Fervent Few

Fervent Few — Taprooms Vs. Everybody

Good Beer Hunting recently spoke at length with Kevin Bolin, owner of the “100 beers on tap” bar The Mayor of Old Town in Fort Collins, CO. In the interview Bolin said that taprooms have begun to chip away at his business and have hurt other bars in the area. He also called out breweries for asking him to carry their beer but not keeping up a good relationship with the bar. So this week, we ask the Fervent Few: do bars need to evolve to compete with breweries? And are bars and taprooms in competition or are they complementary? What does a bar need to do to evolve and stay current with breweries? 

Brad: “Bars absolutely need to evolve if they want to stay competitive with taprooms in the future just like other businesses have had to evolve to stay competitive with the internet. On one hand, the playbook has somewhat been written. Source as much limited, exclusive product as possible. Create unique and compelling in-person experiences. On the other hand, doing both of those things over and over is really, really hard.”

Kristen Foster: “Bars will need to be more deliberate with what they want to be and decide what value they will bring to consumers that taprooms can't. In the past, you could put taps up with a craft beer spin, have bartenders that weren't educated, be the local spot...and people flocked because taprooms weren't an option and bars had been the traditional place to try new beers. I don't think bars are dead. If you're traveling or have limited time or mobility, bars still offer the chance for choice and variety. Whether a dive bar or ‘craft’ bar, there is a reason people still go. But I think bar owners need to know what that is and commit to the experience of the consumer.

I think seeing taprooms as competition isn't wrong. In theory, consumers have limited money to spend on beer and so money to taprooms could be considered money not being spent in bars. And if that thinking makes bars rethink their model and approach, it could be a place to start. But I also believe it's shortsighted. The same way breweries help each other and see more beer drinkers as good for all, I think bars can do the same alongside taprooms. I don't think it's in either group’s best interest to alienate the other.”

Caldwell Bishop: “At least for me, I’ll keep going back to a beer-serving establishment because of experiences I have there more than the beer itself—as long as the beer is appealing to me. Just thinking of a recent example, went to a brewery in NYC this past weekend with some really tasty beer. But it was overcrowded (people spilling our beers multiple times), bartenders were a bit rude, and the music was so loud that I basically had to yell to talk to the person in front of me. By comparison, a bar we went to (Hellcat Annies) had a solid selection of local and regional beers, helpful and friendly bartenders, and understood that people wanted to be able to talk to each other without shouting. Even though their beers weren’t as ‘exclusive’ as the brewery’s beers (though getting HF and Alchemist beers was a treat for us), I’d sooner go back to the bar than the brewery.”

Alex Marino: “Taprooms that have similar hours and offerings are definitely competition for bars and should be treated as such. But I agree with others that the appeal of taprooms (getting fresh beer from clean lines poured by knowledgeable staff) should send a signal to bars to meet those standards. Living in a big city, I'm never too far away from a taproom. But there are plenty of breweries in neighborhoods I don't frequent that I'd love to try.  Bars can meet my needs by giving tap handles to those breweries I'll likely never visit.”

Kirk Karczewski: “It's not just bars that need to worry. I see off premise losing a bit to breweries. Chances are, you can get a beer at a taproom that you can't anywhere else and it'll almost certainly be fresher. If stores don't differentiate and offer a better and fresher selection, people will stop by their local brewery instead of their local store.”

Tait Forman: “I think it definitely depends on the city and how established the craft beer community is there. I don't believe that taprooms are dramatically cutting into bar revenue in Los Angeles. Look at neighborhoods such as the Arts District and Highland Park and you'll see either taprooms that have helped make a location viable—or more viable—than it was previously or a taproom that is within a block of a very busy beer bar. The latter is Highland Park Brewery, which is a block away from a bar called Block Party, and Highland Park Brewery is essentially a dive bar (since it's located inside a dive bar)”

