Beer Report: Operators Point to a Revival of Craft Beer at Bars and Restaurants, Among Other Trends

It’s no surprise that Americans are in love with beer, from a light lager to a stout.

In fact, according to a 2023 sales-data report from Toast – an all-in-one digital platform for restaurants – the most popular on-premise alcoholic drink in all 50 U.S. states is beer*. (Fascinatingly, Minnesota tops all 50 states with customers drinking about 53 percent more beer per restaurant location, as compared to the national average).

Overall, the beer category will remain mostly buoyant in 2023, with a forecast volume growth of roughly one to two percent – per IWSR, a leading source of data and intelligence for the $1.5 trillion global alcoholic beverage market. In addition, on-premise beer sales are expected to reach pre-COVID levels by 2025.

Bar & Restaurant News spoke with numerous bar and restaurant owners and operators, as well as beer experts, to gather their insights on what’s trending with beer in 2023, fall beers to watch, and advice for a successful beer menu.

Beer Report Research - Trends - Menu - Best Practices Tips Advice
Bar Louie's Ian Welby, VP of beverage and execution, believes that beer "mainstays" will lead the pack. (Photo: Courtesy of Bar Louie)

Beer Continues Its Strong Return

Aaron Baker, brand manager of Dale’s and Oskar Blues Brewery in North Carolina, Colorado, and Texas, said, “Beer continues its strong return to the on-premise coming out of the pandemic. IPAs [Indian Pale Ales] and hoppy offerings continue to perform well, but beer drinkers seem to be increasingly more interested in finding new lighter styles. Until recently, American lagers were typically mass-produced and flavorless, but brewers are now combining traditional techniques with better raw ingredients to create a new generation of high-quality American Lagers.”

Jonah Winn, general manager of Postino Park Place in Irvine, Calif., revealed that their wine bar and restaurant chain also offers a curated selection of beers. However, even though the business is primarily a wine establishment, the management team is seeing strong customer interest in beer. “Yes, there has been a growing trend in beer sales at Postino,” said Winn. “Factors contributing to this trend include the popularity of craft beer, partnerships with local breweries, and seasonal beer offerings. Guests are increasingly seeking unique beer experiences, and Postino has been responsive to this demand by providing diverse beer options. This trend reflects the importance of offering a satisfying beverage selection alongside food to meet guest preferences.”

While it might be unusual for a wine-focused venue to offer beer, Winn said it’s been key to attracting a larger customer base at the Postino Park Place location. “This allows the establishment to cater to a wider range of tastes and provides options for patrons who may not prefer wine or are looking for a different experience,” he said. “Beer can also pair well with certain food items on the menu, enhancing the overall dining experience.”

Winn said some of the most popular beers at Postino Park Place right now include: Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing, a widely recognized favorite; Beachwood Brewing’s Hayabusa Japanese Style Rice Lager, a unique and easy-to-drink option; and Coronado Brewing’s Palm Swap IPA, which provides a local flavor experience.

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According to Wilmington Brew Works, Wilmington, Del., they’re starting to see a return to some of the early success of the craft beer movement at on-premise venues. (Photo: Courtesy of Wilmington Brew Works)

Craft Beer Customers Want ‘More Bang for Their Buck’

For the Bar Louie, an award-winning gastrobar chain with numerous U.S. locations, paying attention to the latest beer trends is key.

“A current trend we’re seeing at Bar Louie locations across the country is that the craft beer consumers are looking for ‘more bang for their buck,’” said Ian Welby, vice president of beverage and execution at Bar Louie. “Specifically, I predict we will see more craft beer brands releasing lines of high-ABV [alcohol by volume] beer that provide the consumer with a well-balanced brew that is both delicious in flavor as it is intentionally on the strong side.”

Welby revealed that familiar beer “mainstays” will always lead the pack, particularly at a national level. “Our best-selling taps every year are the big brands, such as Blue Moon, Michelob Ultra, Bud Light, Modelo, Samuel Adams, etc.,” he said.

Bar Louie, which focuses on understanding customer preferences when it comes to beer, recently developed an innovative new beer offering in partnership with Anheuser-Busch. They’re calling it the Triple Tap Tower, which is currently available at select locations during football season.

“Gathering with friends is officially back, therefore we wanted to combine a fun, and creative way to serve our larger scale audiences on both alcohol and food front,” said Welby. “Available only with a purchase of food, our Triple Tap Tower is the beverage version of a platter, giving everyone at the table something they can sip, enjoy and refill themselves while watching their favorite team without the continual need from a wait staff.”

