Top beer

It’s already quite interesting, but beer is becoming even more so, and there’s money to be made from that trend.

It’s already quite interesting, but beer is becoming even more so, and there’s money to be made from that trend.

For consumers, beer offers a lifeboat of security in an ocean of uncertainty. For restaurateurs, play your cards right and it will do the same

In uncertain times, we all look to the fundamental aspects of life for assuredness: Beer. When posh wines by-the-glass are struggling in the face of continued economic uncertainty, and when cocktails only offend your customers’ alcohol intake paranoia, perhaps it is best to ignore red and green colours and solidly re-focus on the amber light. Beer.

There’s already strong enough sales evidence to suggest that this is happening anyway. Imported beer sales are growing at more than 10 per cent per annum; boutique breweries continue to gain small yet vital market share, and enjoy double-digit sales growth too; even the big brewers—Lion Nathan and Carlton & United—are rapidly expanding their repertoire in an effort to keep up with a growing consumer demand for beers with more interest and flavour. Beer is acquiring a connoisseurship.

And this is very much where you come in. With a beer landscape that’s more complex and much more sophisticated, licensees and bar managers are at the coal face of consumer understanding and sentiment. And it is a coal face that can be very profitable if you handle it the right way.

To begin with, however, it is important to remember that some aspects of the local beer on-premise market remain unchanged. The duopoly of the two big brewers still probably accounts for 90 per cent of the market; but, if anything, the draught beer market is growing, not shrinking. Nowadays it is not just pubs that have beer taps: you can find them in wine bars, tapas joints, small restaurants, and—true story—I’ve even seen one in a winery’s cellar door. Admittedly the beer was made by the winery, but there you go…

The power of the draught market is something that Barons Brewing National Draught Manager, Greg Graham, thinks can work well for both brewers and licensees alike. With glycol lines and improved taps, and better brewery-to-bar keg logistics, draught beer, Graham reckons, is a great way to cater for the broader tastes of customers.

In a ten tap bar, though, Graham knows that his company will be competing for one of two uncontracted taps, which is why so many brewers offer incentives to licensees to get on board. “Promotions, t-shirts for the bar staff, bar mats, coasters, branded glassware—all of these things,” says Graham, “are pretty much expected by licensees now days. Some of them do want everything, and, fair enough; it is good exposure for us, and in some situations it is worth the cost…”

But there’s a flipside to this seemingly perfect promo deal for licensees. And Graham explains it quite neatly.

“In Belgium, there are over 400 beers. There’s virtually a different glass for every beer. It’s a very sophisticated beer culture. We’re a long way behind that—but it is the direction we are moving. So if licensees don’t get onto this trend and start offering their customers a more diverse range of beers, from a more diverse range of brewers, and in better quality glassware, then they’ll get left behind.”

Another small yet determined brewer keen on this approach is St Arnou. Their national sales manager, Nick Allardice, sees a resurgence in draught beer, particularly in smaller venues, where small one-or two-tap systems are now the norm. “Having taps in a smaller venue completely changes its dynamic. Instead of being a splash and dash venue we are seeing patrons sit and enjoy a dinning experience as
well as four to six beers. This obviously means the spend per head increases dramatically.”

St Arnou also wants beer to go the way of wine: “I would encourage every owner/manager to implement a printed beer list just like they have with their wines. Although it might be a small list, filling the page with product information will enable customers to get more involved and excited about the venue’s list.”

The only angle Allardice is down on concerns branded glassware. “There are a few pitfalls: managing six sets of different sized beer glasses is an absolute nightmare. If you are determined that you want branded glasses, I would suggest that you choose two different sized glasses from two different brands and go with them—and make sure they are in continual supply.”

Trail-blazing Melbourne publican, Phillip Miles, who for many years ran the George Public Bar in the heart of St Kilda, can see the reasoning behind this move towards more sophisticated beer service, but wonders if there’s also good business sense in keeping it simple.

“From a personal taste point-of-view, I’m a packaged beer man myself; it’s more reliable”, says Miles. “From a business angle, though, traditionally there’s been better margin in draught; although, if you’ve got the right sort of venue, then there’s a pretty penny to be made in packaged beer, too. You can charge an exorbitant amount for it. It doesn’t necessarily cut down your overheads, though; even if they buy packaged beer over the bar, plenty of people today want an accompanying glass.” Miles also wonders if this new sophistication of beer in Australia overleaps itself.

“Call me old-fashioned—I’ve been called a lot worse—but when I hear people talking about the new “European” trend we are adopting regarding our beer “appreciation”, I wonder how long these people actually spend in Australian pubs and bars. An increased range of beer is a good thing, but otherwise, fresh and locally made lager, served icy cold, isn’t a bad beverage with which to relax after a long week. It really isn’t neurological science: keep a presentable bar, staff it well, and serve icy cold beer happily. And bank the earnings quick-smart.”

How individual licensees will approach the expanding beer market certainly depends on their knowledge of their clientele. Taking advantage of brewery’s draught beer promotions might be a good and cost-effective way for you to test the waters of this new and more diverse beer drinking trend; but if in doing so you lose a sense of your bar’s own identity and brand, then perhaps it is yet just another case of a brewery tail wagging your dog.

Ben Canaider is a mono-award-winning drinks columnist and author of over nine books on beer, wine, spirits and other lifestyle choices.

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