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How to Select a Beer Merchant
If you're a craft beer enthusiast then you probably know that beer is indeed a most perishable product. Many factors affect the condition of the beer that ends up in your refrigerator from the handling by the manufacturer and distributor right down to your retailer and you.
As consumers, we are at the mercy of everyone who handles our beer before we purchase it. But you can avoid many disappointing beers by finding and nurturing a good beer merchant. A good beer merchant is invaluable to specialty beer hunters as well as beer novices, and they're not always easy to find. He or she can influence your opinion of specific beer brands or even influence whether you'll be back to buy more craft brews. So let's examine some of the ways to identify a reputable beer merchant.
The old real estate adage "location, location, location" may be applied here. Convenience is important, and the closer to home your beer store is, the better. But convenience isn't everything, and if your neighborhood package store doesn't meet any of the other qualifications, you may have to drive a few extra miles to find what you're looking for. Another option is to convince your favorite package store to start carrying an expanded selection of craft-brewed beers, but the caveat there is whether their beer knowledge will be up to snuff.
Variety and Selection
Variety and selection is key. While some beer merchants promote their stores for carrying many beer brands from numerous countries, who cares if all the beers are the same style like the ubiquitous light lagers. Look for a store that offers a wide selection of beer styles. It should carry both light and dark ales and lagers, wheat beers, and barleywines. (Some state laws prohibit true barleywines due to their higher alcohol content.) A good beer merchant stocks plenty of microbrewed beers from both near (if there are any microbreweries nearby) and far. A couple of classics that will clue you in to a well stocked beer shelf are Anchor Steam or other Anchor Brewery beers and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. beers. But what really separates a good beer store from the mediocre ones is a nice selection of Belgian beers.
Belgian beers are widely regarded as the most diverse and complex beers in the world, and at least a few Belgian beers on the shelf tells you that the person doing the ordering knows beer.
Most reputable beer merchants try to stock the newest beers available in their market.
Care and Handling
Beer is negatively influenced by heat and light, and an informed beer merchant knows that beer cannot be left under sunlight or fluorescent lights for long before it begins to deteriorate. It is especially vulnerable if it is packaged in green or clear bottles. If your beer smells like a skunk, you can be sure it's been exposed to too much light. So check out how the beer is stored and displayed. If a large inventory is stored or displayed under the heat and light of a storefront window, you might question the care of beer under this merchant's keep. Except for a few display samples, it should be kept refrigerated under low or nonfluorescent lighting or in full cover boxes.
Increasingly more often you can find user-friendly freshness dating on craft beer labels but plenty of them are still not freshness dated. Do you suppose that's because neither the brewer nor the wholesaler wants to take a loss when those beers have to be pulled off the shelves for replacement with fresh beer?
Meanwhile, the consumer has no idea how old or stale that beer may be until he's already purchased and tasted it.
How quickly does the beer stock turn over? If you buy slow moving beer, chances are you'll end up with old tasting beer. Your retailer should offer special prices or promotions on his slow selling beers to move them more quickly. He should also be careful not to overstock.
Sales Staff Service and Knowledge
Just like the wait staff at a brewpub, if the sales staff at a package store can't "talk beer" it's because no one there cares enough about beer to educate them. Quality beer merchants hold beer tasting sessions and have brand representatives come in and speak to their staff to enhance their beer knowledge.
Conversely, if the staff knows an ale from a lager and the fact that a hefe-weizen is an unfiltered wheat beer, but they're too busy to answer your questions, it will make it difficult for you to make educated beer selections. It is important to be able to talk to your beer merchant so you can learn what to expect from that barleywine you've been thinking of trying or whether you should expect that raspberry wheat beer to be sweet or sour tasting.
It's true that craft-brewed beers are pricier than megabrewers' American light lagers, but it's worth it to savor quality rather than slam quantity, right? I compare prices, but when I do so, it is among quality beer merchants. I don't go to a convenience store looking for good prices because I doubt the store is going to have the selection nor the quality I'm seeking. Moreover, it's most likely that any craft-brewed beer offered has been mishandled. After all, where is the value in paying less for a beer that I don't enjoy because it has become oxidized, skunked or it's just plain bland.
It is rare to find a merchant that meets all of these criteria. They're most often found in large metropolitan areas, but if you are fortunate enough to find one in your neck of the woods, nurture him by patronizing him often, getting to know him and sending your beer loving friends to him. You'd be surprised how much you might learn. Together you can both grow.