You can buy great beer practically anywhere these days, but there’s something special about the bottle shop. An entire store dedicated to the beverages we love! But they vary a lot, so this week, we asked the Fervent Few what makes a bottle shop great and what’s a sign that a store might need to change things up.
Patrick Atkins: “My primary must is that the staff know what they’re talking about. I know a lot about beer and beer styles, brands, etc., but I’d appreciate it if the shop staff knows more and can talk beer, describe it before i buy it, offer recommendations. I think that if the people running the shop know the commodity, it makes sense that storage, variety, and serving (also important to me) will all be pretty optimal. Secondarily, I’d like it to be clean, well-lit, music not too loud, and preferably have a bar with taps, too.”
Nick Naretto: “Any bottle shop will do because they barely exist in PA. Selling a single beer to-go, at an establishment without food, has only been legal for just over a year, and a lot of places in my area haven't really adapted to that model yet. I'd be happy with any place that has a good rotation and variety of beer, along with proper storage and good customer service.”
Lana Svitankova: “I'm not sure what’s more important for me: great selection or knowledgeable staff. I suppose the first will be my primary concern in the end, because I consider myself an experienced enough drinker to choose bottles myself, but I do like to be surprised as well. Rotation is much appreciated. (I understand it's a tricky part, of course.) I'd prefer a bottle shop where people know what they do, drink what they sell, and have some educational ambitions and general understanding. And proper storage is also very important. It's a very nice bottle shop if it has an area where bottles can be tasted/shared.”
Rob Cartwright: “Agree with all the above, with one slight addition: I totally get that a person may not enjoy all beer styles. (Frankly, I would struggle to recommend one sour vs. another—just not my cup of tea.) But a quality salesperson should either be able to refer me to the in-house 'expert' for that style, or at least tell me what beers they’re excited about these days. The ‘I don't like X, but we sell a lot of it’ isn't really all that helpful.”
John Leger: “I do like a place with a wide selection, but lately I have been loving this one local bottle shop that is fairly small, but incredibly well-curated. Their shelves look completely different with new product every time I walk in and they always have great stuff that a lot of places don't get. They have regular tastings. Their staff is friendly and knowledgeable. They are always able to turn me on to something new either with their tasting samples and/or with their knowledge/experience. I have gotten into some pretty lengthy conversations with the salespeople at this place, and I am not a long-winded talker by any means. They also sell and sample some pretty great cheeses as well. Also, I like a place that uses social media effectively. If you put so much effort into having a great selection of beers, and you have a Facebook account but aren't telling your followers what great new stuff you have, you're missing an opportunity to sell to me. I often scope social media accounts after work to sway me to one shop or the other. The ones posting all the great stuff they have get a lot of my business.”
Steve Rimington: “We are very very lucky in London. We have a range of shops, each with their own style, but they are all good at holding a range and have a healthy attitude to community. Education and sociability through events, tastings, meeting the brewers, special releases, and other ways of me learning what I like and extending my knowledge. Warmth, if I’ve been back a few times, and I’ve engaged, I like to be recognized and remembered. The best ones do that. Communication. Good social media use to let us easily know what’s fresh in and what’s upcoming. Engagement and responsiveness to questions. Pricing. I don’t mind paying a small premium for the things I noted above, but I don’t want to feel ripped off. I’m a savvy consumer and I know what is a market price and who is selling it for what. Don’t take advantage of my good nature and charge more than the going rate. Once, ok, but if continual, I will take my money elsewhere. Access to the rare. Occasionally. Be part of that group that gets something special on occasions. But not cheap marketing. A big fanfare each time you only get half a dozen bottles in and you sell out in seconds is just frustrating. A big turn off is continual staff turnover.”
Caldwell Bishop: “In no particular order, knowledge of what they’re selling, competitive price, customer service, and selection are what can make a bottle shop appealing for me. Knowledge of what their selling, for me, is pretty straightforward. If I tell the staff a few beers that I’m interested in buying at the time, but that they don’t carry, can they steer me towards some beers they do carry that are similar? Competitive price can be tricky. I certainly don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of what different beers are selling for at retailers near me. And while supporting a locally owned business over a large chain is great and what I generally strive to do, when the local store is selling a beer I want at about 150% the price of a chain store, it can be hard to justify buying that specific beer there. On customer service, this really ties into the knowledge of what they’re selling, at least IMO. Bad customer service is pretty apparent, but I’ve also had great experiences where staff takes the time to try to find out what I’m interested in, and why I am interested in it. And if they don’t carry it and can’t get it in, then they offer alternatives. For me, selection is probably the least important of the four items I’ve listed. If the folks at a store know their products well, I have little doubt that they can steer me in the right direction, even with limited selection.”
Michael Kiser: “The best bottle shop for my money in Chicago is Bottles & Cans on Lincoln Ave. I go there because I know the cases in the front are recent drops that are fresh, and the cooler in the back has a lot of local options kept cold. I avoid the middle shelves where’s it’s warm and large format bottles don’t move as quickly, unless I know something is recent. But one of the real attractions for me is that brewery sales reps and distributors speak highly of them—not just because they know their stuff, but because they understand it’s an ecosystem where everyone depends on each other to get the best, freshest beer to their customers. While other specialty shops in Chicago often give off a sense of entitlement to special releases or try to offer overly exclusive opportunities to the cool-kid brands that get dusty anyways, I see Bottles & Cans paying more attention to their neighborhood’s habits and desires and balancing the things they get personally excited about with what they know others are excited about. In the end, it feels attentive and generous in spirit.”
