2010 June: Beer Tour

For many consumers, pizza and beer are a natural pairing. The cold frosty beverage is the perfect antidote for hot, bubbling cheese, and an acceptable small celebration when out with friends.

But consumers are also becoming pickier –– and not just any old brew will do anymore. Thanks to the wealth of information available at our fingertips –– and the feeling that all of the resources of the entire globe are a few keystrokes away –– pizza patrons are searching for new types of beer to pair with their meals.

Consolidation within the industry is making this a terrific time for restaurant owners to add imported beers to their bar lineup. InBev and Anheuser-Busch merged in 2008. In Bev owns global Coors and Molson merged in 2004 to create Molson Coors, bringing Canadian brands closer to home, and Coors merged with SAB Miller in 2008, bringing even more imported brands in through established distribution channels.

Tim Kirkland, founder of Renegade Hospitality, noted that many restaurants are adding more imported beers primarily because of the business opportunity –– but also thanks to the streamlined delivery channels. “We’re seeing a lot more placement of imported beers into these accounts because the sales people, for the first time ever, have been incentivized to sell it,” Kirkland said. “Before, if you wanted Stella Artois, you’d have to chase down a distributor in your market. Now, it’s coming in the front door with Budweiser products.”

Part of what draws a restaurant to want to serve imported beers is that customers are willing to pay more for the product. Depending on the market, restaurateurs could charge as much as $7 or $8 per glass for Stella Artois. That’s at least partially because it is served in a Stella-branded glass. “Now, I’m not only ordering this premium beer, but it comes in this special glass,” Kirkland said. “Part of what drives people to order a premium beer is the experience of it.”

The price point, though, varies, depending on the market. Tina Dickson, owner of Ingleside Village Pizza in Macon, Georgia, has a menu of 70 to 80 beers available. She doesn’t count on the beer itself making lots of money, but instead, hopes the draw of the menu will bring people in for meals. She sometimes pays $1 or under per beer for imports and charges $3 to $4 each for a bottle. “People come here because I have a lot of beer,” Dickson said. “I can proudly say I have more beers on the list than anywhere else in town. In Macon, Georgia, that’s a big deal.”

Old Chicago, a national pizza restaurant group, built an entire program around imported beer. The restaurants offer a World Beer Tour for patrons. They receive a passport, and get a stamp for every different type of imported beer they drink, and are considered finished when the customer drinks 110 types. They are limited to four beers in one day.

Tracy Finklang, corporate beverage manager of Louisville, Colorado-based Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc., which owns and operates the Old Chicago restaurant group, handles the beverage list for the restaurants. Finklang has a core group of 75 beers that every restaurant is required to stock, and then the restaurant can add another 45 or more beers that are available in their area. Store operators review local offerings and make recommendations. “The beauty of the program is that it requires the foamer to drink their way through the inventory,” Finklang said, thus avoiding any problems with unusual beers going neglected or stale in the restaurant’s storage. Also, it guarantees repeat business, she said, as “foamers” work their way through the list. The restaurant group now has 1 million people who have completed the World Beer Tour.

Imported beers, Finklang notes, are typically more profitable for the restaurants to sell, and have larger margins. Imported beers, though, have some issues. If a restaurant has a long list of imported beers on the menu, that means all of those beers have to be available, and that can cause storage headaches, Kirkland says. Having the beers on draft can help with that, and drafts usually offer a larger profit margin for the operator. Reach-in coolers for keeping bottles of beer cold are expensive, Kirkland adds: “If I was selling a lot of something, I might look at putting it on draft.”

Kirkland advises restaurant owners to start with what’s available from mainline distributors. Visit other restaurants, sit in the bar and watch what sells, and ask bartenders what’s selling. Also, look at what beer brands advertise nationally. The brands that buy national advertising are the ones that have national distribution, and those brands will be easier to keep in stock. Stay away from obscure beers that can be hard to track down and a difficult sell, Kirkland advises.

Dickson, though, says that’s part of the fun of selling imported beers. She’s gotten several customers hooked on her favorite, Palma Louca, a beer from Brazil, by putting it on special. But occasionally, she has trouble stocking it. She’s willing to try new beers and see how they sell. “I can sell a case of anything,” she says.

A restaurant that wants to sell lots of imported beer needs to get staff familiar with what the beers taste like, and how to describe them to patrons who ask questions. Even if they aren’t familiar with a particular brand, they should know what that category of beer tastes like. Also, note this: “If it’s hard to pronounce the name of the beer, customers won’t order it,” Finklang maintains. ?

Hang 10

The nation’s top 10 selling imported beers are listed below, courtesy of 2010 Beer Industry Update, which is published by Beer Marketer’s Insights.
? Corona Extra
? Heineken
? Modelo Espcecial
? Tecate
? Corona Light
? Guinness
? Dos Equis
? Stella Artois
? Labatt Blue
? Heineken Premium Light

Robyn Davis Sekula is a freelance writer living in New Albany, Indiana.

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