Properly planned and executed, beer tastings can do
wonders for beer sales and your store’s image.
Byron Wilson (right),
in charge of beer tastings
for Schaefer’s Wine, Food
& Spirits, in Skokie, IL,
gives customer Adam Zimmerman, from Evanston, IL, some
helpful hints in an
informal store sampling.
The ancient Chinese philosopher who suggested a picture is worth a thousand words may not have been a beer drinker. When it comes to beer, taste is what tells the story. No doubt, an interesting label or the color of the liquid in the bottle, from pale gold to burnt chocolate, can catch the eye. But taste is what sells. Tasting is a risk-free way for customers to try a beer before buying it. It is also a great way to educate your customers and expose them to a wider variety of brands and beer styles.
“Our tasting bars are the greatest sales tool we have,” said Dan Manning, vice president of Haskel’s in Minneapolis. Four of the chain’s five locations have tasting bars built into the stores, making it easy to promote a variety of beverages, including beer.
TYPES OF TASTINGS
There are lots of ways to give customers a chance to taste your products, ranging from in-store sampling to beer tastings to formal beer dinners. Each has its benefits and its own requirements when it comes to planning and pulling it off. But all, according to the retailers we talked to, are well worth doing.
* SAMPLING. In-store sampling, where legal, is a good way to introduce customers to new products or draw attention to an old favorite. Typically, retailers sample one or two beers on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon when store traffic is high, but some sample eight beers in one day. Retailers also offer a special price on beers being sampled to encourage customers to buy once they’ve tasted.
Sampling is relatively easy and can be planned or conducted on a more spontaneous basis. If you keep small plastic sampling cups on hand, you can set up a table and pour product whenever you want.
“We do sampling kind of by the seat of our pants, for the flexibility and the feeling of informality,” said Chick O’Leary, wine and beer consultant at Schaefer’s, Skokie, IL. “If I do too much planning, I lose flexibility. This way, people can ask to try new things, and we’re not locked into a schedule.”
Other retailers said at least some planning helps make sampling more effective. Often, suppliers will provide free product for sampling with some notice, and it’s easier to coordinate other elements like promotion, advertising or food to go with the beer.
* BEER TASTINGS. More formal in format than sampling, full-fledged beer tastings can be just as fun. Beer tastings usually involve several beers to give customers an opportunity to both taste and compare a wide variety of brands and styles.
Tastings can range from simple to elaborate events. V. Richards, Brookfield, WI, often sets up a table in the deli department on Saturday afternoons to taste four different styles of beer from one brewer. Binny’s Beverage World, Des Plaines, IL, hosts a half dozen beer tastings each year in the store, sampling two or three dozen beers each time.
“We charge a nominal fee of $5 to $10 to make sure people are serious, not just looking for free beer,” said Brett Pontoni, the store’s general manager.
Others are more memorable. Haskel’s hosts an annual beer tasting aboard a riverboat each summer. The event is limited to 250 people who have the chance to taste more than 65 microbrews, talk with brewers and beer reps, as well as smoke fine cigars and eat great food catered for the tasting.
Town Wine & Spirits, Rumsford, RI, sponsors an annual fundraiser for Multiple Sclerosis called “MS After Dark.” The beer tasting is held in a hotel in downtown Providence on a weekday evening. About 800 people gather after work to sample as many as 250 beers, with proceeds going to the MS Society.
“Beerfest,” an annual tasting sponsored by Brown Derby, Springfield, MO, is also a fundraiser. The $20 ticket price gives consumers a chance to sample more than 80 beers, food from a number of local restaurants and raises about $45,000 each year for the city’s performing arts companies, including the opera, ballet and symphony.
Though it’s usually easier to set up a tasting in your store and invite brewery representatives to talk about their beers, brewers welcome the opportunity to show people around their breweries. Liquor Barn, Boulder, CO, has hosted tours of local microbreweries. The store arranged bus transportation, and the breweries organized a tour, beer tasting and lunch.