Johnny Swinehart: “The good ones are self-selecting for me. The breweries I’m often seeking out only distribute to a few places and those places have a respect for taking care of their brands. Our state also has strict laws against alcohol sales at grocery stores and gas stations, so you pretty much have to shop at a liquor store. I’m also more likely to shop at a place with a good social media presence, especially Instagram. If I know a place just got something in I want, I’ll make a point to stop in.”
Bill Kuhn: “It’s gotta be about quality. Quality of the space, staff (education and friendliness), beer on the shelf, and overall experience. So many places put so much time into creating a quality environment but then fall short with their staff being standoffish or generally disinterested.”
Zack Rothman: “I buy all of my beer from Craft Beer Cellar because it has everything I look for in a bottle shop. You can buy singles of anything in the store, which I appreciate as it allows for greater experimentation. At the heart of their business model is hospitality and education. The staff are not only all Cicerone-certified on some level, but go out of their way to educate their customers and help them find something they will enjoy. They have a great selection of the latest and greatest beers from around the world organized in a way that makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. Every time I go into a Craft Beer Cellar it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I’m always greeted by a friendly, familiar face and I always leave a satisfied customer. Now that I shop there, I can never go back to buying beer anywhere else.”
Bob Preece: “Very fortunate to live opposite Hop Burns and Black in London. What makes it good? It's all about the people—independent owners with knowledge and passion who have carefully built an enthusiastic team and have achieved a deeply loyal following. The shop is also a great place to hang. They host regular events and tastings (a chap called Curtis holds court occasionally) and stock a great range. As I withdraw more and more from the pub scene, preferring brewery taps, micros, and bottle shops, their offering gives everything I want. They are always happy to recommend if you need help choosing, and their monthly subscription box is very thoughtfully put together. They really sweat the details and work incredibly hard, and it shows.”
Keith Allen: “Lot of things turn me off bottle shops (or off-licences). Old stock is one. I’ll always check BBE dates on cans and bottles. There have been a few places where the stock is nearly a year old on Pale Ales and IPAs. Even in my local independent store, which I’d guess has a high turnover, there’s really dated stock which I refuse to buy. Why would I get an NEIPA from a local brewery that’s six months old? I think the broader issue here is stock management and breweries pushing sales. Is it right to push to maintain stock on shelf if that stock is going to stay there for nine months? Does that do the craft industry any good when people are paying more money for ‘craft’ and getting a poor, stale Pale Ale with no hop aroma nine months after it’s bottled or canned?”
Nick Yoder: “The best bottle shops have a carefully curated selection. That doesn't necessarily mean they have the biggest selection in the area, but rather one that mixes in both the hottest new releases and the old standbys. It means having options across a variety of styles. It means offering imports. And it means that the shop is only buying enough to sell through it while in code. Very few bottle shops manage to hit all those marks, so I usually have to compromise on a few.
Beyond that, it's nice—but not essential—that the bottle shop offers tastings and educational events. Cellars with older bottles meant to be aged are a huge plus. A staff that remembers regulars and let's them know when beers they might be interested in are set to arrive is much appreciated. And a social media feed that shares what new products are in saves a lot of time and helps identify bottles that lack date coding as being fresh.”
Michael Boyer: “I claimed on Twitter a while back that ‘retailers are the new wholesalers.’ This is, in part, an ode to bottle shops that are proactive about bringing products into the market that would not make it otherwise. There's a shop here in Greensboro whose owner routinely travels west to Charlotte and Asheville, and east to Raleigh-Durham in an effort to bring back small-batch releases and brands that do not have an overlapping distribution footprint. The shop also recently invested in a crowler machine to embolden that tenacity. It also boasts 30 tap handles, one perpetually dedicated to and affectionately labeled ‘Le Pabst Bleu.’ Will one find some out-of-date beer? Perhaps. Is the selection carefully curated? Nah, not really. Local breweries love it, though. And distributors don't come in the paint trying to offload inventory. The culture is there and so is the community.”
Jaron Wright: “I think most of the people here have touched on the main reasons why I love my local bottle shop (Healthy Spirits in Bernal Heights, San Francisco): great service (including people who are excited about beer as I am, and willing to take sometime to talk about it), appropriate cold storage, selection that’s part local and part stuff that's hard to find from around the U.S./world that I can't stop by the brewery to get.”
Dan Schwalbach: “My opinion on this is a little skewed as someone who also runs a bottle shop, so here’s what I look for when I’m out of state: Obviously, date codes like everyone else. At one store, I noticed that a lot of the on-sale beer was close to code, so after noticing a few it made me feel comfortable that they were on top of their inventory. I’ll make sure to take at least one recommendation from an employee who makes an effort to give me one. Bonus points for knowing what beers I can’t get back home. Cleanliness is also a must. There’s a shop in Chicago that has a really great selection but was completely unshoppable when I was there. No rhyme or reason to how their shelves were stocked, single bottles lined up behind different bottles on the shelf, multiple SKUs of breweries’ beers stocked in different cooler doors. The more detail-oriented a shop presents themselves, the more likely I am to recommend it and/or come back.”
Mark Twig: “Give your own personal opinion. Don’t bullshit me with a repeat line you learned from the distributor. Have you tasted the beer? Great, what did you personally think? Let’s engage on that and have a chat. You don’t have to show off information about something that you don’t know enough about.”
Fresh beer, knowledgeable staff, and the breweries not many other shops carry are the things we like the most in a good bottle shop. But what about you? Join the Fervent Few and tell us about your favorite stores and what makes them so special. We’d love to hang.