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Tap List Turmoil

As the craft beer craze gets bigger, tap lists keep getting longer. So why aren't bars paying more attention to menu design?


“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.

Top: Customers at Craft Pride consult both the well-organized menu and the bartender to choose a beer from their Texas-only tap list. Bottom: A detail of the menu, which uses interchangeable panels to display up-to-date beer info.

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 new digital menu at Austin’s Draught House automatically syncs with Taplister, an iPhone app.

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.

Chicago house menu

Top: A patron at Chicago House. Bottom: Chicago House’s digital menu. Right: A supplemental paper menu provides info, like tasting notes and style, that were left off the digital menu.

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?

Reader Homework

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.

Emma Janzen is a freelance writer based in Chicago, where she lives with her fiance and two color-coordinated cats. Writing about beer is one of her favorite activities, next to drinking beer, of course. Right now, her favorite styles are Stouts and Sours; the more concentrated and complex the flavors, the better. Janzen has also written for the Austin American-Statesman,, Draft Magazine, Real Magazine, and Texas Architect.


  1. Fred says:

    Great story! So many places neglect this aspect, and think that all their patrons are beer experts.

  2. MR-graphic designer says:

    Great article–good menu design (for both food & beverages) increases the customer’s comfort level as much as lighting and comfortable seating. It can also provides a jumping-off point for conversations with servers/bartenders, by providing patrons with answers to the common questions, leaving the option to ask questions about the more subtle characteristics depending upon the customer’s level of interest.

  3. Ed Kochanowski says:

    I agree, I am a beer geek and when I travel I love to try new beers. I’ve seen great beer menus and horrible ones. Any beer menu should, at a minimum, list the beer name, brewery, style, abv, serving size and price if all beers aren’t the same price. Tasting notes and ingredients are optional but can be interesting if you are talking about local house beers. You can put all the minimum info on a digital, internet accessible menu very easily, for example, Blue Palms in Hollywood has been doing this for a few years now:

  4. Ryan M. says:

    You need to check out Churchkey’s daily rotating draft list as well as weekly rotating bottle list. It is unlike any other draft list I have seen. It is meticulously organized first by flavor and then subcatergory of flavor as opposed to beer type or brewery or even, god forbid, alphabetically. It is very helpful in sorting particular styles of beer. An american brewed barleywine is probably going to sit well in the “Hop” section and then “Malt Backbone” subsection of the menu as opposed to an English brewed barleywine which will sit in the “Malt” section and then the “Fruit & Toffee” subsection. Most bars would just simply label the two barleywine and leave the surprise for you. If beer wants to compete in the food world as wine has historically, then the bar needs to be raised and beer curated, cared for, and presented with the same scrutiny as a wine sommelier does with his/her wine.

  5. Also TapHunter has a phone app. TapLister does not, fyi.

  6. Emma says:

    Tatiana — Taplister has an iphone app. Not sure about other phones. I use it regularly when I am out and about and craving a certain beer. It’s great, except when bars forget to update their lists!

  7. KP says:

    The Yard House in Raleigh, NC has a wonderfully organized menu – the dozens of beers are organized by style, with ABU, brewery, location and tasting notes. In additon there are digital ‘chalkboards’ above the bar highlighting seasonal and special taps. Best set up I have yet to see. Barkeeps are friendly and helpful to those who need help deciding. I recommended to the bartender they change out their regular Victory Prima Pils for the seasonal Summer Love (I was visiting from PA). The beverage manager actually came over to talk, saying he had not heard of Victory’s new offering from his distributor and that he would be checking into it the next day.

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