Categories
Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Tasters and Margin in Craft Beer

'Five' by Chris (lucidtech) on Flickr, under Creative Commons.
‘Five’ by Chris (lucidtech) on Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Are generous tasters one of many reasons for the high price of ‘craft beer’?

We once saw a publican berate a member of staff for filling a lined glass to the top and thus giving away perhaps 35ml of beer. “That’s my margin, that is!” he cried with false joviality.

But craft beer bars seem to be above such pettiness and penny-pinching: they dish out free beer as a matter of policy.

We recently sat near the bar of a well-known venue and observed transactions. Most customers tried one or two beers before choosing, but we saw one couple, with the encouragement of staff, sample eight pricey keg beers between them before each ordering a mere third of a pint.

If each tiny taster nonetheless contained, say, 25ml of beer, that means 200ml went over the bar before any cash changed hands — more than a third of a pint.

We’re not saying that either customers or bar did anything wrong, but a business model which encourages customers to be discerning has to waste a certain amount of beer, and that cost surely has to be recouped.

Our suspicion is that those ‘free’ tasters for the fussy few are actually bundled into the price of everyone’s pint.

In which case, we really shouldn’t be so shy about asking for them.

If you work in the trade and confirm or deny our suspicion, we’d be very pleased to hear from you in the comments below.

UPDATED 11:21 25/06: now with some key points highlighted.

43 replies on “Tasters and Margin in Craft Beer”

would this be a branch of a well known craft brewery pub? often people come in who have never drunk anything but macro lager; so by allowing samples on that first visit they could win new regular custom. its up to the bar staff to decide if someone is taking the piss. when serving at beer festivals i maybe allow 2/3 tasters depending on how busy we are

it’s great innit? i like to have a taste of everything, buy nowt and see what I can get away with before they chuck me out.

sometimes you have to say “okay, that’s everything I guess, still unsure, lets start again”

then I go buy a cheap pint in spoons.

I went to a craft brewery pub and was buying halves of a couple of different things and towards the end of the evening the barmaid asked if I wanted to try a taster of all their other beers as it was closing soon. Now that’s service!

Don’t think it’s relevant to the point we’re making here. Tasters=wastage, which has to be paid for.

Well I think tasters are necessary, nay essential in a bar that sells great beer and I can’t think of many of the bars I frequent in London that don’t offer them.

As well as selling a premium product it’s about customer experience and if tasting a few beers and chatting with friendly, knowledgeable bar staff builds a rapport that will more than likely lead to repeat business.

I’m going to assume you’re talking about a Brewdog bar here (Camden?). I think Brewdog’s long term goal is to build basic beer knowledge amongst those that frequent their bars so that in 5-10 years time a larger majority of the British beer drinking public are able to make an informed choice without aid. Without Brewdog I think the opportunity to raise non beer geek awareness may have gone amiss.

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to build what is a tiny amount of beer pourage overall into their margins, especially if the customer experience is as good as you get in a Brewdog bar. Judging by their recent shareholder report I don’t think that giving away a few tasters is affecting their bottom line!

“I think it’s perfectly acceptable to build what is a tiny amount of beer pourage overall into their margins”

Yes.

Yes & No in terms of it being bundled into the price.

8 tasters is a bit of an irregularity in my experience, I’d say it’s more common for people to only have a couple, if that. It’s also very rare in my experience for them to then only buy a third (and in all honesty, they’d be frowned at to a point I think!)

Craft Keg is expensive mainly because of the one way containers most of it comes in (although several breweries like Wild Beer and Buxton for example are moving to steel E-Kegs which I hope will make reduce their price in to us as landlords). Obviously the other factor is ingredients but I won’t bang that drum again as ultimately it is often the same for cask, providing the same recipe is used. Ultimately, it comes down to the container cost & filling cost (gas etc).

We don’t factor in tasters to our pricing at all, I see it as a way of getting them into decent beers, a chance to convert someone. Once they’re in there’s a good chance they’ll remain loyal (we have products others don’t in the area, we have service levels others don’t, atmosphere, environment etc etc) and that’s where that 25ml taster or two is worth it’s weight in gold. That said other’s may take this into account, but from seeing other blackboards around the country I’d be surprised – I think some just work on different pricing models, focussing on % rather £ margin at times.