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The new Triple Tap Tower at Bar Louie (Photo: Courtesy of Bar Louie)

John Fusco, vice president of creative and brand marketing at Wilmington Brew Works in Wilmington, Del., said they’re starting to see a return to some of the early success of the craft beer movement at on-premise venues, including lagers, American IPAs, beers resembling imports, and clear beers. “There will always be space for the hazy IPA, and they still are a main feature on our tap list, but our diversified offerings are moving at an even pace,” he said. “Diversity and novelty are key for taprooms – having a wide variety of offerings and new offerings, or the return of old favorites – are vital to keep people coming through the doors.”

James Stewart, operations manager and beverage development at Rock & Brews – a rock-in-roll themed chain of family restaurants – also pointed to craft beer as a returning trend in the on-premise space. “At Rock & Brews, current on-premise beer trends are shifting toward craft beers regaining popularity, with a focus on locally brewed beverages,” he said. “We are seeing Baby Boomers tend to prefer lagers and pilsners, while Millennials still drive interest in IPAs. However, Gen Z is embracing a variety of trends, including RTDs, seltzers, and low-alcohol options, often influenced by social media.”

Anne Becerra, the first female to become a certified Cicerone (beer professional) in N.Y.C., in addition to being the beverage director for Treadwell Park, also sees a craft-style beer resurgence.

“The hazy/juicy IPA is still pretty ubiquitous, but we’re starting to see a lot more focus on some of the classic craft styles like West Coast IPAs and American pilsners, which makes me really happy to see,” Becerra said. “The craft light lager has been slowly building up but is really kind of cementing itself now – easy drinking, ‘crushable’ beers meant to compete with the macro lagers of the world but with more flavor.”

Becerra is also excited to see more breweries making delicious, consistent, well priced options alongside all the experimental styles. “People will always want to try new things from their favorite breweries,” she said, “but they also want to be able to pick up a six-pack and have confidence that the beer will be good. So, I’m happy to see breweries taking note and offering some good, classic options alongside the trendy or playful ones.”

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Anne Becerra, a certified Cicerone (beer professional) and beverage director for Treadwell Park in N.Y.C. (Photo: Courtesy of Treadwell Park)
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A flight of beers at Treadwell Park in N.Y.C. (Photo: Courtesy of Treadwell Park)

For MilkBoy Philly – a restaurant, bar, café, and live-music venue in Center City Philadelphia – New England-style hazy IPAs have been the most popular style of beer among the establishment’s eight-tap draft selection, according to Anna Reed, general manager, and she expects that trend to continue.

“We consistently sell more hazy IPAs on draft than we do any other style of beer,” Reed said. “West coast/American IPAs are the next most popular, with about 20 percent less sold on average. Pilsners fall behind West Coast/American by another 10 percent. The ‘haze craze’ seems to be here to stay for now.”

Now that it’s the fall season, MilkBoy is seeing a strong interest in seasonal beers. “Every year, we see pumpkin beers and Oktoberfest/märzen styles start to drop for distribution as early as July,” Reed shared. “It's always tough to decide how early is too early to introduce these fall flavors to the menu. We made the switch to our beer menu [recently] by dedicating at least one of our eight taps to the flavors of fall. Throughout the season, we will generally have at least one seasonal draft beer or cider tapped. In the spring/summer months, we dedicate a line to fruity flavors for the season. And just like every other fall season we've seen in this industry, we're expecting pumpkin and Oktoberfest beers to be extremely popular until around November when stouts, porters and maltier styles of beer take over for the winter.”

MilkBoy Philly
At MilkBoy Philly, New England-style hazy IPAs have been the most popular beers. (Photo: Courtesy of MilkBoy Philly)

Treadwell Park’s Becerra said some of her top picks for fall beers include Ayinger Ur Weisse, Andechser Weissbier Dunkel and Schneider Weisse Original, and one of her absolute favorite types of beer to drink during the Fall is dunkelweizen.

“Dunkel means dark – though they’re typically not that dark, often more faint amber to dark chestnut in color, and weizen means wheat,” Becerra said. “So, if you’re familiar with the classic golden hefeweizen style, a dunkelweizen is a slightly darker, richer, spicier version. Notes of red fruits, baking spices, and homemade banana bread are balanced with an explosive carbonation that cleanses your palate and is supremely refreshing – absolutely perfect for the season.”

For Beer Menus, ‘Let the Data Help Guide Your Decision Making’

When it comes to making beer selections for your bar or restaurant, Bar Louie’s Welby suggests that operators gather key intel. “My advice for bars, especially in the national account space, is to let the data help guide your decision making,” he said. “Remove all emotion and personal taste from your decision making when acting as a buyer for your business. Your guests will tell you what they want through their purchasing trends and feedback; therefore, I encourage you to listen and act with flexibility.”

