Does Your Favorite Taproom Feel Welcoming?

Architecture has a lot to do with how you enjoy your favorite Craft Beer.

Surly Brewing outfdoor gardens.
Surly Brewing Taproom Courtyard Area.

When you find a taproom that you keep going back to, it probably isn’t solely due to the excellent craft beer. It might have something to do with architecture. Test that theory, the next time you visit that taproom notice the design features, because those attributes are probably what gives that taproom its appealing character.

Architects I met with for this article, all specializing in brewery designs, tell me many design factors make for an environment that contributes to an overall sense of comfort and appeal. The short list of factors architects considers in their design recommendations include the utilization of colors, acoustics, aromas, music, furniture, and ease of movement within the space. “The trick is putting the right combinations together that address the demographics of the community and customers who will visit the space,” says David Madsen, a Reno brewery architect.

If done correctly, the brewery ‘s architectural design is part of the brewery brand. Many in the craft beer movement are considering coming changes to the industry post COVID; no doubt, changes are already being anticipated and planned.

“Our clients affirm that the craft beer industry is inherently social, and, as such, craft beer relies upon community-oriented gathering spaces to bring people together,” says Rebecca Spears, Partner in RB+B Architects in Ft. Collins, CO.

Simply stated, architectural design in a taproom must maximize opportunities to create visits and product trials, and visually promoting a total brand image. Therefore, breweries are continually reviewing their target market and trying to anticipate changes in consumer preferences. Customers dictate branding, and architectural design showcases the brand. A taproom “feel” is the ultimate opinion of a brand. It can be more potent than a can on a very crowded shelf. From a consumer’s perspective they may be asking: What is this taproom doing for me?

The Post Pandemic period, of which there is no agreement when it might end, will probably bring changes to the way consumers view their taproom experiences. These facilities are getting to be beyond a DIY project, where they utilize a raw industrial ambiance with picnic bench tables. From interviews with breweries and architects specializing in the craft beer industry, the most noticeable evolution are breweries upgrading production facilities and thinking more about taproom designs that showcase an experiential and destination orientation.

Consumers need to recognize that breweries cannot build just any taproom they like. Far too many factors come into play to allow for that: construction codes, zoning, health board requirements, taxes, environmental considerations, etc. The thoughtful question that must be answered up front is: What is the customer desiring now and what will be coming? Changes will happen, if nothing else, from the competition and local laws.

“Over the past decade we have been involved in over 170 brewery projects and continue to do work for them. They recognize changes due to the maturing of the craft beer industry and need to improve their brand. These changes are being adopted by breweries and are not going unnoticed by consumers”, says T. Dustin Hauck-President of Hauck Architecture. “We have built a company focused on the craft beverage and hospitality industry. In the past few years, we have noticed a significant increased interest in clients evaluating their image. Upgrading a brewery’s architecture and taproom experience is a significant statement to a community and their brand.”

Before moving on to talk about taproom changes Post Pandemic, I found this anonymous quote that summarizes why architecture is vital to adding permanency to the craft beer category. “An architect can influence consumer perceptions with his/her design by understanding how a building’s design can impact a person’s behavior, mood and perception of a brand”. The COVID-19 Pandemic has forced people to have a new appreciation of space’s they frequent.

Note to the reader: I am not an architect; I do not know any, but I did make many calls about this obscure subject that does impact the craft beer industry. Applying an oft used political saying-all craft beer is local! I want to add a new dimension to the issue of changes coming to craft beer addressed by the architectural industry. Now that being said let’s move on.

It is a fact that design/visuals influence purchase habits; that is why breweries and all beverage alcohol producers spend a lot of time and money on labels. Getting someone to try a beer brand is the start of the customer relationship, but the product must support an acquired image, expectations, and advertising message.

Is the taproom adding value to the customer experience and adding value to the brewery? Taprooms or brewpubs run the gambit relative to investments, but it isn’t about the money; it is about delivering on an experience commensurate with a market demographic. That is what the consumer is buying.

In the end, a great taproom is a space that makes the consumer feel like most of the elements of a brand is theirs.

If you want to see some exciting approaches to brewery and taproom architecture do an on-line search for “brewery architecture” or “architectural firms specializing in craft breweries.” Great taprooms and brew pubs are about architectural design to support and enhance a brand. The effort does not need to be expensive either. Taproom designs are unbelievable in their features.

Today brewery designs compromises between budget, production/brewing requirements, regulations and public spaces (inside and outside). Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, got his start designing automobile showrooms that heightened buying a new car: sight, sounds, smell, and experience. Taprooms are showrooms in a sense.

Branding a craft brewery today is about quality and exceeding customer expectations. Consider the money spent by large corporations like Disney, McDonalds, gaming resorts and some craft breweries to create a that particular feel. Look at what Surly Brewing built and was written about in a 2016 Beer Brewing article by Tom Wilmes. This is a destination brewery built around a requirement that it be central to all passenger conveyance hubs. Conversely, the architectural design does not need to be expensive and extravagant to be highly effective for craft beer producers, of any size, to maximize their potential and build an asset through branding with architecture.

I keep throwing around the term ‘taproom’; maybe now is a good time to define todays taproom and then throw out some suggestions as to what the taproom may look like going forward for the next few years.

