Less than twenty years ago, an array of draught beers that included Guinness, Smithwicks, Harp, Murphy’s or Kilkenny, served in a 20 oz. tulip glass, was usually enough to satisfy a guest’s desire for an authentic Irish drink in an Irish Pub, whether it be in Chicago, Paris, Munich or Sydney. An Irish pub took care of its draught beer, installing complicated mixed gas systems that produced those lovely creamy heads, dismissing under-counter kegerators in favour of dedicated beer cold-rooms, glycol-cooled lines and refrigerated taps. Many bars, particularly in North America, didn’t offer a lot of draught, because it was too complicated and expensive to do it right. So Irish pubs stood out by not only having the best choice of draught around, but also the best quality draught. Irish Pubs were synonymous with great beer and this made them very relevant with a predominantly beer-drinking consumer.

But the world has changed in the past twenty years. Craft breweries have proliferated, and great beer is now available everywhere and in a myriad of styles and flavours. Bars that would once have offered just a Budweiser or Heineken on draught now offer wheat beers, caramel stouts, hoppy IPA’s and fruit-infused ales, many of them created and promoted by enthusiastic local brewers. Irish pubs are no longer the stand-out purveyors of quality, craft-like draught beers, because every bar worth its salt now has a top-notch beer system and a strong program to promote craft beers to willing consumers.

So to stay relevant to its customers these days, it’s not enough for an Irish Pub just to stay with the times on the beer line-up. Just as they innovated and led the industry in quality beer twenty years ago, Irish pub operators need to see themselves now and in the future as leaders in a total beverage alcohol offering. There’s no telling exactly what beverage trends we will see in the next ten years, but on the basis of the evidence we see from craft beer growth, we can safely assume that consumers, and particularly millennial consumers, will continue to prioritize quality and authenticity, while loyalty to particular types of drinks may change rapidly and repeatedly. In other words, while your average twenty-five year old female consumer may happily consume a cold hefeweizen with her friends tonight, tomorrow night her mood might just have her want to try out a chocolate-infused bourbon. That’s the challenge for operators now and in the future, how do we continue to keep our Irish Pubs relevant, constantly matching moods, occasions, aspirations and the consumer’s desire for experimentation? And how do we do it while still staying true to our Irish roots?

Draught Beers

Great quality beer remains at the core of great Irish Pubs. Managing your beer offering used to be easy, almost a ‘set it and forget it’ exercise that you could readdress every six months or so. Today, your beer lineup needs to be managed in much the same way as your food…you have to offer the core items and then provide a daily array of choice that will cover off as many styles and tastes as possible. This means that often you will be rotating certain craft beers on a weekly or even daily basis, a nightmare for old-school managers with an eye on rigid inventory management, but an absolute must for a pub wanting to show leadership.

Beyond craft beer selection, it is probably time to start experimenting with beer mixed drinks, matching a global trend toward new drinking experiences. Irish pubs practically invented beer cocktails a long time ago but we need to go way beyond dumping cream liqueur and whiskey in a beer, looking at more sophisticated combinations like beer with agave, beer with bourbon, beer with cider, not forgetting old familiars like Black Velvet and the use of beers in cobblers, juleps or shandies?

Spirits & Liquor

As the cost of draught beer drifts continuously upward and hurts draught profit margins, having a great liquor program is a great way of balancing your product costs while providing added interest for your customers. There are so many great new spirit brands coming out of Ireland these days that having a uniquely Irish program is not as challenging as it once might have been. Quite apart from using the strength of global whiskey brands such as Jameson and Bushmills, we are now seeing a proliferation of vodka, gin, poitin and even absinthe coming from Irish distilleries. Tell me you can’t make up an interesting (and very Irish) mixed drink list using ingredients like sherry-casked poitin or bog myrtle gin that not only taste great but have a great back-story? 

Education & Promotion

Putting a table-tent on the bar counter or having a fancy drinks list available for your guests to read is always a good idea, but often not enough to really capture the guests imagination. Ìt may be an even better idea to make sure that there is a seamless process of education among all your frontline employees, and this is particularly important if you are an Irish Pub operating internationally. If you are launching a new mixed drinks list, or even just a new craft beer, not only must all your employees know exactly what the history and provenance of the drink is, but they should also have tasted the drink and been given the freedom to deliver feedback. Their recommendations to your guests now become your most powerful selling tool and your best chance of remaining a leader in your industry, always relevant to your guests.

Anybody wanting to follow up with any questions or comments, please email Donal Ballance at donal@ballancehospitality.com, and I will be happy to respond.