Shannon Crawford: “I feel like in some instances, yes, traditional bars will have to evolve and up their game. They are competing with places (taprooms) that literally make the product they are selling on site, which usually after packaging goes directly into cold storage. The enemy of beer is oxygen, heat, and sunlight. The likelihood of those things contaminating beer in transit to beer bars is obviously much higher than if a beer is packaged and stays in a cooler at a brewery's tasting room. If you're thinking about quality and freshness, I think beer bars will have to make sure they are upping their game. But there will always be that place you want to go with your friends where everyone can get what they want—a craft beer or gin and tonic or natural wine or PBR or what have you. Traditional bars can (typically) offer more options. There are some breweries I know that offer more than just their beer, but usually it's other folks' beer (not wine and liquor usually). I think with traditional bars it seems like a good idea to focus on variety. It's great to be able to go to a place that offers lots of different brands of beer in addition to liquor and wine options. There's room for everyone!”

Dave Riddile: “I am all for competition from a business perspective. Coupling that with the craft beer community can be difficult. An example: Collective [Brewing Project] is open until 10 p.m. at the latest (could be open until midnight), we usually have 10-12 taps of our stuff on, with 4-5 of those not being available outside the taproom (occasional special kegs sneak out from time to time). We do a monthly guest brewery with two taps and a couple bottles (usually funky or sour, currently four offerings from New Belgium and a few Jolly Pumpkin bottles left over from last month). Our bottles also include another 10 or so from us and about half are taproom-only. All of our bottles are for on- or off-premise. We fill growlers and crowlers of our beer. We hold a high standard of service, cleanliness, and education (something we will never sacrifice). 

So we occupy both the retail (bottle shop, bar) space and manufacturing space. If we wanted we could go full growler bar/bottle shop but in order to keep relations with our local accounts in good standing we compete up to a point. We don't do the full bottle shop or have 50 taps and also close early enough that folks can go on to one of those bars and enjoy our beer more or others. While they can't compete with freshness and beer access, we choose to not compete fully or seem overtly aggressive.

So that's the nuts and bolts. A big part of me wants to tell any complainers from bars or breweries (not that we've really had many in our market, we're still in that puppy love stage) that if you don't like what another business is doing to promote their brand, when all they're doing is doing your job better than you, to simply step your game up. When changes happen in a market (IE: an explosion of breweries) everyone has to work harder than they did previously. The harder we all work the better our own businesses become and the better the market becomes. When I read the article regarding Fort Collins, I can understand some of his viewpoint, but he also sounds slightly stuck in the past. ‘This is how it has been done, now that it is different I don't like it!’ Games change. Hard work always wins.”

Nick Yoder: “Taprooms and bars each offer different advantages to the consumer. The taproom experience ensures the freshest beer served by the most knowledgeable staff, while typically offering beers unavailable elsewhere and a chance to sample a wide variety of styles. Bars often offer extended hours, beers from a wide variety of brewers, and wine and liquor options as well. The lines between the two are beginning to blur as taprooms become more like bars, so it can be understandable for bars to become upset if the owners feel taprooms are encroaching on their territory. But there is no rule saying that bars cannot become more like taprooms. As taprooms add longer hours, guest taps, and wine and liquor, bars can counter with a wider range of serving styles or even flights and educated bartenders. And if a brewery does open a taproom nearby, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Chances are that taproom is going to draw a crowd that is not likely to make the taproom their only stop and will visit neighboring taprooms and quality craft-focused bars as well.”

Jason Dickinson: “I am currently managing a beer program for a wine and beer store that has competition with bars, brewery taprooms, and other bottle shops. We are in NC and have both on- and off-premise sales. My sole focus right now is quality control, and I think at the end of the day, this is the one aspect that will ultimately differentiate us from our competition. I leverage the Cicerone program heavily. Most beer bars/breweries hang the certificates of their Certified Beer Servers and call it good. While this certification is valuable, it is not enough on its own. I recently took part in an eight-hour-long off-flavor training class. I taste every beer we put on draught to ensure it is fit for service. I have recently had two beers on draught at a local brewery that had significant off-flavors. Those two beers would never make it passed our sensory team. Since we have started improving our quality control, our company has returned four kegs that were not fit for service. I believe that if we continue to execute flawless service, we will be rewarded in the long run for all of our quality control efforts.”

