Thursday, August 25, 2011

Size matters: Why 750ml beer bottles don't convince restaurant-goers

I said "order the Yellow Tail," Ulysses. But no, you had to go and show off…
The Beer Nut thinks that the 750ml bottle might be the answer to encourage mainstream restaurant-goers to embrace beer. The 750ml bottle (or "standard" as it's known in wine) is familiar, has an air of class, and lends itself perfectly to sharing with food, argues the 'Nut. Sounds reasonable.

However, I think that the 750ml bottle is both a solution and an obstacle in the quest to increase the status of beer as a "serious" food accompaniment.

Wine works in 750ml bottle for at least two reasons:

1. It is presumed to be a consistent strength (generally 12–14%)
2. It is usually not carbonated

Beer faces problems in the restaurant setting on both these fronts.

1. Beer ranges from 3-14%. It's a whole different undertaking to share 750ml of barley wine as opposed to a bottle of Lindeman's lambik. Restaurant-goers unfamiliar with beer would be doing blood-alcohol maths, wondering if they could finish a whole one, or — worse — ending up drunker than they expected. This all introduces anxiety where a simple bottle of wine would not.

Plus, if you're interested in trying a new wine, most restaurants serve by the glass. Not an option for beer: you can hardly crack a magnum of Karmeliet and expect it to pour ok an hour later.

2. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you'll know that most customers live in fear of doing the wrong thing or being faced with a culinary challenge they are not up to. You might love crab at home, but you don't want to have to rip one out of its shell with a set of nutcrackers in a room full of strangers. Even the "how do you like your steak" question fills some people with existential angst. 750ml means customers will be pouring each others beers. Many will think there is a "correct" amount of head, not know how much to pour, get nervous about that murky bottom inch of sludge — in short, another level of anxiety.

Bottom line: beer is more complex than wine, it doesn't conform to expectations, it behaves in weird ways. Beer geeks and adventurous patrons might appreciate the larger format, but ordinary restaurant goers are likely to be too intimidated to become accustomed.

The best way to promote beer in restaurants, for me, is to accentuate its variety, suggest pairings on the menu, and serve it in single serving sizes — preferably in specialized glassware. Servers should offer to pour your glass and leave you the empty bottle to examine at your leisure. Removes all anxiety and ensures a better experience all round.


  1. Thanks for the rebuttal. For the record, I never said, nor implied, anything about an "air of class". People who drink wine, or anything, to appear classy are... well... it's not something I'd encourage.

    Anyhoo, on point 1 the alcohol strength is irrelevant. A 75cl bottle is for sharing and that's all there is to it. All that matters is that the beer isn't stronger than wine. If it's weaker, it doesn't matter. If you want an alcohol buzz have a few pints before dinner. Or after. Or carry a hipflask. The blood-alcohol maths is not relevant to wine in the restaurant, so it need not be relevant to beer either.

    On point 2, well-trained staff and a relaxed atmosphere will sort this out. If people in your restaurant are feeling intimidated about anything, there's a problem with your restaurant.

  2. Yeah, to be honest I was with you on your original post. I just felt like playing the contrarian. I think smaller bottles do have appeal, especially as a gateway to a new dining experience. We tend to approach this issue from beer drinkers' perspectives, and whether you like it or not there is, if not intimidation, certainly some uncertainty among non-"craft"-beer drinkers about what to expect from these strange brews. But by and large a good restaurant should, as you rightly point out, be able to coax couples to have fun with a big bottle. I guess the real issue is working on the restaurateurs…

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