Any beer aficionado worth their salt is a beer hunter. They have methods for attaining the rarest of the rare and being the first in their area to get their hands on a new release. They go out of their way and travel great distances to find new and interesting brews and they like to keep track of what they've had and make lists of what they still need to get. Some organize this by brewery, some by state, some by style, some by top-100 lists on websites and others simply by the hype others generate by word-of-mouth or on social media. Whatever drives them, their methods work and I have been able to figure out some of these tricks-of-the-trade. These will work well even if you don't have all the time and money in the world to throw at your passion.
FINDING A SOURCE
Depending on where you live, your best method may be to stay local. Find that one liquor store, beer shop, grocery store or whatever business is allowed to sell liquor in your state. Find one that carries the largest variety of breweries. If you haven't figured it out by now, not all breweries distribute to all states. It is strictly brewery-by-brewery and they're the ones that make the decision. So don't jump ugly with a store's beer manager because they don't happen to carry a certain brewery. New Jersey is fortunate in the fact that many breweries understand that there is a large, dense population of beer drinkers in this state. Most of the best breweries (domestic and import) distribute to the Garden State and more sell here each year. In fact Port Brewing/Lost Abbey just stepped into the NJ market. And there was much rejoicing! So staying local in my state can be extremely rewarding, but even if your state does not enjoy a wide-range of selections you can still have fun with your local resources. Here are some tried-and-true methods for finding a good place to procure your beer.
1. WORD OF MOUTH - I assume that you go out to bars and the bars that you frequent serve craft beer. If so, you can spot the beer geeks by what they're drinking and you can strike up a conversation around your shared obsession. This is a good opportunity to find places that carry craft beer. You may be surprised to learn that a place you drive by often, and don't give a second look, carries a large selection of imports and out-of-state breweries. This is how I learned about what is probably the best beer store in all of New Jersey: Oak Tree Liquors in South Plainfield.
2. BEER ADVOCATE - Find the "Places" hyperlink in the "Reviews" section on the left side of any of their pages and that will bring you to what they used to call BeerFly. It's now simply "Places" and acts as their "beer travel guide". Find your state from the list and it will lead you to the state's landing page and you can then select by location type (store, bar, brewery, etc.) or by town. From there you can see each place's average rating and read the reviews to see what place best suits your needs. You can even sort by average rating, but pay attention to the number of reviews. I went into one place that had a very high rating and found it to be extremely lacking. When I went back on BA to check, I noticed that it only had one review and from the profile picture, the guy appeared to be a hillbilly. How a hillbilly managed to figure out how to post a profile picture to BeerAdvocate (which is not easy) is beyond me. But the point is that anything less than 50 reviews may not be a fair sampling and can be swayed in a positive way by the establishment's owner or employees. Conversely, the competition or just people with unrealistic expectations or personalities that cause bad experiences for themselves can affect the rating in a negative way.
3. THE BEER MAPPING PROJECT - Beer Mapping can be very useful because it plots the places on a map, but two words of caution. First, the Beer Mapping database is so large that it's a bit of a dog and the maps can take a few minutes to load and populate. I would not attempt it on dial-up and I know that 3G cannot easily handle it. The other issue is, unless you live near a large metropolis, you're only going to see breweries and brewpubs. Only the City Beer Maps pinpoint bars, beer stores and homebrew stores. It's also not as widely used as BeerAdvocate, so sampling sizes for the reviews can be pretty small. So I use this to find places nearby and then cross-reference with BeerAdvocate to get a feel for the place. And when I do find a place, plugging the address into Google Maps is helpful to get directions and to see what the place looks like on the Streetview functionality.
4. DRIVING AROUND - See a beer store, stop in, see what they got, return if it's good and avoid if they only carry NASCAR suds. Simple enough, but don't always be fooled by outward appearances. Seeing Bud Light banners all over the place is not necessary the kiss of death. They get those for free and can sometimes get those distributors to pay for signage if it includes a certain logo. This is cooperative marketing and allows those with smaller budgets to effectively market utilizing money given for those with deeper pockets in exchange for some exposure. On the other hand, seeing a neon sign in the window for an out-of-state craft brewery can indicate a decent selection inside the store. And the outward condition of the building doesn't always tell the story. I came across one place that looked like it took over a convenience store that went belly up. Their selection was not huge by any means, but apparently the representative for one of the breweries was a very attractive woman who talked the lecherous owner into buying more of one of their releases that didn't really sell. So I managed to stumble across one of their anniversary offerings that had gone missing from other shelves over a year prior. It had aged nicely.I was happy.
5. BEER MAGS - A lot of places that serve and sell craft beer will carry the free magazines that advertise all the beer happenings in that region. Some of them even sort them by state or even region within a state (depending on the size of the state). I pick these up whenever I see them for many reasons, but for the sake of this topic, the advertisements are a great jumping off point in researching places to procure beer. The stores will use the ads to tell the consumer what breweries they carry, preferring to show off the harder-to-find labels rather than telling you they carry a brewery most other good beer stores carry. This is not an exhaustive method as not all the good beer stores will take out ads in these magazines, but it sure will give you some great leads.
