Expert Topic Designed to Impress: Making Your Brewery a Welcoming Space

The era of simply owning a brewery and expecting people to walk through the doors because there is house-made beer on draft is over. Increased competition and a savvy and curious customer base means putting the customer experience front and center. From top to bottom.

“I think that taprooms across the board need to start to do a better job thinking about the actual value that they provide,” says Adam Romanow, the founder and CEO of Castle Island Brewing Co. which has two locations in Massachusetts: Norwood and South Boston.

“A lot of people get trapped in this headspace that the product is the liquid. And my opinion is that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think the product has to be the experience, especially if you’re a distributed brand. You’re trying to get people in your front door. So, the product is you, and having them coming to you exclusively, when they could be going somewhere else for the same liquid.”

What are the best practices for a rounded customer experience that gets people excited to visit and then leave feeling happy? In a word: inclusivity.

It should be commonplace by now, but putting thought, attention, and detail into a taproom space is going to attract customers. Unless a brewery is actively going for a dive bar aesthetic, there is no need for mismatched, hand-me-down furniture, dim lighting, or scattershot decor. Taprooms, even the ones that don’t serve food, are competing against restaurants and other bars these days. Having a clean, welcoming space is paramount.

This can also mean having a specifically themed taproom that attracts certain customers looking for a niche experience. Maybe it’s centered around a sport like pickle ball, or a genre of music, or an art style. Not every brewery has to be everything to everyone, but it does have to be authentic.

“There have been so many taprooms I’ve been to where there’s no warmth, there’s no hospitality,” says Romanow.

Having the right staff

At the Castle Island locations, Romanow says that the staff they hire do not need previous beer knowledge.

“We do training on our beers, what we have on tap at that given time, so it’s always seven core beers plus a variety of limited and rotating options. But we don’t do a lot of training upfront on other beer styles that may not be represented on the menu at that point. We don’t do like Cicerone training, or certified beer server training or anything like that. It’s all kind of on the fly.”

That means a server or bartender can grow into the role and learn along with the brewery, or with new rollouts. Over time, they are encouraged to offer suggestions to non-beer drinkers based on customer flavor preference.

This is an evolution for the brewery. Romanow says that when the brewery first opened they would do a lot of coaching one on one, or do a lot of classroom training, or upfront training. The pandemic changed a lot of that, and the continuously rolling approach has been working.

The brewery will offer additional training sessions, on days when the brewery is closed, where the front of house team gathers to do off flavor training, guided sensory, and to hear from the brewery.

It’s not only for the customer’s benefit, but for the growth of the brewery. “They are the first line of defense. Thankfully we haven’t really had any issues. But without that knowledge behind the bar, we might not catch stuff if it comes up.”

He says that he’s not against Cicerone or BJCP training and sees the value in those programs, but for servers “most of them have just been to breweries, they’re casual consumers themselves, sometimes looking for a second job. Even if it’s a first job, they are not not necessarily homebrewers, or have necessarily worked in another brewery. So, most of our front of house is meeting the consumers where they are.

Servers don’t have to have fluency in beer vernacular to make a connection with consumers. But the ability to casually converse, be a fan, and find ways to connect – on a real level – with customers that are newer to craft beer and make the feel welcome, or like they are a regular, that is the connection needed.

Bring Back The Tours
Before COVID-19 most breweries hosted a regular tour of their facilities. Once the restrictions of the pandemic eased, not all the tours resumed. Bringing consumers into the brewhouse with an enthusiastic staff member helps forge connections.

By bringing back formal tours that are regularly scheduled and promoted on social media, a brewery has a chance to show off what makes them tick to an intimate crowd. Romanow has been thinking about bringing back regular tours to his breweries to forge those relationships.

“I think a lot of times there’s this feeling [among brewers] that everyone’s been on a tour before and that people aren’t really interested in seeing a 10,000-square-foot warehouse full of stainless and automation. But the part that we forget is, that’s not why people go on brewery tours, people go on brewery tours, not to learn how beer is made, they want to learn the story.”

Looking ahead
There are a lot of headwinds for the hospitality industry. Customers are watching their budgets and maybe ordering less or spending less time out. Taprooms are in a precarious situation but should work to avoid just becoming another bar. There is a specialness about making beer on site, about the passionate people, and about the community.

Tapping into that separates breweries from the rest, and it means keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time. Having a diverse tap list – beyond IPA- offering non-alcoholic options, and even having a food program that is a cut above other offerings in the area all help to get and retain customers.

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