Mike Sardina: “Brewery taprooms certainly pose a challenge to the traditional retailer. Allowing breweries to operate as the retailer has many advantages to the brewery: they can leverage all of these advantages in the taproom setting. Obviously, the beer is as fresh as it possibly can be, but there is also the fact that news beers will get tapped in the taproom first, exclusive beers will get tapped in the taproom, beers that never leave the brewery. It's tough for a traditional bar to compete with this. Come out and try a brand new/limited/rare beer! Oh, that's already been on tap at a brewery for the last week...

The traditional retailer has to adapt, and oftentimes that means curation. I'll visit a traditional bar or a traditional off-premise location when they play the role of the curator at a high level. Oftentimes, that's not just what is local, but what is best.”

Brian Welzbacher: “Here in Oklahoma, our brewery taprooms have been able to sell to the public for the past 15 months. I've found myself drinking mainly at the taprooms and going to liquor stores for new releases of national beers. My attitude is to support the local producer and I occasionally like to pick up a seasonal sixer/mix six. I don't frequent bars simply because I have lower income these days. So with our new laws in place, more taprooms are opening and becoming the ‘local bar"’. Currently they can only sell what they produce.

Beer bars are growing a bit down here. I still see pint nights, but nowhere near as much because our cupboards are full of glassware. Most recently I see bars using Randalls as a way to draw in more consumers less likely to drink craft. Farm-to-table food is a big draw for several beer bars and I believe still effective strategy if you have a restaurant connected.”

Manny Gumina: “Brewery taprooms are the new players in the industry. Bars must have a different value proposition. Taprooms have an advantage in local and freshness. I go to breweries to drink the freshest beer from the source. I go to bars for variety of beer, uniqueness of space, history, food, and service.

Beer bars must promote themselves in a meaningfully different way. For instance, Burnhearts [in Wisconsin] throws festivals in the streets right outside its bar. They garner a ton of attention while paying homage to local bands, vendors, products, and traditions.

Some of my friends love and obsess over beer. Some of my friends could care less. Some of my friends love craft cocktails or wine. Some of my friends don't drink a lot, but love music and festivals. Bars can be a way to gather a variety of people who aren't strictly concerned with the beer, but do enjoy a unique experience.”

Thad Parsons: “Here in Virginia, this is odd because the closest thing that we have to true bars are taprooms (AKA: places that serve only alcohol and no food). In Virginia, most places that hold an ABC license are constantly (or should be) looking at their alcohol-to-food ratios. Taprooms do not have to do that, unless they decide to go into direct competition with local restaurants and they get a restaurant license (which allows them to serve wine and liquor).

On the other hand, they can also sale off-premise. Honestly, that doesn't really worry me. If someone is going to drive to Port City (which is the closest taproom to my shop) to buy a six pack because they can get it a day earlier or save a dollar or two, then they will probably drive across town to the shop that gets a delivery earlier in the week or to the grocery store/Costco that sells at a much lower margin. I have to survive on my service, knowledge, and curation.”

Rob Scott: “I see pubs in the UK closing as property prices make them ripe for development. Many have survived, but have been repurposed and I’d only visit to eat. I don’t see the relatively recent emergence here of brewery taprooms as providing competition, but see them stimulating interest from which other bars can benefit. A trip to a taproom is a different experience. I plan in advance, go to try specific beers, and most are still not spaces in which to lounge and linger. However, I’ll pop to the pub on a whim, I go to relax, to meet friends, and I choose those with good beer. There’s room yet for more of both.”

These are all great quotes from our members but we had some great discussions on this topic that continued beyond this article. Want to check them out? Join the Fervent Few and read the full conversation. Then add your voice. We’d love to hear from you!

Hosted by Jim Plachy