Surprises in Store
Unlikely Retailers and Restaurants Embrace Quality Beer
The draft selection at one Bend, OR, shop is just what the locals in this beer-savvy town have come to expect: Boneyard’s Hop Venom, GoodLife’s Evil Sister and Southern Tier IPA, among dozens of labels on tap that frequently rotate. While such selections are common at bottle shops and bars, these particular pints and growler fills are happening at the city’s Empire Car Wash.
“I believe we are the first car wash in the country to sell growlers,” says Rick Lane, Empire’s co-owner. While he acknowledges that unsuspecting first-time customers are typically shocked by the draft selection, he noted that an advanced beer market like Bend makes the offerings sustainable, even if customers are surprised at first.
“They do a double-take, especially tourists,” says Lane. “They pull out their phones and take pictures.”
Empire puts a big emphasis on local beers. “We do a great job washing and detailing cars,” Lane says. “The extra perk is that you can enjoy a great beer while you wait or take it with you.” Better still, after seven growler fills, Lane throws in a free car wash.
While Empire might be a niche location, on a wider scale, even Wal-Mart is finally beckoning beer enthusiasts. In an effort to be more competitive and lift overall sales, the Bentonville, AR-based big-box chain is expanding its beer offerings in many of its stores that sell beer, including an enhanced focus on the high-end segment. The chain’s website now lists the likes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Dominion Ale, Pilsner Urquell and a host of labels from Boston Beer, Goose Island, Widmer and Redhook among its store offerings (selection varies by location). Other brands not available nationally, such as Deschutes Black Butte Porter and Fat Tire Amber, are locally available at Wal-Mart, depending on the market.
The box stores and the local car wash are just a few of the surprising venues where enthusiasts can find a more-than-decent selection of beer as retailers jump onboard the better-beer train, taken with the handsome margins the higher-priced labels provide and the upscale, affluent consumers they bring.
From coast to coast, beer purveyors—chain and independent operators alike—are reconfiguring their coolers and adding tap handles to respond to increasing demand for high-quality beers. The movement has been taking shape for the last few decades but has really hit its stride in recent years as the number of brewers in the United States has dramatically grown and their offerings have gone from niche to mainstream. Thanks to better brewery awareness and the ever-expanding locavore movement, many retailers—regardless of their locale or size—are expanding their beer lists.
Milk, bread, eggs and beer
While specialty and upscale grocers like Whole Foods, HEB, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans are becoming increasingly known for their beer departments, mainstream grocers around the country are also making their mark. (Whole Foods is reportedly preparing to include a brewery at a new Houston store.) The beer department at Schnuck Markets, with more than 100 stores in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa, for example, is headed by Chris Kline, a Certified Cicerone. With Kline’s leadership, the family-owned chain prides itself on its knowledgeable beverage staff. In-store tastings are also held at Schnucks stores, with sample options sometimes reaching 70 beers. And earlier this year, the St. Louis-based grocer teamed up with Schlafly on a special anniversary beer to celebrate Schnucks’ 75th anniversary. Four of the retailer’s beer experts selected the hops (Simcoe, Amarillo, Cascade, Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin) used to finish Schnucks Anniversary IPA. Kline described the exclusive 6% release as “one of the least bitter but best-balanced American IPAs out there.”
One of the co-owners of Michigan’s Hiller’s markets, Justin Hiller, meanwhile, is a homebrewer. That passion for beer at the top filters down through the ranks so that not only does the seven-unit chain stock up to 1,500 beer SKUs, or distinct items, but the company is also often able to score limited-production and allocated labels. Beer is promoted throughout Hiller’s stores, not just in the beer section, with Stella Artois cross-merchandised with seafood, Samuel Adams Boston Lager with steak, and Chimay Red with Chimay cheese in the deli department.
Other grocery chains seek strong partnerships with local breweries. Schenectady, NY’s Price Chopper—which offers beer in more than 100 stores in the Northeast, including 80 locations in New York—promotes beers from Empire State breweries like Southern Tier, Saranac and Davidson Brothers. In fact, a couple of Price Choppers now sell draft beer via growler pours, in an effort to showcase products from draft-only breweries like Lake Placid and Albany Pump Station.
Before being closed last year, The Northbridge Piggly Wiggly in Charleston, SC, was perhaps one of the most ambitious efforts by a grocery store to specialize in beer yet. The store stocked a whopping 140 beers on tap and a bottle selection of some 1,200 labels.
Terri Allan has covered the beer business for more than 25 years. Follow her on Twitter @terriallan.