Draft list for a beer novice

Last week, I received an email message from someone in the planning stages of a new restaurant in the area. He reads this blog and had come to realize that I have some opinions when it comes to a good beer list. Not wanting his to be one of the places that I grumble about, he asked for some advice.

I was thrilled by the opportunity to have a positive impact on a new restaurant, so I pondered for a few days and eventually typed up some notes. By the time I was finished, I had a fairly lengthy message that I thought might be useful for other readers (and Googlers) as well.

I’m not posting it here not because I claim to be an expert in the area—I’m certainly not. I can actually think of several far more qualified readers who will likely chime in to tell me where I’m wrong. Really, I have two reasons for posting. First, there might be other restauranteurs out there looking for similar advice; second, because I have no doubt that I’ll be seeing some insightful comments in response. I have a feeling the comments will help turn my thoughts into something even more useful.

I realize some of you could care less about beer. If that’s you, then just ignore this post and start looking forward to the E2 post that I’m working on next.

Re: Suggestions for our beer list

NOTE: The restaurant in question plans to serve authentic Mexican cuisine. Some of my advice is directly purely at that theme, but most of it probably applies anywhere. He also didn’t want to have a huge beer list. This isn’t going to be Bocktown or even Mad Mex.

As promised, I collected some of my thoughts on beer list. I started with four pieces of general guidance and finished up with a specific list to use as a starting point. I’m hoping that will be more useful than just giving you a single list without much comment.

1. Focus on a few solid options.

I completely understand that you’re not looking to have 18 different beers on tap. There are actually a couple restaurants in the area that have been doing very well with just 4 taps (Yo Rita and Salt of the Earth come to mind). The key is to spread that selection across several style categories and keep things changing.

I think an ideal number would be 6 taps: 1 reserved for a macro lager (e.g. Yeungling). I’ve come to terms with the fact that everyone needs to carry a macro lager or two because that’s all some people drink. For a Mexican place, you could stretch to 2 macro lagers by including Negra Modelo (a half-decent macro-lager).

2. Keeping a dynamic draft list.

The beer lists that catch my attention are the ones that change over time. That gives me an incentive to head back to a restaurant to see what new stuff they have on tap. Changing a keg also makes for a good opportunity to post a notice to twitter/facebook–it’s the kind of thing your fans will help spread if they particularly like the beer.

My basic advice here would be to keep your macro lagers constant, but rotate the other four taps on a regular basis.

3. Hit a wide variety of styles.

Different beer enthusiasts have different opinions and different favorite styles. When you only have a few different beers, it’s really important to make sure that each one is from a different style.

A few of the more significant categories…

  • India Pale Ale (IPA)
    (a very popular category, so it’s important to have at least one)
  • Stout / Porter
    (very dark/roasty styles)
  • Pilsner
    (hoppy but light bodied style out of Germany)
  • Wheat
    (hefeweizen, American wheat—goes over well for those who don’t like beer)
  • Seasonal
    (have an Oktoberfest in Sept and a winter/spiced ale leading up to Christmas)
  • Amber Lager
    (märzen/Oktoberfest/Vienna lager–works very well for Mexican cuisine)
  • Dark Lager
    (bock/dunkel–a more mild lager with some history in Mexico)
  • Belgian
    (usually bigger beers with spicy/fruity flavors left over from warm fermentations)

The amber and dark lager categories work especially well with Mexican cuisine because much of Mexico’s historic brewing tradition was brought by German immigrants. For example, Negra Modella is actually a decent example of a German Dunkel.

4. Connect with the local brewers

There’s a big push for staying local these days, and beer is no exception. Pittsburgh (and more generally PA) has a number of great local/regional brewers. If you carry something from the local brewers, many will make a point to tell their fans. They want to sell their beer just as much as you do.

The most notable local brewer is probably East End Brewing, but there are others out there to keep in mind as well.

Some local Pittsburgh brewers:

Some well-liked brewers in the region:

5. A good list to start with

To give an example, I’ll throw out the beer list that I would use if I were starting a Mexican restaurant with 6 taps.

Suggested Drafts:

(option 1-prime, for once your up and running: Penn Dark, which is a better example of a dark lager)

If you wanted to keep a few bottles around, you could appease a few other common requests. I think things like Corona and other typical Mexican requests might help out with the portion of your audience looking for that sort of thing.

NOTE: I should point out here that the self-proclaimed beer novice tipped his hand just a little bit here and threw out some great additional ideas for Mexican options: Bohemia and Nochebuena. Both would probably be fantastic additions for the bottle list if he can’t get them in kegs. If he can get by without stooping to the level of Corona, then I’d be thrilled.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Others may have different opinions, so I tried to keep my high level advice general. If have questions or ever want a few more specific recommendations, I’d be happy to help out.

