How to stock the bar for Gen Z

What do consumers reaching drinking age want to drink—and what does that say about what’s trending?
Photograph: Shutterstock

College kids have a reputation for drinking a lot of beer—whether they’re chugging those mugs legally or not. But once they turn 21, is this age group expanding their alcoholic beverage horizons? And what are Gen Zers seeking as they move into grad school or the working world? 

“Speed, value and quality ingredients—those top the list with younger drinkers,” says Matt Schweitzer, senior director of food and beverage for Hopdoddy Burger Bar. With locations in Nashville and Austin and College Station, Texas, and several urban centers, Hopdoddy draws a good-size customer base from the college and young professional community. The restaurants’ draft cocktails, punches and frozen drinks meet the need for speed, while crafting the cocktails in-house with top spirits and ingredients addresses quality. On the beer side, craft, local and heritage brands are the brews of choice. “We also work hard to keep prices low,” says Schweitzer. “All drinks sell for $5 to $10, and we aggressively market happy hour.”

Technomic’s research backs up Hopdoddy’s focus. Gen Z consumers tend to purchase mixed drinks and cocktails, with 56% ordering these beverages monthly. Beer is close behind at 55%, but wine is a distant third with younger drinkers at 44%. While domestic beer leads in on-premise consumption at 74%, craft brews are edging up at 65%.

Following the craft route

University of New Mexico (UNM) jumped on the craft trend with its Draft & Table taproom, opened last October in the student union building on the Albuquerque campus. During the planning stages, a student survey revealed a strong desire for local sourcing. “The students and community are very passionate about local craft beers, so we wanted to showcase the brewers making incredible beers in and around Albuquerque,” says Amanda Gerard, operations manager, UNM Food. She points out that as a largely commuter college, the average age of students is 25 or 26, over legal drinking age.

On tap are 12 rotating local craft beers and a cider, plus one nonalcoholic option, such as cold-brew coffee. “We offer a balanced menu of depths and styles, ranging from light lagers to wheat ales to stouts,” Gerard says. All are priced at $5.50 for 16 ounces. An effort is made to choose beers that pair well with food. In addition to a menu of shareables, each guest is served a complimentary signature snack mix to keep alcohol levels in check.

Curating a drink menu

Hopdoddy also pays attention to pairings, focusing on refreshing drinks with flavors that complement its complex and often indulgent burger builds, says Schweitzer. Margaritas are a good example. “We sell a lot of margaritas and dress them up and down, even offering variations with different ABV levels,” he adds. Mules are also a customer favorite, as is Hopdoddy’s Root Beer Old Fashioned—a gateway to this classic cocktail made with root beer syrup and three identifiable whiskeys. “It appeals more to 21-year-olds,” says Schweitzer. “They can come in and order a drink without thinking about it or Googling the ingredients.”

While craft and local brews lead at Hopdoddy, he says, dive bars have elevated nostalgic canned and bottled brands such as PBR, Miller High Life and classic Budweiser. And even though Gen Zers are not big wine drinkers, according to Technomic, “Rose is here to stay,” says Schweitzer. “It’s a must-have, but we won’t innovate with it. We’re leading with mules and margaritas, playing with the builds and executing with creativity. That’s what people want.” 

Checklist for bars

Here’s what Gen Zers of legal drinking age are looking for in establishments that serve alcohol, according to Technomic data.

Vodka rules

Vodka is the go-to spirit for 62% of respondents who consume mixed drinks in that age group. Tequila- and rum-based drinks follow, at 56% and 55%, respectively.

Marketing counts

The menu description and/or a photo of the drink play a role in selection with 66% of Gen Z consumers.

Price concerns

Price is an important factor in deciding what to drink for 82% of respondents, backing up Schweitzer’s observation that value is a selling point.

A rosy picture for rose

When Gen Zers do drink wine—which is less frequently than older generations—they gravitate toward rose and moscato, with 56% ordering those two varietals over others.

High marks for socializing and variety

In choosing a bar to patronize, 57% want a variety of adult beverages, and 60% are looking for a place that’s good for socializing with friends.

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