Own Your Bar

There are a lot of new craft beer bars popping up everywhere in America these days, a welcome addition for any beer loving local. That stated, there seems to be a growing number of craft bars that seem to love good liquid, but are unsure or unwilling to do what is necessary to ensure the beer and business is treated right. I’m short on time, so this can’t be exhaustive, but here are a few things I have seen that I want to get off my chest.

Own Your Taps

This is the only way I know how to express a number of related issues at craft bars around the country. Owning your taps means just that – take ownership of them! Maintain them – it is your bar and your responsibility to make sure ALL lines are cleaned and properly maintained. No, you don’t have to do the work yourself (although it’ll save you money in the long run), but you also can’t rely on the big distributors to care for lines that aren’t theirs – carrying products that aren’t theirs. If you carry local beers brewed by new/small brewers, they likely don’t have the time or capacity to clean the beer lines. You know what, that’s fine because that is not their job! You want clean beer lines? Make it happen, it’s the cost of doing business and if you’re business features these small brewers without distributors, then spend the bucks and get the lines cleaned as they should (every two weeks). If that’s too much work, then just stick with the beers sold by the distributors that will clean the lines as a service to you. Remember, just because the big guys clean lines does not mean that’s their job – they’re your lines.

Know Your ABVs

A disturbing trend I’ve seen lately is an obsession with high alcohol beers. In one case recently, I walked into an eatery at lunch that had sixteen taps – the lowest alcohol beer weighed in at an alarming 8%! Look, we all love a good stiff beer, but as a responsible bar owner/ manager you simply must embrace the better beers of average strength. Additionally, if you have a high-abv brew on tap, it is good business to put the beer in a glass smaller than 16-ounces. Remember, the goal of your establishment should not be to get your patrons drunk as quick as possible. For starters, you will actually sell less beer, but more importantly is good stewardship to be mindful of the community around you.

Stand By Your Brand

By brand I am referring to your business, not any particular brand of beer. To stand by that isn’t always easy, however. There are times when you will have to make a tough call and pull a beer off the line – be it because it’s flawed, or doesn’t move, or is simply undrinkable. You should be able to assess the quality of a beer when it is tapped, but if that fails you can easily see where issues may occur based on consumer feedback. If you choose to keep a bad beer on tap because you insist on getting your money’s worth, you run the risk of damaging your brand – something far more valuable than the profits on a single keg of beer.

There are a couple easy things you can do to ensure quality. First, as mentioned above, clean the lines religiously – this includes regular deep cleaning of faucets and couplers. Second, know the keg dates and style requirements related to age. If you have a pilsner (or other pale lager), pale ale or IPA that is more than 90 days old, you shouldn’t accept it. Of course there are styles that age gracefully, if you don’t know what they are then just make it a goal to never pour beer more than 90 days old. Finally, minimize time your kegs spend at high temperatures – you don’t want your beer warming up, that will increase the perceived age process and diminish the quality of your beer.

Just like the best brewers occasionally have to dump a batch of beer that got away, there will be times you’ll be well-served to simply write a keg of beer off. It’s good business.

Maintain Order

This is clearly the most difficult item on this to do list, maintaining control of your bar. It’s easy to cede control to employees, to regular customers and to your distributors – it often happens slow enough you don’t see it’s happened. When you opened your doors you likely had a list of rules, hopefully on paper, but at least in your head – things you said you didn’t want to have happen. Of course, priorities change and the realities of business often force subtle or drastic tweaks in your business plan. That’s not what I’m talking about. What you must avoid is to let others dictate your business – be it in the form of a certain brand loyalty, giveaways, or customers that feel overly entitled to your business (unruly behavior, demanding or simply dismissive to you and your staff – those that have the feel of someone owed something more than your gratitude and good service). This is very, very touchy because you need to always appreciate the loyalty of your customers, but you cannot yourself become beholden to them at the detriment of your business. Do you find yourself looking the other way when someone becomes rude or overtly intoxicated? Do you not check IDs when a regular brings in a young friend? Do you allow yourself to be talked out of a free beer at the chiding of someone you know by name? Balance here is key – we live in a world where an occasional free pint is good service, where we must embrace all sorts of people with all sorts of baggage and be grateful that they chose to spend their hard-earned cash at your establishment. That said, it’s imperative that you recognize these behaviors and know when you’re being generous and when you’re being had.

Be Your Own Person

Final note on this abbreviated post of more than 1,000 words – be comfortable with the bar and the customers you have. Does another bar in town have the newest triple-wet-hopped, dry-hopped, bourbon-barrel, imperial-double, sour IPA that everyone is talking about? Great. Who cares? Don’t feel the need to jump the shark or chase trends. For starters, these will never be your ‘money-makers’ – they’re one-off offerings that can bring in a few people, but won’t necessarily translate to new regulars (your bread and butter, so to speak). You should know more than anyone what your customers like and don’t like. If you’re a stout man and find your slowest movers are all stouts, it’s good sense to make a switch to a more popular style (assuming you have multiple stouts – you should always maintain at least one stout, one amber, a pale and a wheat beer in my opinion). Those switches make sense; you’re in the business to move beer. Just don’t become overly enamored with the hot, trendy beers of the day. If you can get them, great, but don’t worry if you don’t – your customers will always appreciate the good, clean beers you do have on tap.

I guess this is a point that requires some explanation. Hot, trendy beers are almost always allocated – that is, released on a limited basis and likely sold to customers with an established loyalty to the brewery that brewed the trendy beer. If you’re a new bar with no track record, expect to not have access to many of these limited release brews – not immediately at least. Instead, bring in the flagship or some year-round offering from said brewery, establish a relationship and then hopefully you’ll be in queue in short order the next time a trendy beer is released. It’s fool-hearted really to expect a brewery rep that has no track record with your business to reward you with a hard-to-find keg. It does happen, by the way, but that’s usually a nod from a rep that he/she appreciates the efforts you’ve put forth to open a bar that respects beer and the brewers that make it.

Last words: don’t be a dick. Don’t beat up distributor reps for not having everything you want, don’t call them names or threaten to talk to their boss because they can’t deliver on every small request you have for your bar. Don’t beat up on brewery reps for not having all the fancy signs and free shit you think you need to make a beer night memorable. Don’t be rude to the drivers that are delivering kegs. There are a lot of people that you rely on to make your bar successful – appreciate the efforts they all make and take a moment here and there to say thanks.

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