* BEER DINNERS. Though catering to fewer numbers, beer dinners are even more elaborate than tastings or sampling. Like wine dinners, beer dinners usually pair a half dozen beers with an equal number of food courses, including dessert. Often, many of the menu items incorporate beer into the recipe.
V. Richards hosts beer dinners in the store. An upstairs seating area can accommodate 50 guests, and all food is prepared by the store’s catering department. Menus are designed to be as authentic as possible. A recent dinner featuring Belgian ales, for example, included dishes such as gratin of mussels on Belgian endive, Flemish beef stew and spiced pears poached in Rodenbach red ale.
Town Wine & Spirits coordinates with local restaurants to host beer dinners. Because of its extensive inventory of wines and beers, the store is well known among chefs and restaurant owners. They’ve hosted events such as a five-course dinner featuring Ipswich Ales and a tasting of Blue Moon beers paired with foods.
No matter which format you think might be right for your store and your customers, it pays to put an effort into beer tastings.
“Whatever you do has got to be high-energy,” said Todd Jacobson, general manager of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops, based in Grand Forks, ND. “Customers can tell if it’s not. You have to get everyone in the organization pumped and excited, and the event must be well thought out, planned and orchestrated.”
To make your events as effective as possible, follow the Three Ps — Planning, Promotion and Presentation.
A little planning goes a long way towards a successful event. The more elaborate the event, the farther out planning should start. The staff at Haskel’s starts planning the riverboat cruise three months in advance. Pontoni, of Binny’s, works with six weeks lead time on major beer tastings. Even Schaefer’s O’Leary, who likes to be flexible, works with his deli department a few days in advance of a Saturday sampling to come up with food pairings and cross-merchandising ideas.
What should you plan?
* OBJECTIVES. As you would with any promotion, start with what you want to accomplish. Different events will accomplish different goals. Do you want to generate more store traffic on slow nights? Sell more of a particular type of beer? Draw more attention to the store? Simple sampling can help sell more featured beer. Beer tastings educate your customers, make them more loyal and generate store traffic. Beer dinners and fundraisers provide great public relations for the store though they may not generate immediate sales.
* THEME. Tastings are often easier to promote if they are built around a theme. In addition to regular weekend sampling, Schaefer’s conducts focused tastings a few times a year, such as its “Octo-beer fest” that features an exhaustive selection of Octoberfest beers. Pontoni said beer tastings at Binny’s revolve around themes and seasons. The store might hold seasonal tastings for winter beers, summer beers or Octoberfest beers, but has also held tastings for Belgian ales and wheat beers.
Happy Harry’s has tied its four big tastings to the seasons such as a spring event with a fishing theme and a fall sale tied to the local college’s homecoming “Potato Bowl” football game. Its most popular event, though, was last year’s first annual Super Bowl tent sale held in temperatures of -60 degrees.
Beer dinner themes can be conducted in a similar fashion, with a focus on a particular country or beers from a particular brewery.
* PRODUCTS. Your objectives and the type of tasting event will dictate the products featured. Products dictate the event. Tastings are a good way to feature a craft brew that’s new to your area or imports that your customers have been overlooking. Tastings can also draw attention to products that your wholesaler may be offering at discounted prices.
Pick a manageable number of beers to feature. Two or three is probably enough to sample on a busy Saturday afternoon, but the brands you pick should be meaningful. They should be products that your customers don’t try every day.
At large tastings with 30 or more beers, customers probably won’t try everything, so it’s best to offer variety and products that are out of the ordinary.
“Even serious tasters hit palate burnout after a while,” said Pontoni, “so they’ll pick five or so they really want to taste and try those first.”
* FOOD. Food, even if it is plain bread, is critical to any tasting. Three reasons to include food at tastings are to make sure customers have something to eat when imbibing; to provide something that will help cleanse the palate between tastes; to give customers food pairing ideas and cross-merchandise any foods your store carries.
