There was a time when the taproom was rare. Now, it almost feels mandatory. Done correctly, it’s the best way to get your message and your beer across to your fans, would-be fans, and everyone in between. This week, we asked the Fervent Few what makes a taproom worth a drive all the way across town, ignoring bars and restaurants where they could try beers by many different breweries. What keeps them coming back to the taproom? What turns them off?
Caldwell Bishop: “In addition to supporting a local establishment/trying it at the source/unique offerings, a couple things I've noticed that appeal to me about taprooms/make me go back: there is something interesting to me about the space (e.g.: I love the art at Right Proper Brookland), it has an intimate feeling to it (usually because of the design of the space or the service—examples I've been to/would put in this group: Jester King, Charm City Mead, Right Proper Brookland), or simply a combination of proximity to where I (live/work/frequent), and liking the product.
Conversely, I think the biggest turnoff to me about some taprooms I've been to is when it feels like they have no interest in interacting with customers or telling you about who they are, that they are just about getting people in the door and selling product. A couple come to mind in this area, but essentially they are more like a Gordon Biersch or a Rock Bottom than they are a unique/intimate establishment."
Threefrenchs: “Bad service and no service can be two totally different things. I will give you an example of no service that really ruined a tasting room experience. I traveled clear across the U.S. to visit one of my all time favorite and iconic breweries. Made a tour reservation months in advance. Get to the tasting room and the beer flight they were pouring was four or five beers that I had no choice in picking. They plopped the beer tray in front of me, threw down a tasting sheet, and walked away. The server never came back and asked if i enjoyed them or if I had any questions. From that point, I was in a fairly poor mood and didn't enjoy the tour. It wasn't until after the tour when I went back in the tasting room to buy a few bottles they I met a friendly face that was happy to answer my questions.
Now, I don't hate the brewery, or avoid their beer. But I do have a different feeling about them and I'm not sure I would make that journey again.
Travis Wannlund: “Location often sucks. I hate having to drive out to some remote business park to hunt down the brewery (common practice in SoCal). Food is usually a crapshoot as well. It's either a food truck or having a pizza delivered. Most are set up to be a working brewery to the best seating you are going to get is a crappy stool on a wobbly table.
What keeps me coming back? Rotating variants. If there's something new every time I walk in, I'm sold. Second is comfort. I will always go back to Stone simply because their food and beer garden is amazing. The only time I pick a bar over a brewery is for the food and the tap lineup. I won't often go to a bar without checking Taphunter/Untapped first to see what's on.”
Zack Rothman: “It is the culture and community that a taproom creates that makes me go out of my way to drink there, and it is the experience that keeps me coming back. Brewery-only beers that rotate every so often keep things exciting and draw me back in. Special events at the brewery do the same. Listening the music on a patio with a beer in hand makes it so I never want to leave, and if there happens to be a food truck there, I can stay even longer. I love the unique look and vibe that many taprooms have that make them stand out.”
Jim Doolittle: “I love taprooms, but visit very infrequently. I like going to the brewery, interacting directly with (hopefully) knowledgeable bartenders about their beer. I like supporting the brewery directly. I miss consistent food options, though—food trucks are fun sometimes but they are not always present. Sadly, my wife isn't a beer drinker, and does not always enjoy drinking water while I go through 2-3 beers. So taproom visits are rare for me. Bars where she can get a cider/mixed drink and food are easier.”
Brad Redick: “I love taprooms. I'll typically go to a taproom to try a new release before spending money on a whole 6 pack or 750. I'll also go because a number of breweries around me are much more family-friendly than a bar setting. I certainly understand how that could be annoying to non-children rearing patrons, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Also, it should go without saying, but those of us who strive to make sure our kids aren't messing up your experience also don't like the people who let their kids go wild. In Texas, most taprooms will have a food truck present. If they're making their own food then they're considered a brewpub. While I enjoy that setting too, I don't consider a brewpub and a taproom to be the same."
Bobby Fitzgerald: “The thing I love about taprooms is freshness of product, unique offerings, educated service, and the distillation of the brand. As someone who owns one, it is a huge selling tool. Great ones also have handcrafted touches (furniture, art, lighting, signage, menu, etc), outdoor space (a must in Southern California), comfortable seating, proper glassware, and a great location. We really have an analog feel in ours as well, with no TVs and seating that encourages conversation, and I honestly love that despite requests for otherwise. I like food, but any odd odors are really off-putting to me. I know of some that smell like buttered popcorn (diacetyl) and hot dog water, like a cheap snack bar. A true third space will allow a mix of locals and seasoned beer tasters as well.”
Michael Boyer: “My favorite taprooms are those that are self-aware and know their customer. That takes a lot of effort! There's something really fulfilling about seeing incremental change and evolution in a business and brand that's familiar, yet always fresh. The taprooms that make a habit of reinvesting in the customer experience, whether through physical improvements or staff training or new/aggressive recipes or whatever are the ones that build community and ultimately grow the pie for those concentric circles of 'craft' to which we all can draw one or two degrees of separation.
