Buy Your Beer From Someone Who Knows

Martin Johnson - Be picky about where you shop for beer.

Let’s continue the theme started by Bev Blackwood in his excellent column earlier this week. About four years ago, I was hired to set up the beer program at an epicerie on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It seemed like an ideal situation. The neighborhood had no craft beer havens at that time, and with our specialty orientation, setting up a beer case that leaned toward the high end side seemed like a natural fit. It was; during the next two and half years, we built a solid community of beer fanatics, and took great pleasure in introducing them to the work of Maine Beer Company, Hof Ten Dormaal, Evil Twin, Mikkeller, Stillwater, and many other fine brewers. For people who just wanted something along the lines of a cold one, we offered Lagunitas and Sixpoint. In addition to the offerings, each variety of beer sported an informative sign that made mention of its style, ABV, and offered a sentence or two about its flavor. By the time I left, in autumn 2014, our little beer case was almost certainly generating more dollars per square foot than anywhere else in the shop.

I left to work on the beer program for a small chain of specialty food shops where the beer selections lagged far behind the rest of the inventory. I quickly discovered why. In my first meeting with purchasing managers, one of them gleefully told me that they didn’t really need help with beer. To my shock and horror, he told me “just tell us when to order the pumpkin beer and when to order the raspberry beer, that’s all this craft stuff is about, really.” Can you say bad fit? I was gone ten weeks later.

In the last month, I’ve visited one outlet of the chain and I returned to my old Upper West Side haunt. The epicerie had simply discontinued the beer program altogether (this didn’t surprise me - the owner never thought of beer drinkers as her customers even though some of them routinely dropped over $100 on a half dozen barrel aged Belgian brews). However the chain was worse. They had curtailed their beer selection, displayed what little they had sideways, and offered a sale section that offered discounts on summer and pumpkin beers. I wondered if I should remove them from my resume.

One of my wine expert friends is often asked where to shop for wine. His response is to test the retailer. “Go in and ask someone who works there to talk about their favorite wine.” His notion is that if the person doesn’t bubble with enthusiasm about some bottle or style of wine, then the place isn’t worth shopping at because they lack passion about wine which will lead to all kinds of neglect of the bottles. I think we need to hold beer retailers to the same standard. If your retailer can’t discuss the ABV or the hop content of a particular beer, or if they don’t seem into beer, then why shop there? The beers are just pretty bottles on a shelf to them. As craft beer lovers, we shouldn’t reward ignorance. Instead we should stand up for our rights and find beer retailers that well, give a shit, about what they do. After all if your retailer can’t be passionate about the quality of the amazing beer being brewed today then maybe that store should sell office supplies instead.

The Author:

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.

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