Does Better Beer = Better Restaurant Sales?

On Friday the Brewers Association pointed to a recent study by Consumer Edge Insight suggesting a better beer selection improves restaurant sales.  No real surprise there, especially to beer geeks, but the data is still useful.

As is probably becoming clear, I tend to look at what these kinds of studies aren’t saying as much as what they do say.  For example, the title of the Brewers’ Association press release is “Better Beer Selection Improves Restaurant Sales.” However, the title of the Consumer Edge press release is “Offering Larger Selection of Beer At Restaurants Leads to Incremental Consumption.”  The later is a more accurate description of the data.  The former is sexier and more likely to draw you in. 

According to the study, 33 percent of alcohol drinkers are more likely to order beer when offered a large selection of brands at a restaurant.  Two questions come to mind from that bit of info.  One, assuming the relative quality/choice is equal among beer, liquor and wine, does the same thing hold true at a bar?  Two, assuming a relatively equal ability to choose among beer, liquor and wine, is there a particular reason why a restaurant or bar owner would steer patrons one direction or the other?  (I.e. does one or the other provide higher margins?)

Apparently 36% of consumers say they are more likely to choose a brand they haven’t tried before when offered a larger selection.  I definitely fit into that category, nearly always choosing something I haven’t seen if it’s available. The numbers rise when looking only at “those who drink craft beer regularly” which the study defines as at least once a week. I guess that’s regularly, but so is twice a year if you’ve done it 10 years running.

Of course, these numbers make sense in a “duh” kind of way, too.  Walk into Missoula’s Rhino or Bozeman’s Montana Ale Works and the sheer number of taps practically begs for experimentation.  Yet, we’ve all sat at a bar like that only to hear someone try to find the beer most like “bud light” among an alluring row of tap handles.  I want to know if THAT person is more likely to experiment with an increasingly larger selection.  I’m guessing that person is more likely to experiment if the bartenders/servers are well educated in craft beer in general and have good knowledge of the specific selections on tap. Oh, and are friendly.

I also want to know how to use these kind of numbers to encourage restaurants to do a better job with craft beer.  The number of taps is not automatically synonymous with capturing craft beer lovers.  Take the Iron Horse in Missoula.  Its 25 or so taps do a great job of featuring local Bayern and Big Sky beer along with a selection of Deschutes, New Belgium and a couple others.

Yet, it is always the same breweries. Sure, the seasonals from those breweries rotate on and off like clockwork and some of the cooler selections from Deschutes and New Belgium have made an appearance.  But it’s not on the list of places to go to look for new stuff.  Thus, it doesn’t often make my list of dinner choices,  either. The chances of finding something on tap I haven’t already had is slim to none. No doubt it is profitable and the food is always great, but I think they’re missing out.  One establishment close to my work, Missoula’s Sean Kelly’s Public House, has gone from a place that regularly rotated numerous beers among their 16 taps to a nearly stale line up with only a couple, predictable rotations.  That’s definitely missing out.

The study does not make an attempt to correlate the number of taps/brands to an increase in food sales, but my own experience bears that out.  Far more often than not, when we choose to go out to eat we base our decision in part on the quality of the beer selection.  Sure, the food must be good, but we regularly ignore places that don’t offer quality craft beer.  For us, a great craft beer is a part of the entire experience and not just some liquid to wash things down. 

I don’t have any study data, but I’m curious if that scenario is growing more common as craft beer’s share share of the overall beer market continues to increase.  Maybe I’m overly critical of the studies I see released – or the excessive extrapolation of the results – but I haven’t seen a lot of particularly useful data presented in a while. 

Hopefully that will change on October 8 when the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research releases their report on the impact of Montana’s brewing industry at the Montana Brewers Association’s Fall Conference