Sometimes, despite the best efforts of experts, beer is the Rodney Dangerfield of beverages: it just doesn’t get respect, especially when paired with food. Probably the question most asked of retailers is “What wine goes well with ______?” Customers don’t expect beer to go well with much of anything beyond pretzels or, at best, burgers at a backyard barbecue.
“People think I’m being facetious when I recommend beer with food,” said Chick O’Leary, beer buyer at Schaefer’s, Skokie, IL. “The prejudice is still against beer with fine food.”
Jay Brooks, beer buyer for the California-based chain Beverages, & more!, contends that merchandising beer with food helps increase sales of both.
Retailers across the country, however, are finding that the more beers and beer styles consumers try, the more interested they become in how to pair them with food. Just as with wine, the harder retailers work at merchandising beer with food, the bigger the returns in extra sales and increased profit.
“Customers are just starting to discover that beer and food go hand in hand,” said Doug Alberhasky, the “beer guy” at John’s Grocery Inc., Iowa City, IA. “We’re getting a lot more crossover business from fine wine customers. As more people discover how tastes go together, more are buying beer with food.”
Brewpubs have worked to show consumers how well beer and food can complement each other. However, many establishments limit their fare to “pub grub,” which overlooks a vast number of dishes that make a good match with beer. Retailers have an extended opportunity to educate consumers on the wide range of foods that beers pair well with since they aren’t bound to a set menu. And those ideas can turn into extra sales.
“We give consumers ideas they may not have thought of,” said Jay Brooks, beer buyer for Beverages, & more!, a beverage and food chain based in northern California. “Merchandising beer with food helps sell more of both. If a customer is looking for one or the other, by making suggestions on how to pair them, it’s an add-on sale and it’s good p.r. for us.”
Good merchandising is the key to getting customers to think of beer, not just wine, with food. Here are ways match them up in your operation.
SHOW IT OFF
The easiest way to put ideas into customers’ heads is paint them a picture. Show the affinity of beer for food by displayi ng the two together.
*Theme displays. Build displays around a theme or holiday. Incorporate beer, food and other items that naturally tie in to the theme and make the display more fun. Schaefer’s recently built a Mardi Gras display stocked with food items such as jambalaya mix, New Orleans beers such as Dixie and Abita, and wines.
Shoppers Discount Wine & Spirits, Madison, NJ, holds a big Cinco de Mayo celebration in the store. One whole corner of the store is devoted to a display built around a chuckwagon filled with chips and salsas. The display features Mexican beers, such as Corona, Dos Equis and Negra Modelo, along with tequila, Margarita mix, salt, glassware, dips and various spicy foods. To make it even more fun and festive, the display is dressed up with sombreros and piñatas.
Ideas for themes can come from anywhere. Summer backyard barbecues are a popular theme. Sunset Food Mart, Lake Forest, IL, has built displays around patio furniture and an outdoor grill, featuring everything from beer to charcoal, chips, mustard, mayo and buns. Other retailers have built displays of beer and food from one country — German beers with sausages, or English ales with English cheeses, for example.
* Cross-merchandising. Display food where beer is sold and merchandise beer where food is displayed.
“We’ve carried a beer bread, a bread mix that you add beer to,” said Brooks. “It’s always sold better when we display it near the beer section.”
“The whole theme of our store is cross-merchandising,” said Gary Fisch, owner of Shoppers Discount Wine & Spirits. “It’s extremely important to bring beer and food or wine and food together. It’s part of the meal; it’s part of the evening.”
When the store’s cheese department features a particular cheese, a complementary beer and wine are displayed alongside it in the deli case. Fisch’s staff, for instance, recently displayed a cheddar cheese with Shipyard’s Fuggles IPA.
MAKE IT MOVE
In addition to moving beer and food to non-traditional areas of the store, design promotions for each with the other in mind.
* Big brand promotions. Take advantage of promotions offered by brewers whenever it makes sense. The major brewers have done a lot more in recent years to develop promotions that cross-merchandise beer and food. This summer, for example, Bud’s big sports-themed promotion will include cross-merchandising efforts with Tyson chicken, KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce and Kingsford charcoal. In the past, Miller Brewing has tied in with Tombstone Pizza. Boston Beer has tied Samuel Adams to Cape Cod potato chips and Sunkist pistachios, among other products. Watch for similar promotions this year.