I’m pretty good at knowing what I like to drink but occasionally I’ll ask for a taste of something if it’s a bit out there and I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to like that style. Or if I have had a certain beer before and been unhappy but wish to see if it has improved. That’s a quality control service I’m performing and it’s better for me to say nice things about a beer having tried it a second time, than to only have tasted it once and have only negative things to say.

I put plenty of money behind the bar wherever I drink and I see the culture of tasters as part and parcel of good customer service/goodwill gesture.

Occasionally bar staff (including people who know me personally and people who don’t) will ask if I am sure I don’t want to taste something first. Again, I think that is good practice on their part in trying to sell people something they actually want to drink. Sometimes I say yes, but not always.

If I were to be refused a taste of a single beer on principle then I would not visit that establishment again. I’d leave at once and I’d tell everyone I know not to bother going there because that’s flat out inadequate customer service.

However, are you suggesting there should be some kind of limit to the number of samples? Or that only customers who have already paid should be allowed to have them? I just can’t see how you can impose any limits without creating a degree of conflict and bad feeling. It’s basically good will and pubs/bars will need to hope that the number of piss takers are outweighed by the number of people who are genuinely just trying to work out if they like a beer (or two) before paying for the one they choose.

Emma said: “However, are you suggesting there should be some kind of limit to the number of samples? Or that only customers who have already paid should be allowed to have them?”

No, just observing that this is one among many things that might make craft beer more expensive.

I suppose there already is a kind of unspoken limit of one or two. We were surprised to see the couple described in the post have four samples each without an eyebrow being raised. The bar staff were positively pushing them!

But then maybe, once they’d tasted everything, that was their night’s drinking planned and they went on to buy a third of each and several pricey bottles? (We didn’t spy on them all evening…)

Something to be considered here, is that a craft beer pub will make profit on every pint. Which is not the same as many tied pubs, where there is almost no margin on the beer (the margin is on the spirits, wine and food).

The taster policy I think is just marketing and customer education. The volume of product lost to tasters is minimal in the overall scheme, and wouldn’t explain the price difference on its own. Wages for better informed/trained staff *could* make a difference.

Also even in craft pubs you will get great value. There are some pubs that will always offer an accessible beer or cider at good prices. Which are often superiour to premium priced equivalents in non-craft pubs. Krombacher at £3.80 in Mother Kellys is a far better beer than the £4.70+ pints of Peroni that the OH makes me buy when she wants to punish me.

Craft Beer pubs are expensive because the product is expensive, and has its own unique dispense costs (like one way kegs, and long range distribution).

I think sampling is so important to beer’s continued success (particularly c**** beer). However, outside of small managed estates (like Brewdog) who has the muscle to effect real change on a national level – Wetherspoons possibly?
Tenants and leasees hold the key here, but I’d like to see some practical solutions that incentivise them to push sampling.

Obviously tasters are priced in at some level. I guess the question is how much overhead this actually adds, and whether this might not actually shift sales from cheap beers to pricier beers. That is, it might actually pay for itself (or bar owners assume it does).

I’d guess the actual cost of this policy is too low to be noticeable.

In any case, it can’t be the reason why craft beer costs more, since it costs more in bottle, too.

“one of many reasons”

And lots of individual negligible costs (tasters, better glassware, staff training, beers that don’t sell because they’re too weird even for nerds) must add up.

They must absolutely add up, although what the sum comes to is hard to say. I don’t really know the pub trade that well, but I would guess that production costs and logistics probably make up a lot more of the cost difference for these beers.

And ultimately I think they’re priced higher because people are willing to pay more for them. That is, even if they weren’t more expensive to produce, probably they’d still cost more, simply because the market can bear it.

As someone who has been observing the pub trade & brewing industry for well over a decade, I’d say that giving out samples is a vital part of the growth of great beer in the on trade and will continue to be a vital part of it for many years to come.

Tasters are integral to encouraging people to try different beers and with that comes category growth; this has added benefit to people who are into great beers because as the venues see that great beer is of greater interest to a wider market, more interesting beers will be seen on bars.

