Long a quiet supporter of craft breweries, the chain wants to expand the number of locally-chosen taps.
Here’s a stat that may surprise you: Buffalo Wild Wings sells more draft beer than any other restaurant in the country. And here’s something else you may not know: A good chunk of those beers—as many as about a quarter of their taps—are actually allowed to be hand-selected by individual locations. In total, about a third of the beer Buffalo Wild Wings sells is craft beer—and after years of being quietly supportive of the craft scene, the wing chain doesn’t want these numbers to surprise people anymore: it's gotten more aggressive in addressing the craft beer crowd and are planning to ramp up its craft selection even further.
One of the more unexpected sights at this year’s Great American Beer Festival was the large Buffalo Wild Wings Sports Bar section—a rather authentic recreation of the eatery on the festival floor featuring high-top tables, plenty of TVs with live sports, and even samples of free wings. Though it’s easy to dismiss this sponsorship as well-targeted marketing—and such major placement certainly doesn’t come cheap—in many ways, the partnership also represents a “coming out party” of sorts for a brand that’s looking to put its commitment to craft beer more front and center.
“We are moving toward a more curated beer offering across the country, looking at what different states and regions consume from the premium domestics, to imports, and craft,” Jamie Carawan, VP Brand Menu & Culinary for Buffalo Wild Wings, told me via email. “The days of ‘one size fits all’ beer programming are over. Each have a place but how much of each, what and where, is what we are working on currently…. We have to be more nimble and react to these changes.”
One way to achieve that goal is to have a more local approach. “We realize the path to success is to be a local sports bar, and to be a local sports bar, you have to partner with local breweries,” Buffalo Wild Wings beverage innovation manager Jason Murphy was quoted as saying during a recent interview with Brewbound. He said the chain has plans to increase the percentage of taps that individual restaurants have control over and to potentially “drastically decrease” the number of nationally mandated selections. “We’re going to be a little more flexible with our handles,” Murphy added, later elaborating, “Beers that you’ve expected to see on at a bar just because it’s been there for 20 years, might not be on in a Buffalo Wild Wings anymore.”
Carawan had a similar, if not as drastic sentiment when I spoke with him. “Our intent with our beer program is to give our local managers information and tools to optimize their beer menu and execution,” he told me. “And being able to pivot when new beer styles enter the market is important,” he added, citing the quick proliferation of hazy IPAs.
Despite all this talk, however, Buffalo Wild Wings has always been an unexpectedly decent place to find a few interesting beers on draft. Most locations have about 30 taps, so allowing around seven of those beers to be chosen by the individual restaurant means you at least have a chance of finding things you wouldn’t see at other major chains (not to mention, it gives a business-boosting opportunity to those local brewers, too). That existing commitment is part of why the brand wanted to work with the Brewers Association (BA), the craft beer trade group that also runs the Great American Beer Festival.
“Our partnership with the BA highlights a current truth,” says Carawan, “that Buffalo Wilds Wings sells a great amount of craft beer across the county and is well entrenched with regional and local breweries. In the next year we are working to enrich these relationships by refining not just the beer offering in each state, region and city but also working on different ways to experience craft beer.”
As part of that partnership, Buffalo Wild Wings also says it hopes to be back at the Great American Beer Festival in 2019. It definitely won’t be an unexpected sight the second time around.