* Beer and food specials. When you offer a special on food, think of a beer that goes well with it and merchandise the two together. Offer the two at a special price. If your weekly beer special lends itself to a particular type of food, make sure your beer display has signage that suggests customers try the beer with foods from your deli.
* Gift baskets. Gift baskets of assorted specialty or imported beers make great gifts any time of year, not just at the holidays. If you include a food item, you can command a premium for your baskets. Nuts, summer sausage, crackers, salsa or even pasta are items that can complement the beers you offer, keep well, and make your baskets more profitable.
* Beer clubs. Many retailers have organized beer clubs for customers. The club usually includes a featured specialty beer each month, a newsletter about beer and often special discounts or events for members. Incorporate food and food ideas into the club to give it more perceived value. Offer beer and food pairing ideas in the newsletter. If you sell food in your store, select an item that goes well with your monthly beer selection and offer it at a special price to members.
Town Wine & Spirits, Rumsford, RI, sends a beer-of-the-month package to about 20 customers. Though state law prevents the store from selling food other than snacks like chips, the package includes a write-up from the brewery on the beer and foods that go well with it.
* Raffles and drawings. Whenever you run a promotion, consider a raffle or drawing that will attract attention to beer and food combinations. During a big promotion, like Shoppers’ Cinco de Mayo celebration or Sunset Food Mart’s Memorial Day promo, raffle off items on your display, like piñatas or lawn chairs or coolers. Give customers a chance to win drawings for items such as a Mexican dinner for two at a nearby restaurant or a take-out dinner from your deli department.
PUT IT ON STAGE
You can also shine a spotlight on beer and food by holding special events for your customers. Such events help boost traffic in the store, generate excitement and give customers ideas on ways to use products, which can spur more sales.
* Tastings. More retailers are relying on tastings (where legal) to expose customers to new products and beer styles. Offering food during a tasting serves a multitude of purposes. Serving food lessens the chance that customers might over-imbibe, even on small, 1-ounce samples. Simple food such as pretzels, crackers or bread also serve as palate cleansers when you’re tasting several different beers. And tastings can give you a chance to show off food from your deli or grocery department.
Some retailers, such as Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops, Grand Forks, ND, keep it simple at weekly sampling sessions, limiting food to pretzels or chips. Beverages, and more! tries to do something different all the time, offering cheese and crackers, sausage, or bite-sized samples of cooked foods. A recent tasting there featured barbecue to accompany a honey beer from Brothers Brewing; another featured beer and chocolate. On Valentine’s Day, stores in the chain offered samples of porter milkshakes — showing the diveristy that can be achieved in beer-and-food pairings.
* Cooking demonstrations. Chefs can promote their restaurants and boost your traffic with a cooking demo in your store. More chefs use beer as an ingredient in their recipes, too. A chef’s demo can highlight the food, beer and wine products you sell, as well as give customers a host of ideas on how to pair food with beer and wine. At V. Richards, Brookfield, WI, a chef recently demonstrated how to make sushi, which was then paired with two Japanese beers and two brands of saké.
* Beer dinners. Though still not as popular as wine dinners, beer dinners are catching on in more areas of the country. Retailers will often work with a local restaurant to host a multi-course dinner that features a different beer with each course. Belgian beer dinners often peak consumers’ interest, since the country produces so many distinct styles of beer. Menus for beer dinners can be developed around practically any theme. John’s Grocery hosted a beer dinner this spring featuring German beers from Paulaner. Red Carpet Wine & Liquor, Glendale, CA, has featured cuisine from local restaurants at tastings for Christmas beers and other seasonal beers.
Beer dinners can feature the beers of a single brewery or beers from a particular area. They’ll be more well-attended if you invite a brewer or beer expert to talk about each beer being served and why it was paired with a particular course. Shoppers Discount’s first ever beer dinner last year was a rousing success because beer guru Michael Jackson hosted the event.