“We put out things like bread, fruit, crackers and cheese,” said Pontoni. “There’s something at every tasting table to cleanse the palate, and we put out tons of bottled water. We also might put out something like chocolate with Belgian ales, or citrus fruit with wheat beers.”
At a minimum, the sampling table at V. Richards will have bread and water as a palate cleanser, along with a snack from the deli. For beer dinners, the kitchen creates a menu that will pair well with the beers being tasted.
For Happy Harry’s four major tastings each year, Jacobson relies on local restaurants, which provide the food free of charge in exchange for the exposure to the store’s customers.
* DECOR. Even if the sampling will be held on folding tables at the back of your store, dressing them up a bit will draw more attention to your tasting. Put cloths over your sampling tables. Hang banners or posters nearby. Offer product brochures or magazine articles or reviews about the beers you’re sampling. Decorate the tasting area with flags of countries or states that the beers came from. Don’t forget shelf talkers and display signs that advertise special prices on beers being tasted.
“I decorate the table with as much beer-related stuff as I can find,” said Miracle, “stuff like T-shirts, hats, coasters and brochures.”
* STAFFING. Putting knowledgeable staff behind the tasting tables is crucial to success. “Quality of the staff is very important,” said Manning. “The tasting bar is more effective when staffed by people with personality, who know how to sell and know what they’re talking about.”
Make sure that whoever is pouring the beer can answer questions about the beer — and brewing in general. Use your own staff, distributor reps or brewery staff to man the tasting tables. At least two people should handle pouring duties at each table. That way, if one is busy, at least one other person will be able to talk with customers.
For more formal beer dinners, invite a brewmaster to come and present each beer. If you’re tasting imports, bring in someone from the wholesaler or the import company, who can talk about each beer.
* SUPPORT. Ask suppliers for help. Wholesalers and brewers will usually provide free product for tastings, literature and giveaway items, such as wearables, coasters, glasses and more. If you don’t have a deli department, local delis or restaurants may be willing to provide food at a nominal charge in exchange for the publicity and exposure.
If you’re planning a fundraiser, the charitable organization will usually provide volunteer manpower in addition to other kinds of support. For Brown Derby’s Beerfest, the performing arts groups handled most of the promotion and ticket sales for the event, and volunteers solicited items for a silent auction that was part of a special patron’s party.
Once the event is planned and the date set, think of creative ways to peak customer interest. To promote weekly sampling, retailers like Schaefer’s and Haskel’s take a straightforward approach.
“We promote the concept of tasting more than individual items,” said O’Leary. “We tell customers that each week there will be something new to try.”
“It’s not so much what you’re promoting,” Manning agreed, “as knowing that you’re promoting good, top quality beers. If you offer quality, whether on a weekly basis or at a big event, people will come back.”
Ways to get the word out include:
* ADS. Announce major tastings a week in advance in your normal newspaper ad. Happy Harry’s advertises its “tent tastings” via the radio a week ahead. Haskel’s prints flyers about its riverboat cruise and inserts half of them into local newspapers. Binny’s runs an announcement in its weekly ads two weeks ahead of big tastings.
* IN-STORE PROMOTION. Banners, posters and shelf-talkers posted around the store lets customers know ahead of time what you have planned. Get your staff excited about tastings, too, so they’ll mention it to customers.
* DIRECT MAIL. Use your mailing list to generate excitement among your customers. Incorporate stories about the beers you plan to taste into your monthly newsletter. Send out flyers with details of the tasting a week or two before the event. V. Richards posts stories and notices about its beer dinners on its web page.
* PUBLICITY. Send a notice or press release to your local newspaper or the food editor of the nearest major metro paper. Invite them to the tasting.
“We recently got an announcement of a Guinness tasting in the paper,” said Mike O’Neill, beer manager at Town Wine & Spirits. “The food columnist will usually give us coverage if we let her know in advance.”
The plan is coming together, the event has been promoted well, and people are ready to taste. The next step is to make sure your presentation is everything you promised.
