America’s beer scene is larger than ever before, but for a good beer list, often times less is more.
If you feel like navigating beer lists constantly gets more challenging, you’re not alone. Last year, two new breweries opened up on average every single day in the U.S. That’s more brands brewing more beers in a constantly evolving set of styles all the time. At that rate, even people with a solid understanding of America’s craft brewing scene can look at a beer list and realize they’ve never tried a single one.
But sadly, all that choice doesn’t necessarily mean every bar is serving better beer. So when you walk into a new bar or restaurant, how can you tell if the person behind a seemingly savvy beer list actually knows what they are talking about or just tossed on a bunch of cool sounding suds? We reached out to four experts who work in craft beer bars in four different major U.S. cities to help put together this list of a dozen tips for determining a good beer list from a lousy one.
1. An obvious sense of curation, character and care
All other rules aside—and regardless of whether somewhere serves the most coveted of Cantillon bottles or the coldest draft line of Coors Light—a good beer list will give you the sense that someone cared enough to think about it, that each beer has its purpose and nothing was simply tossed on at random. “You should be able to tell something about the owner or manager,” says Brendan Hartranft, who co-owns the craft beer bars Local 44, Strangelove’s and Clarkville in Philadelphia. “If I walk into a place and it’s nothing but ‘big three’ beer and then I meet the owner and he’s a ‘big three’ kind of person, I think, good, now your place has provenance.”
2. But not over-curated or indulgent
At the same time, strong curation also means keeping a larger perspective in mind. Though the old adage “you can’t please everyone” holds true, the beer buyer who chooses what is served needs to keep in mind that a bar exists to serve its customers as well. “As a buyer, your personal taste is an advantage but can also take you down a rabbit hole to the newest and coolest releases that only you and a couple other patrons will even try,” says Gianni Cavicchi, Head Bartender at Randolph Beer DUMBO in Brooklyn. “It's important to consider your customers' and staffs’ thoughts and trends when creating a good beer list.”
3. A sense of balance
The idea of “balance” on a beer list can be trickier than it seems. It’s more than a mix of ales and lagers, light and dark, hoppy and malty. “[A good list has a] balance of flavor profiles, not necessarily just styles, with something for every palate and every plate, no matter the size of the list,” says Greg Engert, Beer Director & Partner with Washington, D.C.’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group. “The beer list should not be too IPA heavy, for instance, though this does not mean there cannot be a focus. Focus is great, but should not become so completely overarching that major flavor gaps exist.” Even within the style of IPA, beers can range from citrus-y to tropical to forest-y to downright bitter. Meanwhile, a hoppy lager might have similar tasting notes to a pale ale. Having a little something for everyone means thinking beyond the label.
4. That balance applies to things like ABV and price levels too
Speaking of which, having something for everyone goes beyond flavors. Customers come to the table with different expectations on how strong a beer will be and how much it costs as well.
5. An understanding of the season
Seasonal beers that are only available for a part of the year are a big part of the craft brewing scene, and can be a thoughtful accent to any beer list, but the season also shouldn’t be neglected when curating a beer list in general. “The weather has a huge impact on sales of certain styles,” explains Cavicchi. In general, lighter styles like goses and wheat beers fit better with warm weather, whereas huge dark styles like stouts play better in the cold. And giving people what they want to drink keeps beers turning over, which keeps them fresh.
6. A sense of place, both locally and globally
A generation ago, beer lists were broken down by “domestic” and “imported.” Though that bygone system seems quaint in today's beer market, where a beer is brewed is still important. “With the exception of lists focused on specific geographic regions, there should be a portion of every menu carved out for the best of the local scene,” says Engert. “Visitors love to try local beers they cannot get at home, and we should all take pride in our local scene, whenever possible…. Find your best locals, and always make sure they are represented.” Locals offer the advantage of freshness as well. “If impressive local hoppy beers are available,” he says, “99 percent of the time these will be available with far more freshness than others—like days old, at times—and fresh hoppy beer is unparalleled.” Still, Engert also notes that exceptional beers are still being made abroad, and the best beer lists still find room to acknowledge the work of these specific breweries.
7. Bigger isn’t always better, especially when freshness is compromised
Another convention of beer bars of yore was mind-blowingly large beer list working under the pretense that the more choice the better. Though having plenty of beers isn’t inherently bad, a small, tightly curated list that changes regularly can be equally impressive. And more importantly, a bar should never have more beers than it is able to sell in a timely fashion. “A good degree of rotation is important, to keep the list vibrant and new, providing drinkers with the opportunity to taste beers they have never, or rarely had,” says Engert. “It also guarantees a degree of freshness, which is pertinent for many styles, but particularly the hop-forward, as well as the lighter, and more refreshing offerings.” Most draft beers will lose quality over time. Since hop character begins to breakdown as soon as a beer is finished, this rule holds especially true for hoppy beer. For this reason, the most discerning of beer bars will post the date a keg was tapped or even when a batch was brewed.
8. Bottles and cans need care too
Along these same lines of freshness versus selection, some bars will try to supplement a small draft list with a much larger selection of bottles and canned offerings under the pretense that these individually-packaged products will last longer. Though this holds true for some styles—like malty, high ABV beers and sours that can continue to develop in the bottle—a hoppy beer in a bottle or can will slowly lose its freshness too. A well-planned bottle and can list will focus on beers with a longer shelf life and limit hoppier options to a small selection that will turn over quickly.
9. Let the list talk to you
With over 6,000 American breweries currently in operation, even an educated consumer can require guidance when navigating a handpicked list. “A beer list should not be just a list,” explains Michael Roper, owner of Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar. “Tell me something about the beer on the menu. Where is it brewed? What style is it? What is the ABV? What kind of hops and malts are used? Is there something unique about this brewery or beer?”
10. Look past the beer list (literally)
The list of beers written on the menu means nothing if the bar or restaurant doesn’t take care in the way those beers are served—things like cleaning the lines to make sure the beer tastes its best, proper climate control to ensure the beer stays fresh and is served within a temperature range that won’t ruin the flavors, and clean, style-specific glassware that will enhance your drinking experience instead of detracting from it. “Look in the corners,” suggests Hartranft. “There’s a difference between well-worn and not taken care of.”
11. Multiple pour sizes shows a bar cares
Some people might see different prices for different pour sizes as a chance to get more bang for their buck. But in a good beer bar, these options make it easier for patrons to try even more interesting brews. “Craft beer is about discovery, and the best beer lists provide this,” says Engert. “Ideally, a tasting size portion, or half glass, is available for all draft (and cask) selections.”
12. Work with what you know
Of course, the more experience you build with beer lists, the more things will start to stand out. Though some of this might seem a bit “inside” to novice drinkers, a little knowledge can go a long way. For instance, looking at selections from a brewery you know can say a lot about how a beer buyer feels about beer in general. Did the bar stick to the brewer’s strong suit or did it opt for a more questionable selection?
Another recurring theme from our experts: Who supplied the beer? “I always note when a list is sourced such that all of the beers come from one distributor, has no independent brewery offerings, or are all Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors owned products,” says Roper. “That means that lots of great beers were not even considered.” Cavicchi agrees. “One fool-proof tell to a bad beer list is seeing that the buyer only purchases from one vendor,” he said. “This usually indicates laziness or that buyer lets the vendor chose the list.”
In the end, a good beer list is one where you find a beer you like, but the best beer list is one where you are excited each and every time you walk in the door.