From simple to ornate, tap handles vie for beer drinkers’ eyes

By Aaron Swaney
For The Herald Business Journal

Arlington’s Skookum Brewery uses a carved wooden bear claw. Bothell’s Decibel Brewing recycles old microphones. Everett’s Scuttlebutt features a mermaid, which to be fair, is far from beautiful.

“The saying went if the mermaid started to look good then you’d had enough,” said Matt Stromberg, head brewer at Everett’s Scuttlebutt Brewing

Beer tap handles come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one purpose: To get that customer sitting on the other side of the bar to give the beer a try.

“In a more competitive, on-premise market, making your brand more visible and grabbing consumer attention is more important than ever,” said Brewers Association chief economist Bart Watson. “Repeat purchase will be based on many factors, primarily beer quality and flavor, but a handle is clearly an important part of gaining a customer’s attention in the first place.”

Bartenders tug on tap handles hundreds of times a night. They covet the creative ones. The annoying ones usually find a home in a box under the bar.

“I like to think about what tap handle you’d want in a battle. You know, for a zombie apocalypse,” said Doug Hall, co-owner of The Independent Beer Bar in Everett. “It’s got to be weighty and pointy, right?”

Cudgels aside, as long as faucets have poured beer, there has been something to adorn it advertising the liquid behind the tap. The best are intricately designed carvings that relate to the beer somehow or colorful creations that glimmer among the sea of other handles.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to stand out,” said Scuttlebutt’s Stromberg. “You want your tap handle to resonate and grab attention.”

Bellingham’s Wander Brewing went with a more streamlined approach.

“Wander’s branding is very simple,” co-owner Colleen Kuehl said. Thier handle is a plain rectangular handle in the brewery’s signature teal color, with the red Wander logo at the top. The name of the particular beer is just a magnetic label that sticks onto the handle.

Wander plays around with so many different types of beers, Kuehl said, it would be difficult to keep up with making a separate handle for each brew.

“We like having one signature tap handle, with the changing magents, so that people can recognize it easily when they walk in somewhere,” Kuehl said.

Familiarity is also important.

“You want your tap handle to be recognizable from across the room,” said R.J. Whitlow, owner and head brewer of Marysville’s 5 Rights Brewing. “You want people to look over and immediately know you’re on tap.”

Whitlow designed his tap handles to be wood and have the brewery’s five-point logo on top. He still distributes his own beer to restaurants and taprooms like NYP Everett and Mukilteo Lodge Sports Grill, and brings along the handles to go with the beer.

For most breweries, tap handles are mass-produced, ranging in cost from $5 to $20, and given to distributors, who then pass them along to accounts to never be seen again. Well, except online.

“Tap handles can be a huge expense,” Stromberg said. “If you go on eBay there’s a market for these things. Bars will ‘forget’ to give them back and all of a sudden they’re online. Our KEXP tap handles went quick and now they’re collector’s items.”

Ironically, tap handles aren’t all that great for the faucets they’re attached to. Some bars are moving away from the big, bulky tap handles, which can create too much leverage on faucets, instead opting for the standard 3-inch-tall generic black handles. One too many hard pulls from the top of a large handle by an overzealous bartender can break a faucet.

Sometimes tap handles are just too unwieldy. Hall, of The Independent, said that a recent Goose Island Brewing tap handle was so wide it took out handles on each side of it. A bartender would pour a Goose Island beer and another handle would come along for the ride, spilling beer all over the bar.

Most of the larger craft breweries farm out the manufacturing of their tap handles. Seattle’s Taphandles is a major design and manufacturing company that specializes in creating tap handles and other point-of-purchase products for craft breweries around the world. In Snohomish County, Terrene, Inc., works with a number of local breweries, including 5 Rights and Mukilteo’s Diamond Knot Brewing, to design and fabricate products, including tap handles, coasters, nameplates and more.

Shane Mathieson, who has worked at Terrene for 13 years, helps breweries take the ideas in their heads and turn them into reality. He said he’s made tap handles out of stainless steel, plastic, wood and other metals. Most then go under a laser to cut designs or etch and burn logos and names. Some breweries go the do-it-yourself route. Decibel Brewing’s Corey Cook and Ben Endicott took their first love, music, and their long history in the industry as audio engineers as inspiration for their tap handles. They took all of the old microphones they collected over the years, modified them and outfitted their taps with them.

Endicott even reached out to the famous microphone manufacturer Rode Microphones to complete Decibel’s collection.

“I sent an email to Rode asking if they had any scratch-and-dent mic bodies that they couldn’t sell,” Endicott said. “They were happy to ship us a box of four mics, with no insides.”

In need of a quick, cheap solution when his brewery first opened, Frank Sandoval, owner of SnoTown Brewing in Snohomish, also used music as the source for his tap handles. He fashioned drumsticks around a hex nut and used epoxy to hold them together to create unique tap handles. They work so well, he’s kept them in place ever since.

Drumsticks might make a solid weapon, but Hall has his eye on a Breakside Brewing tap handle The Independent recently put on.

“You see this? They have an aluminum lawn chair on the back of their tap handle,” Hall said, pointing at the thin, gray metallic object protruding from the back of Breakside’s tap handle. “That’s a great tap handle.”

BBJ Associate Editor Emily Hamann contributed reporting to this story.


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