Much like the small brewers whose beers they carry continue to challenge the status quo set by large, multinational producers, craft beer boutique shops are carving out their own niche taking on the big retailers in their own backyards.
It’s also a sign that the craft beer consumer has truly arrived, as what was once largely the domain of the wine category—the tony bottle shop—has become a viable option for craft brewers and distributors to connect with the more discerning elements of their increasingly savvy consumer base. Indeed, they’ve become destinations in themselves among locals and—in travel destinations—tourists alike, with frequent in-store tastings, meet-the-brewer events and just plain hang-out-in-the-“library”-time.
“We don’t have the big brewery stuff, but we do have a tremendous selection from small boutique breweries,” Scott Shor, co-founder of the Charleston Beer Exchange, a small shop in Charleston, S.C., whose reputation extends well beyond the American Southeast. The five-star rating for the nearly 4-year-old store among Yelp users serves as a testament to that.
“We sell to the consumer who’s looking for a more unique selection,” Shor explains. “But selection is only a small part of it. What’s more important is customer service and product knowledge. It’s not just a business, it’s a personal hobby, a passion for everyone who works here. Because we’re so into the products, it’s a situation where a consumer can come in and really get high-quality help with whatever their selection is.”
In the neighboring Carolina, Bruisin’ Ales, which opened in December 2006, has made a name for itself as a beer destination within a beer destination—Asheville, N.C., which, for the past three years has been voted Beer City U.S.A. (sharing the title this year with Grand Rapids, Mich., home of Founders Brewing Co., a 2012 i>Beverage World Breakout Brand). The number of breweries based in the city—already in the low double-digits—is about to grow by three, as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues all have announced plans to open new production facilities in and around Asheville.
“The growth [of the Asheville beer scene] has been really organic, although I sort of hate that term,” says Julie Atallah, co-founder of Bruisin’ Ales. “It’s always been a tourist destination, we’ve just added a new segment with craft beer.”
At any given time, Bruisin’ Ales has between 900 and 1,000 different brands in the store, depending on the season.
Atallah’s customers tend to be more or less evenly split between locals and visitors, though, she admits, it’s a difficult statistic to measure. Brusin’ Ales has a very loyal, local customer base, she says, many of whom will also bring visiting friends in. The store also does e-mail orders and ships to states where it’s legally permitted. “We’ve got a really good word-of-mouth thing going on in the city itself,” she offers.
And, thanks to the advent of social media and the “Beer City USA” online poll for the store’s home city, that word spread pretty quickly beyond North Carolina.
The folks at Craft Beer Cellar credit the internet in general and social media in particular for much of the growth of their relatively new, 21-month-old shop in Belmont, Mass. in the greater Boston area.
“We’re certainly blessed to have good words about us on the internet,” says Craft Beer Cellar co-founder Suzanne Schalow.
Schalow notes that 35 to 40 percent of her customers are locals and another 35 or 40 percent or so are the beer geeks who don’t mind taking a little road trip to the store because they know they’re not likely to find “that special bottle” anywhere else.
“We’ve prided ourselves on knowing most of the time what people are looking for, even if they’re not sure of the name [of the beer], Schalow says. “Someone will say, ‘I think it’s called Moose-something,’ and we’d know it’s Moose Drool. As craft beer grows, it’s going to be more challenging for us.”
Craft Beer Cellar’s shelves are divided into six geographic beer regions: international, excluding Belgium, which gets its own section; East Coast, West Coast, No Coast (everything between the U.S. coasts, that is and, of course, New England.
Craft Beer Cellar hosts at least three beer tastings a week, which attract new consumers and give the regulars another reason to keep coming back with the prospect of sampling and learning about a new brewery or beer.
While most would agree that the educational aspect of craft beer is key—both in the sense that consumers have learned exponentially more about craft than they knew a decade ago and that they continue to thirst for more information—sometimes it falls to retailers to give them an informal crash course on the finer points of beer distribution and the three-tier system.
It usually occurs when a consumer visits or calls the store looking for a brew the shop doesn’t carry because that brewery doesn’t distribute in that state. And it’s not like the store can special order it, as in most other forms of retail.
“People are constantly calling looking for a beer from a brewery that doesn’t distribute here, but they’re not here because they don’t want to be, not because we don’t want to carry it,” says Schalow.
However, says Bruisin’ Ales’ Atallah, consumers are far better informed about some of those arcane details than they used to be.
“In the beginning that was really difficult for people to understand and I think the consumers are getting more educated,” Atallah asserts. “No one really talked about the three-tier system before craft beer exploded. People didn’t understand why we didn’t have a certain something we could just order from the brewery. Now they’re starting to understand that a bit.”
Still, as consumers get more educated about craft beer and they start demanding it more, doesn’t that mean the big retailers will just start carrying a larger selection, making it even harder for the boutique beer store to compete?
Atallah says not necessarily if the smaller retailers continue to get access to one of the greatest weapons in their arsenal: special, limited releases.
“With all of these special releases coming out, we’re starting to see a change in where these things are placed,” Atallah says. “Smarter consumers are shopping at a store like ours so [distributors] will send them to stores like ours, instead of allocating them to the grocery stores. Brewers technically don’t have a say once [beer] leaves the brewery, but they’re getting more and more active in where they want their beers placed.”
More and more, she says, brewers are appealing to distributors to put those special releases in the independent stores.
“In a store like ours that doesn’t sell wine, you really need those special releases—that’s what makes up for everything else,” Atallah says. “You don’t have those 55 percent wine margins to make up for it.”