The first time I ran across a “big box” alcohol retailer, I was thrilled to see the wide range of beers on offer from all over the world and the deep selection of American craft beers.However, since that time I have come to mistrust these retailers and in some instances have been outraged at the deplorable conditions some of the beer is kept in.
I’ve quoted Rogue’s John Maier about this more than once, “Beer has three enemies: light, heat and distributors.” I daresay he could add clueless retailers to that list.It’s clear that a store was laid out by a marketing team rather than a beer lover when there’s a row of high intensity spotlights shining down on an endcap of shiny craft beer bottles, which will slowly skunk under the harsh glare.It’s clear they don’t understand their product when you see IPA’s, Double IPA’s and other hoppy beers stored warm, hastening the decline of those rich, juicy hop notes and aromas.It’s clear that a bottle of beer is just another product to them when it’s sat on a shelf for over two years (according to the date imprint on the label) ensuring that it won’t taste anything like what the brewer intended.After buying some very old and poorly treated beers in these stores, I’ve learned to be careful.Always check bottling or “best before” dates when you can.Check for sediment in the bottom of the bottle, which often means it’s sat on the shelf a long time.Dust should always raise suspicions, as should unusually low prices. If you’re bound and determined to buy a bottle you’re not sure about, at least grab the second or third bottle back on the shelf, ideally one that’s been protected from the light better than the one on the front. (I once saw a whole row of beer that was exposed to direct sunlight every afternoon.I shudder to think what those beers tasted like.)
Some of this is also the fault of the craft beer industry itself.I recall attending a seminar at the Craft Brewers Conference one year on “SKU Proliferation” which made it clear that sometimes having a lot of choices isn’t a good thing.In these same big box stores I’m complaining about, there’s a huge range of choices, bewildering, in fact.If I’m unfamiliar with a beer, its reputation for quality and have doubts about how it’s been stored (and for how long) is it any wonder I’ll pass on that $7.99 six pack?If an experienced beer drinker like me is taking a pass on that beer, imagine how someone new to craft beer might feel?I’ve become more enamored of places where you can see the beer is cared for, refrigerated and that have a few employees who know something about what they are selling.Surprisingly, one of those places has been a supermarket chain, known for their moniker “Whole Paycheck” that has been aggressively promoting craft beer, to the point of adding an on-site brewery to some of their newer stores.Rather than being my last stop when beer shopping, they have moved to the fore, as have craft beer specialist stores, when I can find them.Sometimes the selection may not be as impressive, but the quality you get more than makes up for it.Maybe someday we’ll have a beer super- store that cares for their beer properly and ensures no beer lingers until it’s better suited to an off-flavor class, but until that day, Caveat Emptor!
Bev Blackwood II is the Southwest Brewing News Contributing Editor for Texas and has been covering Texas beers for 17 years An award winning home brewer, Bev has also brewed professionally at St. Arnold Brewing Company and was part of the team that brought home Saint Arnold’s first Great American Beer Festival gold medal in 2007. A long time member of Houston’s premiere homebrew club, the Foam Rangers, Bev teaches their Beer Judge Certification Program course and has also taught at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.
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