’s basic, they’re after what’s hot and what their friends are talking about. And rest assured, if you aren’t making efforts to make these beers available to them, they’ll find someone who is. You owe it to your customers to listen to their desires…and give them what they want!

And from a beer drinker’s perspective, we owe those who do construct these kick-ass tap programs a debt of gratitude for understanding us, looking out for our best interests, and, ultimately, putting together a selection of beers that keep us coming back for more. I’ve spoken candidly about our favorite beverages being the catalysts for the memories we keep forever. And when a destination or, more importantly, the people that make that destination tick, understand you and deliver to your expectations, their locale becomes the haven in which many of those memories are made.

In fact, their locale becomes the place where everybody knows your name.

 

Cheers!

 

A very special raising of the glass and THANK YOU to Nick Bogacz, Cassie Hough, Pete Kurzweg, and Jerry Miller for their help in putting this feature together. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Jason Cercone

Good Times and Good Blog Features Are Better When They're Shared!

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