TEACH YOUR CUSTOMERS
Someone once said the best customer is an educated consumer. The more customers learn about beer and food, the more beer you’ll sell. Customers will begin to see beer as a perfectly acceptable alternative to other beverages on many occasions and will buy beer as a matter of habit.
* Staff. Give your staff the tools they need to sell beer and food. Make sure they have write-ups from the breweries on all the beers you sell and the foods they complement. Give them the opportunity to taste beers.
“We come up with suggestions for pairing beer and food by tasting,” said O’Leary. “The staff all tastes new beers, and then we talk about it and what it would go well with. People come up with ideas of what they’d like to have it with, such as Thai carry-out.”
Customer service is important at John’s Grocery because there is so little space for cross-merchandising. “We try to give customers a one-on-one velvet-glove touch,” Alberhasky said. “We try to find out what kind of beer customers are interested in, then give them ideas of different beers, the history of those beers and the foods they go well with. We’ll give new customers a tour of the store.”
* Signage. Retailers often post signage next to beer displays that include tasting notes or a review from a beer magazine. Some also post a list of food pairings with these notes. Happy Harry’s posts signs around the store that list basic beer and food pairings. Others make more specific recommendations.
“On a holiday like Thanksgiving, we generally make suggestions of wines that go with different dinners, but we also suggest beers, especially holiday beers,” Brooks said. “We use signage to make these suggestions, too.”
* Recipes and menus. Providing recipes that use beer as an ingredient or go well with a particular beer can inspire customers to discover beer-friendly dishes on their own time. Haskell’s in Bloomington, MN, merchandises recipes with its Belgian beer stock. Beverages, and more! prints recipes in its customer newsletter.
Town Wine & Spirits collects menus from restaurants without liquor licenses. When customers come into the store to purchase drinks for their meal, the store uses the restaurant’s menu to make wine and beer suggestions.
* Web sites. Some retailers also use the internet to stay in touch with customers and to expand business outside their geographic territory. John’s Grocery has a page on its site devoted to beer and food pairings, with specific recommendations for many of the brands it carries.
Whether it’s used to wash down a hot dog at the ballpark or pretzels at the bar, most beer is consumed with some kind of food. The more ideas you can give your customers on ways that beer and food work together — as delightfully complementary tastes or as a theme — the more beer you’ll sell.
“My personal mission is to get people to drink better beer,” said Brooks. “If I can give people ideas that help them do that, it’s good for me.”
Beer, however, may never get the respect it deserves. Even beer marketers refer to high-end craft and imported beers as the “better” beer segment, as if suggesting most beer doesn’t measure up. But the fact remains that beer is a great accompaniment to food. Retailers who merchandise beer and food together find they pair up pretty well to increase sales and profit. *
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to matching beer with food; there are no roles that claim “dark beer with red meat, light beer with white meat.” The more you learn about beer and how it’s made, the easier it will be to make complementary matches. The high acidity in a Belgian gueuze or a weiss beer make them a good choice with salads, and though you might think a heavy stout would overwhelm seafood, Guinness and oysters are a famous match. Stouts and porters go well with lobster, crab and other shellfish, too.
How do you decide what beers go with which foods?
* BEER GUIDES. Let the experts give you the benefit of their experience. Books like Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion or Peter LaFrance’s Cooking & Eating With Beer are loaded with pairings, recipes and ideas.
* BREWPUBS. Brewpubs are in the business of selling beer and food combinations. While early pioneers concentrated on making good beer, those who have lasted know their livelihood depends on serving good beer and great food. Visit brewpubs in your area. Try various items on their menu and talk with their chefs and brewmasters about how they chose the menu.
* TRIAL AND ERROR. Do your own experimenting. Taste different beers, then imagine foods you’d like to eat with them. Get opinions from your staff; talk with restaurateurs. Explore and sample whenever you can.
“I love talking about beer, and I love tasting it,” said Tim Moore, beer manager at Red Carpet Wine & Liquor, Glendale, CA. “I like to take a different beer home every night.”
The best way to sell beer and food is with your personal recommendation. So, start tasting.