America's Pastime is hoping it's found beer's future.
Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, has installed two self-serve beer machines made by Draft Serv. Fans at Tuesday night's Major League Baseball All-Star Game will get to pour themselves draft beer with the only self-serve technology in major American sports.
While Draft Serv and its competitors have carved a stake in restaurants, hotels and casinos in recent years, self-serve technology's placement in the All-Star game—which will bring about 40,000 people to Target Field—marks its "greatest exposure ever," said Jeff Spence, CEO of Draft Serv.
Self-serve beer may never fully catch on in major American sports. But makers of the technology expect more stadiums will adopt it, saying the entrance into sports marks another step in the technology's emergence.
"It's a logical evolution into new areas of automation," Spence said.
The machines at Target Field are a "beta test" for self-service beer in sports, said Jerry Jacobs, Jr., principal at Delaware North, which provides concessions at the stadium. Delaware North will assess consumer reaction and sales before deciding whether to implement Draft Serv machines at other client stadiums, which include the venues for NFL, NBA and NHL teams.
The first Target Field machine was rolled out for a July 6 game, while the second was added ahead of the All-Star festivities. Fans provide identification at a concession stand and purchase a $10, $20 or $40 beer card for the machines, which offer four Anheuser-Busch-distributed brews. Budweiser and Bud Light run $.38 an ounce, while Shock Top and Goose Island 312 cost $.40 an ounce.
Machines aren't completely automated, as attendants stand by to ensure stumbling fans don't serve themselves too heavily.
"We'll see how the consumer responds to it," Jacobs said.
Consumers have become more receptive to the automated purchasing of "niche or higher-end" products such as beer, burritos and even caviar, said Omar Khedr, a vending industry analyst at IBISWorld. While companies in the U.S. haven't yet capitalized on automated beer sales in sports, some outside the U.S.—including Canada-based Molson at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver—have successfully marketed beer vending, he noted.
"I think it's just going to grow," Khedr said.
Before a recent spike in interest and inquiries fueled by the All-Star Game, Draft Serv's business already reached Europe, Asia and Australia, said Jose Hevia, founder and partner. The company currently has more than 200 systems in production and expects to make "several thousand" systems next year.
Competitors have noticed growing interest in self-serve, as well. Josh Goodman, founder of self-serve technology maker Innovative Tap, said the company had $200,000 in sales in 2010 before roughly doubling every year through 2013. This year, the company is on pace to triple its sales from last year.
Goodman believes Draft Serv's presence at the All-Star Game can only help self-serve producers, saying it "raises awareness about the product."
"I don't think the surface has even been scratched," Goodman said.
Goodman and Innovative Tap partner Declan Duggan noted that self-serve has to reflect wider trends in the beer industry— specifically, craft beer's growing market share. One of self-serve's strengths, they said, is allowing drinkers to taste a variety of beers in portions they choose, even to the point of mixing and matching (though it's anybody's guess as to how a Bud Light-pale ale combination would taste).
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They, and Hevia and Spence of Draft Serv, maintained that self-serve increases efficiency by reducing the workload of those serving the beer, and in turn, lines. They claim the machines reduce pouring waste, which Duggan said can render up to 20 percent of draft beer undrinkable.
It remains to be seen if these benefits carry over to sports venues and drive concession sales to the extent that other concessionaires or franchises will hop on the bandwagon, as human error by fans could still affect wait times and beer waste. Delaware North's Jacobs said that he hasn't yet taken part in discussions to add Draft Serv machines to any of Delaware North's other client franchises.
But Draft Serv's Spence noted the company has discussed offering Draft Serv with other concessionaires, without specifying where or when it could happen. The novelty may keep self-serve interesting and profitable at Target Field, if only for a time.
"The view of a baseball park is affected by what's offered in that park," Delaware North's Jacobs said.
—By Jacob Pramuk, Special to CNBC.com