Craft Beer Gets the ‘Fast-Casual’ Treatment

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image: 5 Rabbit Brewery's Golden Ale
5 Rabbit Brewery

5 Rabbit Brewery's Golden Ale

Beer snobs, rejoice! Now you can have your cheap eats and fancy brew, too. A growing number of restaurants in the not-quite-fast-food category like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Smashburger are getting into the business of pouring craft beer to go with their burgers, wraps, and other casual fare.

Chipotle has announced it would begin offering craft brews on a test basis in 15 of its Chicago restaurants. Some locations previously sold mass-market beers (Coors Light, Corona), but now selections will include a golden ale and a dark chili-infused ale from craft brewer 5 Rabbit, the Chicago Tribune says.

The Mexican chain has plenty of company these days. Nation’s Restaurant News reported over the summer that Noodles & Co. was testing a craft beer rollout in five of its locations across the country. Last month, the Boston Beer Company (brewer of Samuel Adams beer) announced a partnership with pizza chain Bertucci’s. Diners can even try beer “pairings” that match seasonal and specialty brews with the restaurant’s brick-oven pies.

Another chain to launch craft beer pairings last month is Smashburger. Its mushroom Swiss burger, for instance, is paired with a brown ale, and its “Brooklyn burger” with pastrami and mustard is paired with a rye ale (in select locations).

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Craft beer is enjoying a surge in popularity even as sales of mainstream beer have slumped, a trend industry analysts attribute to a desire to “eat local” and the growing influence of millennial consumers. Now old enough to drink, they want to drink the good stuff, even if they’re pairing it with a taco or a slice of pizza.

According to the Brewers Association, money earned from sales of craft beer rose 14% in the first half of 2012, while the volume sold rose by 12%.

“That’s where the growth is,” says David Henkes, vice president and on-premise practice leader at research firm Technomic. “For forward-looking fast-casual operators it makes a lot of sense them to be focusing on craft beer as an incremental growth opportunity.”

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Restaurants find craft beer appealing because it delivers both higher margins along with customers who don’t mind paying a little bit extra for a meal. Serving craft beer also helps chains differentiate themselves in a crowded playing field. Casual restaurants that aim for a notch above fast food are a rapidly growing niche, with sales growing 8.4% last year to $21.5 billion, according to Technomic.

Craft and microbreweries are growing at a similarly rapid clip; there are now 2,126 small brewers in the U.S., with 350 of those added in the last year alone. Henkes says this makes the two business concepts a logical fit.

“I really think that beer is the new wine, meaning that the diversity and the distinctiveness that everyone who makes wine looks for [is being developed in beer],” Smashburger chief concept officer Tom Ryan told Nation’s Restaurant News.

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Not that beer is a silver bullet. The licensing and regulatory requirements can be a headache and an added expense for the operator. Henkes says a lot of these kinds of businesses are franchised, which means a chain that offers craft beer in one place might not in another. “You may find they’re offering it in certain locations, based on where the demographics favor that.” So diners who are picky about their beer might want to check and see if the restaurant they plan to visit has suds that meet their standards.