“Taprooms are already being designed as gathering places. We foresee breweries continuing to focus on creating an environment that enhances the connection with their brand while delivering a unique experience for their customers and connecting their customers with one another,” says Spears. Many breweries are expanding the value of their taprooms beyond their function as a space for serving craft beer, by evaluating how design details within the taproom can support the message of their larger brand.”

First, a taproom is not a bar. People do not go to a taproom to sit at a long bar, elbow to elbow, in a smoke-filled dark room, and just mindlessly consuming beverage alcohol. The simplest definition is offered by Craft Beer Joe, “A taproom is the space in which a brewery serves its beer to customers. In most cases, this space is either part of the actual brewery or attached to it”. Further, a taproom may not even involve an on-premises brewery.

Dustin Hauck commented, “We are being asked to design/re-design taprooms a casual gathering environment, and up to a full range of community/destination location with full hospitality amenities. Breweries are already offering their taprooms for gatherings commensurate with their customer base”. Point-being, coming changes to facilities the need to consider community, customers and opportunities.

Some more apparent projections Post Pandemic:

  • Outdoor space utilization will demand some utilization in new designs, including looking at it as more space. Even seasonal cold and hot weather brewers are working with outdoor spaces.
  • Brewery and Taprooms will focus on designs that bespeak more of the community culture. Customer demographics will define the taproom. For example, is a taproom family-oriented, younger crowd, pet friendly, and/or have a game area?
  • Taprooms will focus on architecture that makes a statement about their brands’ image. Designs will change to be more supportive of the brand they represent.
  • Consolidations, post-pandemic, will mean some changes in the number of breweries. AS we advance, will most consumers live within 10 miles of a brewery, as the Brewers Association suggest?
  • Due to the Pandemic lockdown, craft beer consumers will be drawn to more unknown locations with brewery consolidations and expansions. (Consolidations could mean a re-take on prior business models/branding which could invite consumers to visit new formats from a consolidation.) Markets do change and people are now looking for new experiences and being with people also looking for new adventures with family and friends. It does seem people look for things new and are willing to try new approaches.
  • The architecture will need to distinguish brewery taprooms and offer consumers the chance to explore new experiences. Taprooms have individual character, and they cannot be “all things to all people”; that is a recipe for non-descript.
  • Taprooms will be more involved in community or “cause” identities and their designs will reflect such affiliations. “Much of the work we do redesigning new taprooms or enhancing existing spaces is designed to bring together hospitality, client brand, and serve as a means for building community,” notes Spears when discussing taprooms and community relationships.
  • Breweries will learn from the experiences of surviving the Covid-19 lockdown by fine-tuning take-out and delivery programs. For many, these take-out programs allowed them to survive and no doubt these programs will be fine-tuned into the future.

It is apparent that breweries look at on-premises sales with many objectives in mind, not the least of which is higher margins. But every brewery has a set of goals and strategies and plans-of-action that are dictated by a diverse group of considerations-local codes, finances, site/facilities, branding and staffing skill sets.

Tiny Giants Co. says, “A brand is what people picture or feel when they think about your company. A strong brand identity helps you keep an important first impression, while a bad one makes you seem unreliable, outdated, or worst of all, forgettable”. Architectural design in craft beer branding is creating perceptions and then reenforcing those perceptions with the craft beer consumer and community.” Labels and coasters do not make a brand.

Consumers seldom think about the investment a business makes in facilities and staff. Consider a small brewery and taproom operation producing beer solely for sale through their taproom, their investment could be $250,000 to $400,000 for a modest operation. They could spend another $50,000 to $75,000 finish out their taproom.

Brian Graton of FMD Architects in Ohio says, “Every trade show or brewery related conference I attend, I get questions from a design cost standpoint, how much does it cost to build a new taproom? My standard reply is: What do your customers want?” Out of 100 FMD Architects’ brewery and hospitality projects, they say it is a process to nail down exact costs. But I can tell you the most impressive taproom we have built was a $400 a square foot taproom within an existing brewery. As a point of reference, a taproom is generally designed for 15 square feet per person. In addition, requirements for a sprinkler system start at an occupancy rate of 99 people. Sprinklers for small taprooms is a significant consideration.

In a segment about brew pubs on the BBC a few years ago, they said, “Architecture dictates how you feel”. The taproom needs to tell a story about the beer and the brewery and the people.

A beverage alcohol enterprise cannot be all things to all people. A brewery must ask, what do I want customers to say about my brand? We already know Marketing 101 talks about product names, label designs, product and pricing. But do brewery owners consider the impact a facility presents in creating a first and lasting impression on visitors? Once a brand is introduced, it is difficult, if not impossible, to change impressions formed from personal experiences.

A brewery taproom or brew pub is a great way to help create and build a brand and add value to the asset. Good architects and designers can create a space that becomes integral to a brand. For example, look at Sierra Nevada Brewery. The Sierra Nevada Brewery facilities make such a strong statement that they are showcased in their advertising. Even White Labs, a yeast manufacturer in San Diego, has a taproom.

Whatever a brewery decides relative to a public space for selling their products, the only audience that matters are the customers. It is also worth noting that some craft beer enthusiasts plan vacation trips around visits to showcase breweries.