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Can Craft Beer Save the Minibar?

November 07, 2018

By Joshua Bernstein, November 07, 2018

I have been very drunk in very many hotels over very many years, but I’ve rarely been drunk enough to reach into a minibar and grab one more beer. Like my vision, prices were often doubled or tripled what I wanted to see, a lonely mass-market lager selling for as much as a four-pack of hazy IPAs. Any bruising hangover is only amplified by buyer’s remorse.

“In the heyday of gouging, we would have so many minibar disputes,” says Justin Simpson, the general manager at Kimpton Shorebreak Resort in Huntington Beach, California. “People did not want to pay $50 for a few bags of chips and waters.”

These are hard times for the hotel minibar. The German company Siegas invented the refrigerated amenity in the early 1960s, creating a lucrative stream of marked-up snack and beverage sales for upscale hoteliers. In 1974, the Hilton hotel in Hong Kong charted a boozier path for the minibar by outfitting its 840 rooms with liquor-stocked fridges. Need a nightcap? Nip one while wearing a bathrobe!

Part bar, part convenience store, the in-room offering spread to hotels worldwide, increasing both revenue and headaches. Staff was required to stock and maintain the minibars, and unscrupulous guests pilfered products by, say, refilling tiny vodka bottles with water. This led to hotels putting fridges on prison-like lockdown, charging guests for moving that can of Coke a couple inches. No wonder folks started treating minibars like a pricey plague, avoiding contact at all costs because of the cost.

If you can get it downstairs at the bar, it’ll be the same price in the minibar.”

“Minibars in most larger hotels lack diversity, are expensive and have security alarms on them. That’s insane to me,” says Kelly Schmidt, the innkeeper at Longman & Eagle in Chicago. “It’s a bummer for the guest to have a minibar like that in their room.”

To resuscitate minibars and infuse the fridges with a sense of place and taste, hoteliers have embraced lower prices and locally brewed beer. Longman & Eagle’s six-room inn is located over a tavern serving whiskey, wild boar sloppy Joes and beers from Chicago breweries such as Off Color, Whiner and Metropolitan, many of which are offered in the upstairs minibar. It offers a compelling reason to have another round.

“I’m pretty adamant about pricing,” Schmidt says. “If you can get it downstairs at the bar, it’ll be the same price in the minibar. I always joke that if you don’t have to put your pants on to get a beer, why should you?”

At the boutique Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the minibar picks are as compelling and competitively priced as beers at the downstairs bar. “I want people to enjoy a beer in their room as much as they do at the bar,” says food and beverage manager Zach Clement, who fills fridges with local selections such as Able Seedhouse + Brewery’s Supergiant golden ale and the coffee-infused First Call lager from Modist Brewing, located a few blocks from the hotel. “When somebody brings up beer and asks if there are any breweries within walking distance, that’s the first one I always bring up. It helps us showcase the local connection.”

Larger hotel chains are also giving their fridges a beer-focused facelift. “In the hotel industry as a whole the minibar may be falling out of style, but it’s actually the opposite case here,” says Vedran Sosa, the director of food and beverage at W Fort Lauderdale. The hotel’s commitment to local beer starts at the bar serving Insider, a Vienna-style lager custom-brewed for the property by Miami’s Concrete Beach Brewery. “It goes beyond trying something local and gives guests a one-of-a-kind experience,” Sosa says.

In rooms, the Mix Bar—the hotel’s take on the minibar—lets guests play bartender with shakers, mixers and glassware, while Funky Buddha’s Hop Gun IPA and Floridian Hefeweizen fill fridges. “When guests open the door, they’re intrigued by names, can designs, and flavors that they haven’t seen or tried,” Sosa says. “More and more travelers are wanting to travel like a local and have authentic experiences that immerse them in the destination.”

California’s surfer-friendly Kimpton Shorebreak sits near some of SoCal’s choicest breaks, the hotel popular with wave chasers and vacationers alike. About a year ago, the Shorebreak decided to shake up the static minibar. “At some point, hotels lost their creativity in the minibar,” says Simpson, the general manager. “There’s always that one Snickers. It’s not stuff you want.”

Simpson and Blake Mathias, the director of food and beverage, started thinking about their at-home snacking habits, the desires of guests looking to unwind in weed-friendly California after a day at the beach. The rebooted minibar now contains Stone IPA, Sailor Jerry rum shooters, and a Mexican lager made for the hotel, which guests can sip while crunching Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “It’s our second best-seller,” Mathias says of the spicy cheese puffs.

That’s not surprising. Inside hotel rooms, no one is watching. Guests can indulge in their preferred guilty pleasures, provided there are pleasures at hand. Minibars aren’t meant to be museum pieces, dusted weekly. They’re repositories of instant gratification. And to hoteliers, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing an empty minibar.

“I love walking into a room after a guest checked out and seeing a ravaged minibar,” says Longman & Eagle’s Schmidt. “It’s a sign that they had a great night. This could also be a sign of a really sad night, but at least they had the comfort of a great minibar.”

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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