“What are you in the mood for?”
The wily-looking, unshaven bartender posed a seemingly simple question as I claimed an available barstool at the newest craft beer bar in town. I glance up at the beer list, a chalkboard hovering unassumingly above the tap wall, and rapidly devolve into a sort of confused panic.
There’s no rhyme or reason to the way the sloppily handwritten queue of 30 beers are organized, so I stare, mouth gaping open in an idiotic half-curl, brain scrambling to make sense of the list. I feel the bartender’s impatient, piercing glare as I desperately attempt to collect and process information to make a decision.
Welcome to the new world of ordering a pint.
There was a time where you might enter a bar and leisurely peruse a tap selection of 10 or so beers with iconic and familiar handles, weighing simple decisions like “Do I feel like a Dos Equis or Guinness today?” Now, serious programs boast anywhere from 25 to over 100 styles, colors, sizes, and strengths of beer from breweries across the globe.
It’s never been a more exciting time for drinking good beer, or a more frustrating time to try and order one. With more beer on tap and bigger, more educated crowds, the ease of navigating a menu becomes a critical element of customer experience. But I have yet to find a bar that has developed a clear and cohesive system presenting the details needed to help customers make an effortless decision.
Ordering a beer should be one of the most stress-free moments in person’s day. If I can scan a menu and quickly identify the IPAs vs. stouts, where they come from and what they might taste like, the experience will be more rewarding because I can get to the drinking part faster. Good menu structure also saves the staff time and energy. Would you want to spend an entire shift explaining that the Blaecorn Unidragon is a Russian Imperial Stout or that Founders Brewing makes the All Day IPA, when you could simply include those details on the menu? Many places still scribble a list of brewery names and beer titles on a chalkboard and call it a day, leaving much to be desired in the way of information.
While I still haven’t found the perfect display, many places are working to make the process more functional. Here in Austin, several establishments have placed an extra emphasis on organization and delivery to help alleviate the emotional stress of ordering a pint.
Craft Pride, a modern-rustic bar in the hip Rainey Street district restricts their selection to only beer brewed in Texas, which is great for local beer nerds, but can be akin to trying to translate foreign texts for tourists or craft-beer rookies. The owners wanted their menu to have a clean presentation and easy-to-manipulate updating system for their staff. They devised what resembles a giant chalkboard that employs a series of removable magnetic tiles to keep information fresh. Each tile includes a basic level of information (brewery logo, beer name, style, alcohol percentage, and price), and is clumped into categories according to color (Lagers, Golden to Red Ales, Dark Ales, Belgian Style Ales, and Cask Ales). This way, patrons can quickly navigate between styles, and then decide based on additional details like alcohol percentage and price.
When a keg empties, the staff removes the corresponding tile from the wall, wipes the text clean, and writes in the replacement beer, so the board is always up-to-date and sorted correctly without needing to erase the entire wall and rewrite all of the options. The downside to the system? The information on each tile is still handwritten, leaving readability up to chance.
The Draught House, one of the oldest beer institutions in the city, recently opted to digitize their menu to ease readability. They installed a series of television-like screens (with large, legible type), and subscribed to Taplister, an iPhone app that lists what beers are on tap at various bars around the country. Although it’s not the most visually appealing system, each glowing panel above the bar lists the brewery, beer title, alcohol percentage, style, size of pour and price. As beers are updated in the system, the information syncs with both the phone app and the website, so what was once a menu that was updated maybe once a week, has evolved into one that’s updated daily.
The Chicago House downtown also opted to go the digital route. Mounted screens display brewery name, beer name, state of origin, alcohol percentage, and pour size. When the staff switches out a keg, they simply input information about the new beer into the computer. Updates appear across each platform and on their website as well.
My qualm with the digital screens at the Chicago House is that they don’t include beer style, which I feel is crucial to decision-making. To remedy this, they provide a daily printed menu with tasting descriptions of each beer to create the complete package. So if I grab a paper menu, I’ll know that Beer X is an IPA, and it has more citrus notes than the similar-sounding Beer Y, saving at least one more question for the busy barkeep. Printing out a new list every day is an additional step for the prep team, but between the printed and digital menus, people of all beer-knowledge levels can likely find a style they will enjoy.
Living in a tech-savvy digital world where aesthetics are highly valued, it’s easy to understand why some people (like me) might ask for more out of the local beer bar’s menu display. Others might argue that more care placed in efficient menu design will subtract from the customer-server interactive experience. I’m not suggesting a system that eliminates the need for the bartender altogether; I will always advocate for pulling up a stool and chatting with the experts when the opportunity presents itself.
But as beer bars become increasingly popular and crowded, the management’s focus should be on more than just the beer. Just as one might put energy and money into making the space comfortable for guests, equal thought should be given to how easy or difficult it might be for the customer to order.
It’s likely that no menu design will be flawless in everyone’s eyes, but when even the smallest improvements can better the program, why wouldn’t management want that for its customers and staff?
You shouldn’t have to read the Oxford Companion to Beer to know how to decipher a menu, but there are a few key terms from the book worth learning to make the process easier.
ABV: Means alcohol by volume. The higher the percentage, the more alcohol is present in the beer. Higher ABV beers are typically more robust in flavor. The average beer weighs in between 4.8 and 5.2%, but some have clocked in as high as 20%. High ABV beers (above 8%) are also typically served in smaller pours, ranging from 4 to 8 ounces instead of a full pint.
Style: A beer’s color, level of carbonation, aroma, aspects of its flavor, and brewing technique can all contribute to style. Learn the difference between what makes a beer an IPA, Pale Ale, Stout, Belgian, Porter and beyond. If you know which beers are hoppy, malty, fruity or sour, you’ll have an easier time deciding what to order.
IBU: Stands for International Bittering Units, a measurement of bitterness in beer. American Pale Ales typically have a range of 35 to 40 IBUs, IPAs range from 50-77, and double IPAs and barleywines can hit 100 IBUS. The higher the number, the more bitter the beer will taste.