However, I do get cross when I see it as a substitute for proper staff training; the two things have to go hand-in-hand for me.

A good example of that is yesterday, when I was helping with the Fuller’s Master Cellarman Awards and I was delighted to be able to announce that a young guy called Josh from the Swan in Staines had won the Pride and Passion Award.

He was a commodity lager drinker but when he started being trained up to keep the cellar, he committed to trying all the ales, with the support of his manager, and has now moved on to drinking them through choice – making him a great advocate.

The pub trade in general does need to get better at this bigger picture approach but, in the meantime, if it puts a penny or two on my pint for the venues to support a sampling strategy, I’d rather pay that than see a return to bland mediocrity.

The way I see it at my local is that because they don’t used lined glasses any half decent beer with a head means the proprietor gains up to the 10% legal shortfall on each pint which easily covers the quantity in free tasters given out.
It should not therefore be a cost consideration. I would however welcome larger lined glasses with headspace but am assured the price will increase if that happens.

This is a rarer practice over here so it’s not really useful to comment on other folks culture – except to note that if I am in a place that offers high prices for a range of beers from the rare and wonderful to experimental and questionable I do wish the opposite rule were applied. If I am out and service staff press a particular beer on me giving assurances of delight and, as too often happens, it is a nightmare of reckless design… I want to be able to hand the glass back at no charge. Samples, as they are more often called here, should be offered any time the offering is new and the drinker shows doubt as part of the fair exchange. Drinkers put that equity out of balance when they treat this “sip to make sure” into rounds just as they do when monopolizing a bartenders time at a busy hour.

There are those who advocate pubs operating a “try before you buy” policy, where you are given a small free sample. It is argued that this will encourage more people, particularly women, to try to give real ale a go. It seems such a simple and obvious idea that you might expect it to catch on, but I can see reasons why it isn’t as good as it sounds.

Firstly, it will cost the pub money, especially if hopping along the bar trying out beers until you find one you like becomes a regular occurrence in your pub. Several free samples will soon add up to a pint – £2-50 to £3 lost. With the outrageous mark-ups that Pub Cos put on their supplies to pubs, the margin of profit on a barrel is not large and could be seriously eroded or eliminated by free samples, which would surely lead to higher prices.

Secondly, my beer festival experience is that it tends to be the more experienced real ale drinkers who ask for samples; the person tentatively looking at the array of beers not knowing which to buy won’t usually ask for one unless it’s offered. This suggests to me that it would tend to be the experienced drinkers who would ask for samples in pubs, not the novices, so I’m not convinced this would usher in legions of new women real ale drinkers. Besides, waiting to be served behind someone who is going through the beers, sniffing, sipping and holding them up to the light, is not what I want to be doing in a pub. And there would always be the selfish oaf who would insist on doing that three minutes before closing time, not caring about the queue waiting to be served behind him. It’s no good saying there should be more staff ~ perhaps in an ideal world there should, but most of us know the precarious financial state of many pubs. Besides, employing staff just to deal with the last orders rush is unrealistic.

Thirdly, while a sample may let you know you’ll strongly dislike a particular beer, it may not do other beers justice. Sometimes it takes several mouthfuls rather than a quick sip before my palate adjusts to a beer, especially if I’ve just finished one with a very different character. As a result, I’ve sometimes been initially disappointed with a pint, only to find I quite like it about a quarter or a third of the way through.

If a pub feels confident it can afford to offer samples, then that’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect this to become general practice. That’s why I welcome the use of third pint glasses, even though I doubt I’ll ever use them myself.

+2 from me too…

But… legal measure? Thirds are, IMO, too much for a “sample”. Good breweries back home do things like 6x 80ml. Can we do that here in the UK? (Albeit average ABV is higher in “craftier” countries too…)

Can we exchange £ for sub-third “samples”? Perhaps a “serve” can be a pallet of 6x 95ml tasters? (I.e. one pint!) Can we “CE stamp” that?

A typical tasting glass is something like 1/4 of a pint (5oz, 140ml) isn’t it? I don’t suppose they’re ever filled to the brim. A mouthful (for me at least) is about 50ml. So they’re barely enough to actually taste (maybe three swallows?). I would imagine third pint (190ml) glasses would be ideal for a tasting flight intended for sharing.

