What makes a good craft beer liquor store?

Well, here I am thinking about this question. It feels like this may be a little controversial: so let’s start by saying, it isn’t meant to be. I won’t be listing my top ten shops or telling you where not to buy our beer. But, a huge part of our beer’s presentation to you, the customer, is where you buy it and who you buy it from, so it’s something we have opinions about. And you are our very most favourite and important people, so here is my list of great-liquor-store-attributes!

First off, a liquor store should feel welcoming. There are a ton of elements to this. Most important is the lay out and the materials used to build the store. We’ve all walked into cold white shops with brown cardboard boxes as far as the eye can see and no obvious way to navigate them. Those are stores where you see regulars walk in with their heads down, heading straight to where the one product is that they always buy. Not the best places for us to introduce new people to our beers!

Next is the people. I can’t believe the range of people that we meet in liquor stores. In 95% of cases, liquor store owners and staff are the friendliest folks you could care to meet. It’s a killer job: you’re on your feet for 8 hours, you stare at the same shelves that whole time, you listen to a lot of opinions on all sorts of things, and you deal with all sorts of customers. Beer department employees deal with people who are pissed that they sold their last bottle of KBS yesterday, and then have to exude the same enthusiastic friendliness to the guy looking for malt liquor. They agree with all manner of opinions that come their way about politics, beer, and the weather. They don’t judge someone who’s grabbing a case of Budweiser, they don’t roll their eyes at people who are looking for some insane rare beer that has never been sold in the state, and they listen patiently as people describe a label they once saw in their Uncle Raymond’s cooler and never got to try (“Well, what kind of beer was it?” “OH, I didn’t drink it, I don’t know!”). And the good ones look everyone in the eye and speak to them as though they are important. If you know a liquor store staff member like this, say hi from me because I have the greatest love and respect for these people! They are all over the place, in all kinds of stores, not just the stores that have great craft beer selections. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve spoken to someone this dedicated whose boss will only let them stock one shelf with craft beer. But there they are, brimming with enthusiasm nonetheless.

Second, I don’t love stores where craft beer is exiled to the farthest corner on a shelf next to where all the coolers blow out hot air. I like to go to shops where craft beer is somewhere close to the entrance, and preferably has its own aisle that looks as cared for and fancy as the wine aisles. Sometimes in these stores, the staff will stick little post-it notes to our beers telling people that they love them. Or we’ll find one of our stickers randomly attached to a beer rack. It’s the small stuff that counts! It literally moves me to tears. I am a softy.

Third: beer organization. This is a tricky one. Most stores have started organizing their beers by local, then less local, then foreign. And they group brands together, and they group by bottle size too. I think this is pretty good, because usually that’s how people buy beer. Some stores group beer by style, which is not my favourite, mostly because our beers don’t really fit into styles so they end up in weird places, plus it’s harder to find a brand when it’s scattered all over the place. Plus I don’t usually go to a beer shop looking for a style of beer. I usually walk in with a very open mind and like to have a relaxing browse without really engaging my brain. It’s too demanding (yes, for me, the brewer of beer!). So I guess I like it when our beers are all in one place. (*note: obviously also at eye level and in the cooler, but it would be a bit biased to say that this defines a great liquor store!)

Fourth: turnover. This would be my top criterion really: that beers turnover fast enough to be within 3-4 months of their bottling date. No dusty bottles! It causes me physical pain to find year-old bottles of beer on the shelf!

Fifth: pricing. This is a tricky one. There’s a right price for every beer, and the lesson I’ve learned is that finding the price that works best is a peculiar science that varies from store to store. We absolutely want people to charge our recommended retail prices: $5.99 for Jack D’Or and St Botolph’s Town, and $7.99 for Baby Tree and most of our seasonals (note, these numbers are for MA, we have no idea about pricing elsewhere). But we see a huge range, and we can’t insist on those prices. Also, we have visited stores where a higher price seems justified through service, ambience, and sheer joy of the shopping experience (in our opinion). But we have also visited stores where the price is too high for the neighbourhood and the beers just aren’t selling because of it: which leaves us (and more importantly, you!) with old crappy beer at a high price. Argh! So, pricing is a personal decision made by each store, and if a store cares, genuinely, about both its beer suppliers and its customers, they tend to reach the right place. And the right price is one where people feel they paid a fair price for a fantastic experience and a great beer. You are the folks who make those decisions, so please vote with your feet!

To summarize, finding a good liquor store (and it’s a personal decision I think, based on how you like to shop) means looking for the following: 1. You feel comfortable and welcome 2. The people helping you are interested in beer and in what you want to buy 3. You can find what you want, and you can browse for a while and enjoy it 4. The price works for you 5. The beer is fresh. Oh, and if you find yourself hanging around and chatting with the beer buyer, the other customers, or me and Dann or other brewers or reps: then you’ve found a great store!

Dann always says if you could hook up someone’s brain to a brain monitor (which doesn’t seem like it would exist, although I suppose it might) while they shopped for beer, it would be the most complex decision-making process there is. All that choice: color, style, bias, reviews, novelty, ego, friends, occasion, package, price, position… it’s mind boggling! Which makes it all the more astonishing to me that anyone ever decided to pick up a bottle of beer with a deformed mustachioed barleycorn standing in a wooden bucket on the label and tell their friends about it. So Thank you to you, the drinker, for finding us in the stores, and thank you to the stores for all you’ve done for us and our little barleycorn, Jack D’Or. Cheers!
martha@prettythingsbeertoday.com