A Master Cicerone’s Guide to Building a Better Bottle Selection

12/13/2017

Building a Better Craft Beer Bottle Menu

Building a balanced, exciting beer bottle menu takes a lot more than an affinity for beer—especially if you’re planning to make large-format bottles and cellared beers a large focus. You have to consider pricing, operations, logistics, and consumer insights to create a well-curated menu.

 

To take some of the guesswork out of crafting the perfect bottle menu for your account, we reached out to Breakthru Beverage’s Master Cicerone, David Kahle, to get his expert opinion on the matter.

 

Be Selective about Styles 

Keep the selection as balanced as possible. This is true for beer styles offered, brewery location (local, regional, national), flavor profile and of course, price. The majority of the list should be approachable to most of your customers.

 

When it comes to the reserve section, Kahle recommends limiting it to beers that are above 7.5 percent ABV. The reason for this is because cellared beer becomes oxidized over time, which causes hoppy and floral flavors to fade away and ‘off flavors’ like wet paper and cardboard to develop inside the beer. Beers with higher ABV slow down this process considerably.

 

“Barley Wines, barrel-aged stouts, Belgian strong ales and other high-ABV beers can mask oxidization, or have oxidation flavors that are generally perceived as ‘positive’ by consumers. Those flavors of sherry, honey or even soy sauce can be desirable, but not everyone finds them appealing.”

 

So what are his favorite cellar-worthy candidates? Sour beers.

 

“Sour beers are really the best styles for aging,” said Kahle. “True sours like Lambic, Gueuze, Flanders Red and Oud Bruin have already been aged by the brewery for close to three years, so they’ve been exposed to oxygen and time for quite a while already.”

Proper Storage and Service is Important

Kahle suggests that cork-finished, bottle-conditioned bottles be stored upright in a dark room with an ideal temperature of somewhere between 45 and 55 degrees.

 

“By storing the beer upright, you’re preventing a lot of that beer from becoming exposed to oxygen. As opposed to storing it on its side, which creates a big bubble of gas touching the liquid,” said Kahle.

 

Another reason to store your bottles upright is to ensure that any sediment that might be in the beer settles out on the bottom of the bottle.

 

“If you do end up storing these bottle-conditioned beers on their side for some reason, be sure to turn it upright at least 24 hours before serving so that all of that yeast has time to fall off the side and settle into the bottom of the bottle. Otherwise all of that sediment will end up in the liquid and poured in the glass,” said Kahle.

 

As for the ideal serving temperature, Kahle stresses that many of these beers don’t need to be chilled down to American lager temperatures of 36 degrees or so.

 

“A bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, Barely Wine or Wee heavy can be fantastic at 55 degrees. For a sour beers like Lambics and Gueuzes, I’d suggest serving those a little bit cooler, closer to 40 degrees.”

Think Ahead and Stock Up

If you’re really going to invest into building a reserve list and creating a bottle library, Kahle suggests purchasing a few cases of beers each year that you want to age and not even add them to your list right away.

 

“Let’s say you’re buying a limited release of a bourbon barrel aged beer that comes out only once each year, and you want to put that on a list from a vintage standpoint,” said Kahle. “If that’s the case, I suggest buying a few cases when you have the opportunity to do so. That way, you put a case of bottles on the list now, and then hold on to the other cases and add one of them onto the list the following year.”

 

Kahle suggests creating special events around these annually released beers by offering vertical flights of multiple vintages, giving customers the opportunity to experience how the beers have developed over the years.

Sell the Experience

So you have your beers stored. You know which ones you want to feature on the menu. Now what? Now you sell to your customers. But, according to Kahle, you’re not just selling them a beer, you’re selling them an experience that only you can offer.

 

“Obviously people buy these types of beers because of limited availability. Hype is built around that rarity. So that’s the motivation for creating a bottle list like this. As an account, you need to make it clear to your customers that the beers on your reserve menu are limited, and that some of them are even more limited and rare to ever find because they are now a year or two old.”

 

While many of these beers can be a little pricy, Kahle suggests positioning them to larger groups, where they can then be shared socially.

 

“There beers really represent the social side of drinking,” said Kahle. “They are higher in alcohol, cost a bit more and come in shareable sizes. These beers are all about experiencing something new and splurging a little. So instead of asking if they’d like another round of something on draft, sell them the idea of capping off the night with something special and splitting a limited bottle of beer instead.” 

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