A little more than four years ago, I stumbled into what seemed like the coolest part time job ever. I was the Sunday/Monday guy at a wine shop in my neighborhood. The shop was in an area of the East Village in New York that was just starting to come up; within a coupla years, a beer bar/bottle shop hybrid, a wine bar, and an amazing fried chicken place would open up on the same block, but for that moment, the wine shop had the spot to itself. In addition, the wine shop had a well-chosen inventory. Yeah, we had French wines but instead of focusing on traditional strongholds like Bordeaux and Burgundy, we built our inventory with bottles from places like the Rhone Valley, Laungedoc Roussillon, and the Jura. Of course we had Brunelos and Barolos but a lot of our Italian wine came from Sicily, Campania and Puglia. And as you have figured by now, a lot of our West Coast American wine hailed from Oregon and Washington.
A lot of my job was to teach and persuade the clientele that our wines were as good as, if not better than, those from more familiar regions. It was a blast. I pretty much talked about wine all day with breaks for restocking the shelves. The shop was on the up and up, and I felt like I was contributing to a winning team.
I now think I have an even cooler, somewhat parallel job working the beer aisle at big new fancy grocery that is also in my nabe. I get to purchase about half the beer we carry, and I spend a lot of time on my shift loitering in the beer aisle, discussing with people a wide variety of topics - for instance, why they are called India Pale Ales, even though they aren't brewed anywhere near India, or why a hoppy beer isn't necessarily a bitter beer. In my 11 months there, I've introduced dozens of customers to the joys of Saisons, Pale Wheats, and Imperial Stouts. Our beer clientele often looks for me or my boss to find out what's new in stock and what's on the horizon. In other words, I work the beer aisle just like I did the wine shop four years ago. What I don't understand is why we're so unique among big shops.
I look at the beer selection at most stores I visit and even the good ones are an inert selection of pretty bottles, some with funky names. There's little assistance. If you don't just happen to know that Boulevard's Tank 7 is an amazing citrusy saison or a that Founders Backwoods Bastard is a scotch ale aged in bourbon barrels, then you might bypass such amazing brews. There may be someone who can answer an inventory question or two, but there isn't someone to launch a dialogue about beer, a person that can make the experience of buying craft beer fun and informative.
It seems to me that this is the next task for craft beer retailers. People who are new to this caliber of beer often face a guessing game when it comes to their purchases, which is why they often simply become fans of easy to find basics like Sam Adams Boston Lager or Lagunitas IPA. They know there's more out there, but they don't have the time and perhaps they don't have the budget to turn a trip to the beer aisle into a gamble. They shouldn't have to; there's so much great beer out there, a road map, even a verbal one, isn't hard to provide. And I know from firsthand experience that the increased profits will justify it.
Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.