Beer lists the weak link in high-end Venues

11th May 2018

 

Beer lists the weak link in high-end venues by Glynn Davis

Visiting Bordeaux for the first time two years ago was a real treat in numerous ways – all of them wine related – from the beauty of the terrain, with every bit of land filled with vines, to the wine bars where every glass seemed of good quality, and the super food that is a complement to the vino.

 

One of the highlights of the trip was dinner at Le Pressoir d’Argent Gordon Ramsay in the InterContinental hotel, where the wines went down extremely well with the two Michelin-starred cuisine. But there was one jarring element – the beers on its drinks list.

 

When you have been sampling wine for much of the day it is a necessity (for me anyway) to take a break and have a beer. Even in Bordeaux, beer has its place. Scanning through the extensive wine list revealed the beer options consisted of no more than half a dozen brews. This would not have been a problem if they were something different to the typical global brands that could have been purchased absolutely anywhere.

 

There is no way such an establishment would put such little thought into the sourcing of its ingredients, its wine list, its décor, and the quality of its front-of-house team. For far too long beer has been the weak link in the offer of restaurants and hotels.

 

The beer lists in high-end venues are still mostly determined by the gross profit that can be accrued on each bottle rather than offering the customer something interesting and different and maybe working on a cash margin. It surely is in the top-end restaurants and smarter hotel bars that customers are willing to listen to the story behind specific beers and then pay a premium price for them. The people in these places are surely a receptive (and possibly captive) audience for such products.

 

I’m not advocating usurping wine with beer. That’s never going to work – certainly not in my lifetime – but there is an opportunity to put forward some better beer options that much better complement wine lists and food menus. As I’ve stated in the past – beer should be seen as an “and”, not an “or” on drinks lists.

 

Proof of how little distance has been travelled with beer in such establishments was highlighted on a recent evening visit to two of London’s best hotel bars in the smart area of St James’s. The Stafford Hotel houses the American Bar, which has long been a favourite of mine and was for many years owned by brewer Thwaites. It has its cocktails and decent selection of wine by the glass but the beers let the side down. Predictable is the best description I can give it.

 

It was a similar situation at the renowned bar in Duke’s Hotel (famous as the venue where Ian Fleming had the inspiration for Bond’s preferred tipple – the shaken and not stirred martini). Admittedly, many people visit for that particular drink and the high-quality wine, which is just as well because the beer list in uninviting.

 

The obvious defence restaurants and hotel bars put forward when questioned about putting greater thought into their beer list is very few people ask for it. I’d suggest the reason for this is twofold. Firstly, customers don’t want it because the choice is insufficiently tempting. The second reason is the driver of the first reason, which is nobody on the team typically has the required knowledge or inclination to commit to taking responsibility for the beer list. The focus of drinks teams is wholly on the wine and spirits offering. Poor old beer does not get a look in.

 

Although my overriding memories of the dinner in Bordeaux and the visit to the two London hotel bars is overwhelmingly positive, and I would return to each of them without a glimmer of doubt, I can’t help but feel a half decent beer list would have fully rounded out the offer.

 

I surely cannot be the only person that feels it is about time restaurants, and hotel bars in particular, get their head around upgrading their beer lists. It’s pretty safe to say the mainstream public has built a thirst for decent beer.

Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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