* LOCATION. Your choice of location should generate traffic and add to the fun of the event. Miracle puts tasting tables in the deli department at V. Richards because that area has the store’s highest traffic. For small weekly samplings, O’Leary sets up a table at the end of the beer aisle in front of the cooler; for larger tastings, he scatters tables throughout the store.
For larger or more formal events, pick a venue that will attract the most customers, whether a hotel, restaurant or some other location. Jacobson uses red and white tents in the store’s parking lot because they usually attract attention.
* MUSIC/ENTERTAINMENT. In most cases, the beer tasting is entertainment enough, but, if it’s a large event, you may want to consider music or other forms of entertainment.
Jacobson has booked live bands for his tent tastings, but said he prefers the flexibility of canned music. He also encourages suppliers to decorate their tables and to offer games and giveaways to create a carnival-like atmosphere. At many tables, customers can toss bottle caps or throw darts at balloons for prizes.
Aboard its riverboat tasting, Haskel’s routinely offers door prizes to keep the tasters entertained.
* TASTING/SAMPLING. When conducting weekly in-store sampling, many retailers use small plastic cups. Disposable plastic cups are convenient, but try to use clear cups so customers can see the color of the beer.
At larger events, particularly a fundraiser, you may want to offer a souvenir glass. Sometimes, a brewery or glass manufacturer will be willing to provide them. Customers receive a glass when they enter and use it for tasting any beer they wish. If you offer a tasting glass, be sure to have dump and rinse buckets at each table. Nothing can sour a tasting more than a tainted sample.
Sample sizes in many states are regulated by law, but usually should be about one or two ounces at most. It’s also a good idea to keep sample cups and glass sizes small, so servers don’t over pour.
* DETAILS. The details are important also. Be sure to include paper plates or cocktail napkins for food tables and keep plenty of trash containers available. Serious beer connoisseurs will taste beers like wine — swirl, sip, swish and spit — so spittoons or dump buckets will also prove to be a valuable commodity.
As you go through the planning process, develop a list of details that need to be handled. Assign them to people on your staff, and check them off when completed. At subsequent events, an old master plan can serve as a reminder of what needs to be done.
Beer tastings are not only a great way to introduce your customers to new products, but also a unique way to socialize and educate customers and your staff about beer. Properly planned and executed, they also can do wonders for beer sales and your store’s image.
Michael Sherer is a Seattle-based writer and consultant
specializing in beverages and foodservice.
TASTING, TASTING, 1,2,3…
Beer tastings not only give customers a chance to taste different beers, but to compare them as well. To do that, you may want to give your customers a chance to rate each of the beers they taste. Put together score sheets that list typical beer attributes and leave spaces for ratings in areas such as appearance, bouquet, taste, finish and overall impression.
Encourage customers to keep their score sheets in a notebook at home. It will give them a record of the many beers they’ve tasted, as well as impressions of which they liked and why.
BEER TASTING SCORE SHEET
Ratings: A maximum of five points each for appearance, bouquet, taste and finish and a maximum of 10 points for overall impression. Maximum score: 30 points.
OVERALL IMPRESSION (1-10):
When you offer the public the chance to sample dozens of beers at a beer tasting, there’s always a possibility of something going wrong. An underage drinker might slip in without notice. Or a customers might over-imbibe. Though it doesn’t happen often, it’s better safe than sorry.
“In the three years we’ve been doing tastings, we’ve only had to ask three people to leave,” said Todd Jacobson, general manager of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop, Grand Forks, ND. “The staff watches for abuses.”
Make security part of your planning process. Be sure you have staff on hand to check IDs at the door or to check invitations for an event such as a boat cruise.
Alert servers to the signs of intoxication and have staff check on customers and insure the event runs smoothly.
Offer cabs to customers who appear to have been over-served or to any who ask for them.
In general, keep an eye out for the welfare of your customers. Your store’s welfare depends on it.