Palpable effort, I guess. It's really easy to tell when a brewery takes its on-premise opportunity for granted. Those that can convince you that they're competing for viability and a piece of each individual customer's loyalty are the cream of the metaphorical crop for me."
Charlie Beck: “So, what I look for in a taproom is first and foremost a place where I can hang out and simply try great beers. In Maine, I love the taprooms where they aren't trying to do anything special or have it be all about selling the beer, but rather it's about the overall experience and how much someone can enjoy the space while they are there. These taprooms are different than bars because they aren't trying to keep you there as long as possible, nor are they trying to upsell you by raising prices on certain beers. Instead, all of these breweries have the exact same price for every beer at the same pour size, which encourages a watering-hole mentality. I love how whether it's in Portland, Bangor, Newcastle, Kittery, or in my town, there are awesome breweries who are just there to share their beers with you unabashedly.”
Melia Ebdon: “For me, taprooms should be all about showcasing the beer, the brewery, and the brand in the best possible light. This is a brewery's chance to really show their customers what they stand for and present the absolute best version of themselves to the drinker. I want the freshest, most delicious beer, the most educated staff, the best customer service and an environment that totally encompasses that brewery. I don't like it when I walk into a taproom and it looks like any other craft beer bar...I should be able to walk in and say 'yeah, that's XXX all over!'. (Plus, the hooks for bags and coats. Always the hooks for bags and coats!)”
If you’re going to go out of your way to visit a brewery taproom, it should be worth the effort. The best way to do this is to have beers that drinkers can only get at the taproom. Then build on that by having the people behind the bar be able to give visitors the info they want about these special beers.
Zack Rothman: “Brewery-only beers that rotate every so often keep things exciting and draw me back in. Special events at the brewery do the same. Listening the music on a patio with a beer in hand make it so I never want to leave, and if there happens to be a food truck there I can stay even longer. I love the unique look and vibe that many taprooms have that make them stand out.”
Neal Buck: “If I'm looking at a taproom's website, and the 'Beers' section has 'Year-round brews,' 'Seasonal Brews,' and 'Limited Releases,' that's an automatic pazzz (with extra Zs) for me. The fewer flagships, and the more variety and experimentation, the better.
I really have very little interest in going to a taproom to get the exact same beer I can get on a shelf in my local bottle shop. I also have very little interest in going to a concert and hearing the songs played exactly the same as they are on the album. What's the point in going there when, if I closed my eyes, I could get the same exact thing in the comfort of my own home for less money?
That's partly why I love nanobreweries so much. The good ones (and the two best breweries in my city are both nanobreweries) have quick beer turn around and lots of variety."
Jaron Wright: “I definitely like the idea of supporting something at its source. I feel like i am giving more directly to what I am trying to support. I also like that it tends to be full of nerdy people ready to talk more in-depth about beer (or that the staff is usually pretty knowledgeable about the what's on tap so they are there to talk to). I like the idea that most of the time they are giving you an experience that they are curating.”
One of the most argued points this week was taster pours. Some people love being able to try the whole tap list during their visit. Others didn’t think it was worth the effort to try such a small amount of each beer.
Threefrenchs: “A pet peeve of mine is tasting rooms that don't sell tasters. What? If I'm on vacation and hitting a new brewery (to me) I might want to sample the board. Buying a 10+ oz glass of each is ridiculous. There is a notable sour producer that does (or at least did). What a disappointment. I'm sorry, your tasting room is just a bar at that point.”
Nycbeerrunner: “A local beer place does 6-8 oz half pours depending on the beer in tekus. That would be my preference over tasters.”
Caldwell Bishop: “I almost always get whatever sampler options are available, unless it's somewhere local to me. Generally speaking, I assume I won't get to travel there again soon and so would rather try everything, and order a full pour of my favorite/buy some to take away, if possible. Otherwise I'm stuck having to pick just a couple beers, and if I'm lucky, my fiancé gets some as well that I can try.”
Kristen Foster: “I prefer the 5oz pours as well. It's better than the smaller pour in a sampler and gives you a chance to really enjoy the beer but without having to commit to 1-2 beers for your visit. That goes for bars too. Torst in Brooklyn does this an it was one of my fav things about the place.”
Robbie Wendeborn: “I kinda hate tasting flights, unless it's a vertical. I do love breweries that have half pints. The beer never gets warm, and you get twice as much variety.
And as a former beertender, pouring a flight is the worst and it slows the rest of the service. Tip generously when ordering tasters.”
Nate Wannlund: “I'm not a fan of flights. IMO, 3oz is not enough to truly taste a beer. On the flip side, breweries should do 5-6oz shorties so all the FOMO folks can get their variety and the beers can be represented properly.”
Karl Larson: “I think four four-oz tasters is perfect. It introduces the breweries range of beers, especially if 'to go' beers are available, and lets the patrons know they have had a pint... as many customers are concerned with their consumption.”
Brewery taprooms will always be the place to try a beer at its freshest with other curious beer drinkers. When done properly, they can be just as good as the best beer bars. And with all the talk about tasters, service, and even location, I think it’s Joey Tidei who brings up the most important feature.
Joey Tidei: “Honestly, I just want to be able to bring my pupper inside the taproom and I'll be happy.”