Bar Louie - Ian Welby - Vice President of Beverage and Execution
Bar Louie's Ian Welby, vice president of beverage and execution (Photo: Courtesy of Bar Louie )

Trevor Tyler, vice president of beverage operations at Eureka! Restaurant Group, based in Hawthorne, Calif., said their hospitality group has 27 restaurants with individual beer buyers in each restaurant. Each venue has control over a select number of rotating taps. “I always tell them – and would urge other bars and restaurants – to talk to your team and your guests,” Tyler shared. “If your team is passionate about a particular style of beer or brewery and you bring that on, they will sell it. Also, if your guests are asking for something, listen to them.”

Over at Freddy J's Bar & Kitchen in Mays Landing, N.J., Owner Grant Kneble follows a “rotate, don't stagnate” mantra when it comes to their beer menu.  “While it's crucial to have a core beer menu, introducing seasonal and limited-time offerings can keep the beer experience fresh and enticing,” he said.

Freddy J’s also offers special tasting and pairing events to get engage customers through beer. “We host special dinners spotlighting different breweries and their eclectic offerings,” explained Kneble. “Pairing these brews with complementary dishes becomes more than a meal – an exploration. Inviting brewers to discuss their craft has been one of our proudest initiatives. Engaging with patrons about the origin, brewing process, or the story behind a beer enhances their appreciation and builds a stronger community around beer connoisseurship.”

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Freddy J's Bar & Kitchen Owner Grant Kneble follows a “rotate, don't stagnate” mantra when it comes to their beer menu. (Photo: Courtesy of Freddy J's Bar & Kitchen)

Andy Porse, a brewer at Modist Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, Minn., who has more than 20 years of industry experience and writes a blog about brewing, said educating staff should be important for bars and restaurants. “Ensure your staff is knowledgeable about the beers on tap, their profiles, and pairing options,” he said. “An educated staff can offer recommendations, enhancing the customer experience.”

Porse also encourages bar and restaurant operators to develop unique beer collaborations within their community. “Collaborate with local breweries for exclusive brews,” he said. “Limited-edition collaborative beers can be a unique selling point.”

As one example, NORMS Restaurants – a beloved family restaurant with a nearly 75-year legacy in Southern California – recently collaborated with the popular Los Angeles-area Common Space Brewery. The two food and beverage leaders teamed up for a limited-edition IPA for the end of summer, called NORMS IPA.

“Common Space Brewery felt like the perfect fit for us as we’re fans of their product, they regularly work on collaborations with SoCal brands and are already considered a staple in/around Los Angeles after opening just a few years ago,” said NORMS’ Corporate Executive Chef and VP of Food & Beverage David Cox.

While NORMS does not currently sell alcohol on-premise, the diner chain is awaiting its beer and wine license, and they’ll roll out a beer and wine program at their soon-to-open location in Hollywood, as well as select existing locations.

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NORMS IPA is a collaboration with NORMS Restaurants and Common Space Brewery, a first-of-its-kind partnership for NORMS. (Photo: Courtesy of Common Space Brewery)

Attract Customers with a Robust Beer Menu Across the Spectrum of Beer Styles

In the end, a bar or restaurant should consider having a robust menu with beer choices across the entire spectrum of styles, as every customer has their favorites, according to Aaron Bisges, chief operating officer at StillFire Brewing in Suwanee, Ga., which just was named “Georgia Brewery of the Year” at the New York International Beer Competition.

“Specializing too heavily in one category can turn customers off,” said Bisges. “We offer light options, IPAs, sours, stouts, seltzers, distilled spirits, and even a homemade root beer for the kids,” he said. “As far as [beer] events, do not be scared to try something original! Themed parties are especially a hit, where customers and staff can get into the festivities by dressing up. We gear our food truck menu and live entertainment around the theme to create an immersive experience in the taproom.”

Aaron Kiel is an editor, writer and public relations professional in Raleigh, N.C. He’s worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for two decades, as well as hospitality and technology. He’s a journalist at heart, but he also wears a PR and communications hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He’s a contributing writer/reporter for Questex’s Bar & Restaurant News, and he recently worked as the editor of World Tea News with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group. In 2023, he was a finalist and honorable mention in the “Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards” for Range of Work by a Single Author – B2B.” Connect with him on Instagram: @adventurer_explorer.

Beer Report Research - Trends - Menu - Best Practices Tips Advice
Draft beers at Bar Louie. (Photo: Courtesy of Bar Louie)

*For its Q2 2023 Restaurant Trends Report, Toast analyzed transactions from a cohort of restaurants on the Toast platform from April 1, 2023, to June 30, 2023, to determine the popularity of beer, wine, cider, hard seltzer, vodka, tequila, whiskey, gin, rum, and brandy per restaurant location in all 50 U.S. states. Toast used a cohort of same-store customers on the platform since Q1 2022 that served alcohol.

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