Flights of samples really is the way to go.

With a bit of creativity and knowledge of beer styles, beyond the ‘American Insert Beer Style Here’ over-hopped messes, it is quite easy to arrange a flight of 5 samples, each about 100ml, price it the same as a pint (since that is effectively what it is).

Not only is there less ‘waste’ for the retailer to handle, but people can discover there is more to the proliferation of new beer than just chucking a ton of C-hops into the boil (not that you’d know sometimes looking at brewery websites).

One thing I noticed in an earlier comment seemed to suggest British breweries are using single use kegs, that can’t be right surely?

Keykegs, where the beer’s in a bag in the keg so that the propellant never comes into contact with it (no idea what keys have to do with it), are typically single-use.

The weird thing about keykegs is that you could imagine a conciliatory craft brewer saying “look, it’s not pasteurised, it’s not filtered, it’s not gassy, it doesn’t even need to be refrigerated – in what significant way is this not real ale?” Nobody on the ‘craft’ side seems to want to have that conversation, though.

There are bars in the Low Countries where you even have branded sampler glasses for the beers on tap. Of course someone has to pay for this, but it is also a question of quality versus quantity. If you want to encourage your customers to try new and exciting stuff, giving them samples makes sense. An alternative is obviously to sell a set of samplers and charge for them.

I never ask for tasters. Pump clips or fonts generally describe what the basic beer type is and I prefer to take a punt. I very, very rarely find anything that tastes so bad I can’t finish it. OK, some of the beers I taste are very extreme but it’s all an experience.

Tasters are an essential part of the business in my pub – most of my customers know their ale but with the vast array of different breweries and beers we get through here, combined with northern stinginess, its unsurprising that people want to be sure they will be getting a pint they enjoy.

I’d also much rather give someone a sample of a beer they reject rather than pour them a pint and have them tell me its off (possibly simply due to it not being to their tastes). Quibbling with customers about whether a beer is “off” or not is one of the fastest ways to lose a customer, so I’d always replace it with something else immediately, losing a pint of stock where potentially a 25ml sample could have saved me the trouble!

Of course, there are other instances where people will seek to have tasters of a beer they’d have no intention of purchasing – it becomes immediately apparent when doing the stocktake with some casks having 4 or 5 pints of unaccounted for wastage, usually a slightly bizarre beer, or one that might be a bit stronger than most.

Generally, I don’t believe tasters affect the bottom line greatly, however they do affect the customer experience and make them more likely to come back.

Of course I have looked into the impact of free tasters regarding the cost, you would be stupid not to do so. But it doesn’t make a massive impact here. If everybody had one 20ml free taster per pint, each pint, a £3.50 pint would rise to £3.68. But you would have to have such a finikity crowd to ask for that treatment. We give away lots of tasters, but I doubt that it make for a pint per firkin.
What winds me up is somebody who asks for 2-3 free (non obliged) tasters, and then complains that their pint is 20ml short of the top. (They are often the ones that moan that we cannot offer JDW level prices too.) As we all know, landlords are raking it in and there are no signs whatsoever that pubs have been facing a crisis in the last decade.
By the way, it is illegal to sell beer or cider in any other quantities apart from; 1/3, 2/3, 1/2 and a pint. Selling samplers is just not allowed. Good thing too.

“Good thing too.”

Sort of a drive by slag on a continent’s worth of experience, no? Any advice as to why it is a “good thing” to bar it in the UK when it is done commonly elsewhere? I could see the fussiness of the process but nothing can be fussier than giving away numerous samples to hesitant cheapskates.

One thing I think not mentioned yet, is checking the quality / condition of the beer, not just its taste.

Real ale is a live product, and it needs to be kept well. Lots of pubs don’t have the experience, or they care insufficiently for the quality that they’ll sell things they know aren’t right. And sometimes the beer will just change between cellar tastes.

A culture of samples can come from making sure the beer is not just something you like, but that it’s not full of particles that haven’t dropped, that it’s in good condition, and hasn’t oxidised. You don’t charge someone to prove the beer is in good nick. It’s not applicable to keg beer in the same way, but there might be a reason that the continent doesn’t have the same approach to tasting.