–Mike

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8 Responses to “Draft list for a beer novice”

  1. Steve H. Says:
    March 3rd, 2011 at 9:07 am

    I wrote up the comments, but realized I was writing to the reader of the article rather than directly in response to Mr. Foodburgh:

    At the risk of being critical and negative, that example list is most definitely a “good start”. There is nothing inherently wrong with that list, but if you’re a restaurant with a theme, I think it should have a heavier emphasis on the theme.

    To give an example, if you were opening a German or Irish themed restaurant and you had that beer list, it would be clear that you’re really not taking your theme seriously. I don’t see why an exception should be made for any other cultural theme.

    Mike revealed what seems like a surprisingly good source for beer for a Mexican restaurant: http://beeradvocate.com/beerfly/list?c_id=MX&s_id=0&brewery=Y

    I completely agree with Mike that you should have some stand-bys for those who drink only what they’ve heard of before. And while Mike did an excellent job reducing all the styles down to 6 well varied taps, I don’t think any beer snob would be too upset with a Mexican restaurant that served Yuengling, Dos Equis, and 4 beers from that posted URL.

    Anyways, those are my 2 cents. Though keep in mind that when it comes to beer, restaurants, and food in general, I am far less of an expert than Mike.

  2. Phil Ezolt Says:
    March 3rd, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Mike, your link to the Pittsburgh based “full-pint brewing” is wrong
    (in both places).

    The corrent URL is here: http://www.fullpintbrewing.com/

    BTW. I’m so excited! I never heard of this brewery… Thanks for the pointer.

  3. mike Says:
    March 3rd, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Steve: I agree that any list is at best just a good start. With more than 1700 craft brewers in this country, no list will ever be perfect or complete. That’s the whole point of keeping things moving—especially for a smaller place.

    I left out the more standard Mexican beers because it’s typically very difficult to get access to really good beer from Mexico. Instead, you end up with beer from the large brewers in Mexico that are big enough to export to (and market in) the United States.

    I worked around that problem by opting to pick out beers from style categories with a strong tradition in Mexico. Vienna Lager (Eliot Ness) is one style in particular that nearly died out completely in Europe and remained strong primarily in Mexico. For a while, the best examples you could find came out of Mexico.

    The Penn Dark that I mentioned as a possible substitute for Negra Modelo makes sense because Penn is a better example of yet another style that was brought to Mexico by German immigrants. I suppose all that history is lost on most patrons and they only see a lack of German beer, which is a bit of a problem—theirs or mine depending on your perspective.

    That said, Yuengling may be a bit of a stretch. I opted for that just because it seems to be one beer in Pittsburgh that everyone can agree on. It seems to be tolerable by beer snobs and macro-lager enthusiasts alike. I would be okay with substituting a Dos Equis option. In fact, that’s one of the comments that I got back from the guy who posed the question.

    …and Steve, your 2 cents are always appreciated!

  4. mike Says:
    March 3rd, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Phil: I corrected the link. Thanks for the heads up!

    Sounds like I need to get a case of something from Full Pint for the next happy hour at work. :-)

  5. Andy Kwiatkowski Says:
    March 3rd, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    IPA is by far the most popular style of craft beer. However in terms of Mexican cuisine it is a total mismatch. Mad Mex’s draft list often has a majority of hop forward beers. Those beers never ever go well with their dishes. I personally feel that restaurants need to taylor their drafts towards their style of food. I don’t think it should be the other way around. Malt forward beers, Brown Ales especially are ideal for Mexican in my opinion.

  6. mike Says:
    March 4th, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Andy: I tend to agree. IPAs don’t pair well with (most) Mexican. When I walk past Cuzamil and see their “Dogfish Head 60 Minute on tap” sign, it feels a little wrong—even unappetizing. That said, I think IPA needs to be treated in the same way as an industrial light lager (macro lager, etc.). It’s not something you or I is very interested in, but you need it to satisfy a certain part of your audience. Some people just want a hoppy beer regardless of appropriateness.

    I think that distinction is the biggest challenge of a small draft list: covering N different types of beer drinker with 6 different beers. In this day and age, N is greater than 6.

  7. Aaron Says:
    August 18th, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    You managed to work an equation into that. Impressive. In other thoughts, I keep walking past anywhere that advertises the 60 minute because that means they probably don’t have the 90, which is so much better than the other two. Personally, that is. And yes, I know this post is five months old. Just bored, and figured I’d look into what you’d been up to these days Mike. I’ll admit, I’ve never been jealous of anyone living in Pittsburgh before, but you seem to have the right parts of that town figured out. That’s what a dozen years will get you, I guess.

  8. Greg Says:
    August 25th, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    That’s awesome Mike! Good for you!

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