For years there have been shops dedicated to the sale of fine wines from small producers throughout the world. But, the same does not hold true for craft beer. The reason for this disparity is partly because craft beer is just reaching its day in the sun, but also because craft beer is an intensely regional product. What is available in California is not always available in Florida. Sure you can get beer from breweries like Ballast Point, Anchor and Stone in a wide range of markets, but smaller breweries just do not have the reach sometimes even within their own markets to make it to a beer store. Small, locally owned shops like Beer:30 in the Jacksonville, Florida’s King Street Beer District fill the gap, but there are very few chain or franchise stores that specialize solely in craft beer.
All that is changing with an ambitious new franchised outfit called Craft Beer Cellars.
An enterprising couple, Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow of Belmont, Mass., founded the company in 2010 with the goal of educating consumers on the pleasures of craft beer in much the same way fine wine stores educate their customers. Baker and Schalow, a couple in life as well as business, fell in love with craft beer in the 90’s and, according to their website, .”… began a quest (which they’re still on) for amazing beer, the people behind it, and all that it entails! Their focus is on awesome beer with flavor, not those beers whose ingredients are intended to lighten color or lessen quality.”
The company now has six stores across a two-state region consisting of Massachusetts and Vermont with plans for expansion to several more including a store in Brandon, Fla. outside of Tampa. The Florida store is slated to open in January 2014.
“We are interested in amazing beer from small breweries, and all that entails,” the company’s website states. “Much of what we do, every single day, is work hard to make sure we can keep the beer lines to our stores full, but also researching the latest and greatest brews, how to get them in your hands, what’s available in different markets throughout the US distribution network, who owns what, when certain beers are available, and what’s extremely limited or highly sought after.”
The Brewer’s Association defines craft breweries as small, independent businesses that produce less than six million barrels of beer per year and are less than 25% owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not a craft beer brewer. This means that brewers such as AB-InBev and Miller/Coors and their satellite companies like Shock Top and Blue Moon are not craft beer breweries. Currently the term craft beer refers mostly to beer brewed in the United States, but European breweries are joining the movement and that may necessitate an expansion of the term’s definition down the road.
Employees of Craft Beer Cellars wear hoodies with adorned with the words “Beer Geek” on them and sport titles like Head Beer Geek, Ambassador of Fine Ales and Lagers, and Hoptologist.
“We sell beer for a living and try to keep a fun and laid back spirit,” the company’s website explains of the hoodies and titles. “In other words, we don’t take ourselves too darned serious — it just doesn’t make much sense.”
The stores host beer tastings at random times throughout the week to keep patron’s palates educated and to spark interest in new beers. To Baker and Schalow, education is as the beer on the shelves of its stores and the outstanding customer service provided in them. And by education they mean for both the customer and the employees. All employees of the stores are Cicerone Certified Beer Servers and are required to stay abreast of what is happening in the craft world. In addition, Baker and Schalow have personally researched and studied every beer sold in their stores. The two are acutely aware that in order to grow the craft beer movement, they must constantly bring in beers that aficionados want while as well as educate the craft beer novice and turning them on to new flavor profiles.
The quest is not without risk, though. Even with the stellar rise of the craft beer industry, it is still just a small portion of the overall beer world. The Brewers Association states that, while craft beer consumption continues to rise, it is still accounts for just 10 percent of all beer sales. To add to the difficulty of specializing in just craft beer are the razor thin margins in the segment.
To combat the negatives, Baker and Schalow stock more than 1,000 beers from over 350 breweries in their stores. Carefully selected variety and scrupulous attention to customer service – including listening to what customers want – are the guideposts, the pair believes, to success.
In their year-end blog post, the company sums up their hopes for the future, “We believe that the success of other great brewpubs, bottle shops, and bars is critical to our own growth and the growth of craft beer culture. We are proud of our relationships with breweries and beer industry folk throughout the United States and across the globe.”