It’s rare I bother with samplers. My local knows my taste so ‘what’s x like? ‘ ‘bit bland for your taste, want a sample? ‘ ‘nah I’ll take your word for it’s is a regular conversion. New keg lines at high end price wise I regularly have sample put in my hand without even being asked if I want it 😉 it’s fun at times watching staff educate and evangelise for the real hop forward beers. Selling a pint for over a fiver takes some effort with the general non beer geeks

I always ask for a taste now and have never been refused. I specify to give me very little, I can tell from half an ounce if I’ll want it. I usually ask for two and say I’ll choose one, which I almost always do. If I don’t like either, I buy a full glass of something I know. I never ask for more than this. The pubs that offer them do pay for it of course but most I believe view it as part of the trade and staff should be encouraged to give just a little, an ounce is enough.

Some pubs charge a small amount (e.g. 50 cents for an ounce), and fair enough, it is worth it.

Gary

As alluded to upthread, in the UK there are only three legal measures for beer: third pint, half a pint, and a pint (and multiples thereof). You can give away a taster, but you can’t ‘sell’ less than a third of a pint.

Hence where I have seen flights here, it’s always three thirds. Being able to sell less would be more useful in this respect.

Although when offering flights, you also have to consider staff time in a busy bar. Serving three things to a precise measure is more time-consuming than a more arbitrary sample, or a full pint of one thing, and by offering a flight you might be encouraging people to order like this, where fewer would ask for a taster.

The other popular option if, as I do, you’re normally drinking in a group, is order different things and share. If you’re relaxed about the communicable diseases your friends have.

Agreed on flights of samples.
http://www.brouwerijhetij.nl inAmsterdam offers four on a tray for the price of a pint of one of them.
It’s a great way to start of a session when faced with an array of unknown beers.
It’s like a good cheese market stall – they willingly hand over a sliver knowing you’ve come to them to buy something.
Mmm, I’m hungry now.

I dont personally believe tasters add so significantly to the bottom line of a pub that it requires a blanket £1 which seems on average the difference between cask and craft keg added on to every pint sold.

spillages,wastage especially over filling (how often do you see someone pull a pint really badly then spend another half pint of beer overfilling to try and get a reasonable head on a pint – more prevalent up north) and even dumping beer thats gone bad because you couldnt sell it quickly enough add far more cost to the business than tasters

I do know a pub locally that uses oversized lined glasses, but always fills to to the top, which I know costs them an average 6-7 pints over a normal cask volume to do that (though that includes all the extra losses Ive already mentioned),but they add at most 10p to the cost to cover it after all even if its £30 they need to recover thats less than 50p per pint as additional cost, and they do offer tasters both for people who are new to cask ale and dont know what to try, and also for beers that are for extremophiles only.

Edd – great to read your comments. We were wondering whether it would also be useful for pubs where samples are common to have that option on the till so you could track what was getting requested and not ordered.

Stonojnr – good comments re wastage. Would be interesting to conduct an anonymised survey of different types of pubs and bars on GP and wastage targets and see whether there were significant differences.

From a beer festival point of view, we actually do have some evidence on this question!

One year CAMRA we being arsey about the beer festival budget, and accused us of losing too much beer in tasters.

So that year, for one year only, we served every taster in a separate plastic cup, and counted up the cups used, so we knew how much beer had been given away in tasters. It was a fraction of the beer lost in the whole process. Cellar tasters and testing, exploding casks (outdoor festival, it can be hard to keep the beer cool in hot years), beer that went off, or never went on, spillage, cask ends etc. It simply wasn’t significant.

Craft keg should have fewer cellaring issues, admittedly.

We never would have allowed 8 tasters, though! 2-3 is the unofficial limit before we ask people to buy.

One thing I would mention; if you ask for a series of tasters when there is a queue of people behind you at a busy bar, don’t be offended if someone accidentally knocks all your beer on the floor as you make your way from the bar, and then accidentally repeatedly knees you in the face as you bend to pick it up. Just a comment.

Comments are closed.