What makes a great craft beer bar great?

beer bars Sep 14, 2015

The ever amazing Mikkeller Bar in SF is the height of what a great beer bar should reach for. They have an excellently well-curated list, served through a great draft system at the proper temps by servers who know beer, and next to a menu of food that uses beer in dishes and pairs well. Also, they have a constant stream of solid events. The only downside here is the price, but then again, where else will you find these beers and this experience? When you're the best, you can charge for it!

I've heard this question asked and debated among my beer geek friends and online. It's something I've thought about plenty, considering that I'm working on opening Old Devil Moon, which will be one of San Francisco's top beer bars if I have my way (and there are some really great ones here already!). Below are some of my thoughts on what makes a bar a great beer bar.

1) Hire staff that are excited about beer and then give them the tools and training they need to be successful. Personally, I think the training and studying involved in becoming a Certified Cicerone is amazing (but I'm definitely biased) and I would want to hire beertenders who were potentially interested in pursuing that path because that would show me that they have a real interest in beer. I would never hire people who don't drink and love good beer, or who are just passing through the hospitality industry as a placeholder while pursuing other interests. In the best case scenario, a bar would hire a sharp Cert Cicerone who can train staff, curate the tap list, ensure the draft system is cleaned regularly, and otherwise provide a great example of professionalism to your team, which would have any top beer bar kicking ass right out of the gate. 

2) Curate a great tap list that constantly changes. You don't need 30+ taps or 10 IPAs to impress beer lovers. Great bars have a tap list with solid variety and great examples of those styles. Throwing three dozen beers on draft is useless if half of them are mediocre, lots of them are similar, or there's nothing but major brands everyone has had. Always offer lots of great session beers as well as a few exciting options such as bourbon barrel aged goodies or sours. Curating the draft list and picking what's "on deck" is something your resident beer expert should be handling or helping with. Theming the list works for some bars and can be a good way to direct your beer buying. Many bars feature mostly sessionable local beers, some pricier joints focus on a mix fancy northern European beers and their American analogues. There are lots of ways to theme a beer list, but my preference and the way I'll run the list at my bar, Old Devil Moon, will be to do a no-holds-barred curation where we go for the best beer we can get, regardless of where it's from. Our plan is to seek out as much "brewery direct" beer as possible, that means I'll have to go to more effort to get beer from smaller producers (I may even have to drive to get beer that isn't distributed by a distributor with delivery trucks). Why bother? This will allow me to get beer that's super fresh, I'll get to know my brewers, those brewers will get 100% of the price I pay for their great kegs, I'll have access to rare and special beer that I would never get through a distributor, and I'll get to bring my customers a constant stream of beers and breweries that they've rarely or never seen anywhere else. I'll certainly still be dealing with distributors all the time because there are lots of amazing beers that are not close by enough for me to deal directly with the breweries, but I will never rely on distributors the way most bars do. 

3) If you serve food, make an effort to cook with beer and to offer great pairing advice. By this I mean do more than just suggest pairings on the menu. The staff should be able to intelligently discuss what's currently on draft as potential pairings. I realize this is asking a lot, very few bars have the beer know-how to pull this off expertly...but that's just the point, do you want to be one of the best or just another bar with a decent line up of beer? Your beer expert or Cicerone should be able to train the staff on talking about pairings and can work with the kitchen staff to create special paired dishes and multi-course dinner events.

4) Have a great draft system and keep it clean! Draft systems don't need to be fancy long draw set ups with a Flux Capacitor to be great. Simple is best - if possible build the faucets right into a walk-in beer fridge that's at the bar (that's what we're doing at ODM). If you want to be fancy, get a separate direct draw kegerator behind the bar for beers you want to serve at a different temp, perhaps keep it a little warmer for strong ales or cask ales. After that, clean the whole system properly every two weeks. That is absolutely critical. 

5) Do great events! I don't just mean events where you reach out to brewers and say, "hey, will you hook me up with your best rare beer so I'll get a big crowd? We'll do a tap takeover!" Tap takeovers are certainly cool, but what I mean is this: do real events that give something back to the brewer. Isn't it cooler to go to them and say, "we'd like some of your best rare beer for an educational event/or to feature in a multi-course beer pairing dinner/or as part of a small festival where it'll be on draft along with a bunch of other breweries that you'll want to be associated with, etc." Be creative and put some effort into it, give potential customers and beer geeks a reason to go out of their way to come to your bar. 

6) If you do nothing else, do this: train your bartenders to pour properly. Nothing betrays that a bar doesn't know beer more than when a bartender dunks the faucet into the beer they're pouring, and/or fills the beer up to the top of a glass and serves it with no head, and/or pours a bunch of beer off the side of the glass because the draft system pours foamy (which probably means the draft system is screwed up, filthy, or unbalanced). Oh, and have glass rinsers at the bar!

There are plenty more things I look for in a great beer bar, but many of those are taste-based. For instance, I like a comfortable space that invites me to hang out for a long time. I'm tired of the metal + wood = "modern warehouse" design of many of today's top beer bars. While there's a time and place for major partying or sports watching, I can't stand bars that are always ridiculously loud or have constant sports on TVs visible from everywhere in the bar. Many bars need better sound dampening! Also, I love a good dive bar, but it doesn't have to be filthy and it definitely shouldn't reek of vomit or rotting beer, an all too common condition. 

If you have any thoughts on what you love in a good beer bar, let me know. Heck, maybe I'll even incorporate your idea into my future joints!

Additional comments from friends on Facebook, Twitter, and the like:

  1. Decent pricing. This is a complicated issue, but understandable. To me the overall experience is key and I'm happy to pay a little more for an experience I consider to be top notch, but there's no question that pricing can get out of hand if everything on a menu is very fancy. 

  2. Staff should be not only knowledgable, but also approachable. Couldn't agree more. Getting attitude because you know less about beer than the bartender should NEVER be part of the experience of going out. Any opportunity for a beertender with decent communication skills to educate a consumer is one they should take if it's welcome. Being holier than thou or acting like a sort of subcultural gate keeper is totally not OK. 

  3. Offer half pints so people can sample more beers. Love this suggestion because I like to try lots of beers when I'm out, too. 

  4. A nice variety of ABVs instead of just a list full of big beers. Totally agree. Having low ABV options in addition to some heavy hitters is all part of that proper list curation that so few bars get right. I'd frequently prefer to have a few pints of under 5% ABV beer, but there are usually one or none on the list. 

  5. "One of the most important tests for me is how the staff treats the person new to craft beer. How do they guide them to find a beer they like and explain a little about why it is pleasing to them." - an excellent point by Steve Shapiro of Beer By Bart fame. Couldn't agree more. Beertenders should be excited about good beer and they should want to share that with others. Attitude and "gate keeping" is never welcomed by customers and it doesn't grow the beer geek community.

beer bars