FOSTERING THE RELATIONSHIP
So you've finally found a place that carries a great selection of craft beer and isn't so far away that your weekly gasoline budget needs to be increased. Now you need to foster a relationship within the store to assure your inclusion as a regular customer. Many places only hold special releases for their regulars due to the limited distribution. This practice leads to a core of really loyal customers, but does little to build their clientele list with new customers. The best way to get on the "in" with any beer store is to talk. You can do that, right?
1. HAVE PATIENCE - You're obviously going to want to talk beer with the staff, but you may need to exercise some patience. It's their store and if you go in acting as if you know more than they ever will (rightly so or not), then their view of you can turn sour right off the bat. Have patience with their suggestions because they may only be familiar with people whose "fanciest" beer they ever drank was Sam Adams Boston Lager. It's all in the way you word things. Eventually they're going to understand your level of beer geekdom and, in some cases, they'll gladly admit that you may know more than they do. One place I frequent has a lot of turnover in their beer section and some of the newer guys love it when I'm there because they know I'll help out with anyone looking for something. And they usually ask me a lot of questions. One of the guys likes for me to pick out a beer for him to bring home to drink that night, but I haven't seen him in a while so he may be another victim of the revolving door.
2. LOCATE THE TRUE BEER GUY - From the above you can tell that just because someone works in the beer section doesn't mean they know beer. Sometimes you get one of the wine guys covering in the beer section and that can be frustrating. But if you go often enough you'll eventually meet the person who is responsible for the beer purchasing. That's the person who will know what's coming in and how much they'll be getting. They may even offer to take your name to call you when it comes in. But more importantly, this is the person who will know about anything stashed away. In one of my haunts, I spent a good amount of time talking to their beer guy and managed to walk out of the store with a bottle of DFH Bitches Brew which was not on the shelf and had long since sold out in all the beer stores in the state.
3. E-MAIL - Some places have been able to utilize current technology to reach their customers. If the place you frequent has an e-mail contact list, by all means get yourself on it! You be forewarned of any tastings, events or special sales. More importantly, some places will e-mail blast newly-received, low-distribution releases. These can be so limited that they will be sold out when I stop by on my way home. That's why I check my smart phone at lunch now. My favorite beer store is about five minutes from where I work and I can easily make the run during my lunch break. That's how I've managed to grab bottles of Brooklyn Black Ops and DFH Ta Henket despite the store only getting one case of each. This place no longer takes names or holds bottles aside since they took the brunt of the consumer anger when their distributor failed to supply them with the first run of DFH 120-Minute in almost two years. I can't say I blame them for going to the first-come, first-served philosophy.
4. SOCIAL MEDIA - If your favorite beer source is on Facebook, "like" their page so that you see the updates. Not all of the stores are diligent in updating their FB pages, but the ones that do will list what they just got in. Restaurants and bars tend to be better at this and you could be home one minute and then sitting on a bar stool the next after reading that your favorite watering hole just got in a very special cask-conditioned beer.
5. WEBSITES - A few places allow you to order on-line, pay for it on-line and pick it up at the store. I don't know how this works with limited releases. It's possible that they sell out in-store before they can even get it onto the website, but it's always worth a try. Although it wasn't quite the hard-to-find beer as some might expect from the name, but that's how the Geisha scored me a bottle of Samichlaus Limited Edition 2009 for Christmas. This method of shopping comes in very handy when the store is a bit of a drive. Oaktree Liquors offers this, which is great for me because it's a bit of a haul down there.
6. SHARE - Some people won't give up their favorite locations to buy beer because they don’t want to have too much competition for the limited releases when they arrive. This can be self-defeating. If you don't talk up your favorite places you're not helping drive business to it. Bringing more customers through their doors looking for beer drives the craft beer sales up for them and emboldens them to buy into different breweries and a larger percentage of their shelf space dedicated to craft beer. In the long run, it could even help you get that limited release beer since the larger the craft beer sales in a particular store the larger allotment that store will get of the limited stuff from the distributor. Selfishly guarding your beer source does little to help you. There's only one secret place that I guard jealously and for good reason.
THE BIG SECRET
The place I won't divulge is the place I hold as a trump card when it comes to finding that elusive limited release. I'll try my usual places first, but failing that I use my secret place as a fall back. Why don't I just go there first? Well, they're not really a beer store; they're known for wine. Yep, many wine stores now carry craft beers, albeit a pretty narrow selection as they can't devote much shelf space to that-which-is-brewed. They usually get some of the larger labels in the craft beer world, but because they do get them in their distribution they can be included in any limited quantity releases from those breweries. The best part about that is beer geeks don't think to go into a wine store to look for a DFH 120-Minute. Everyone else sold out in the first day of the release, some by noon. How is possible that a WINE store still had six bottles on the shelf more than a week later? Because no one thought to look there because it IS a wine store. All of the DFH hard-to-finds I have found in this place. They usually will have the latest anniversary release from Firestone-Walker months after my usual place sells out. The Stone Vertical Epics will still be waiting for their forever homes long after their bottled brethren have been laid down in some beer geek's cellar. Victory Dark Intrigue was limited to one-per-customer in all the beer stores I know and I waited to get of work to search for it. No luck in the beer stores, but my fall-back store had one JUST SITTING ON THE SHELF! Right there ON THE SHELF! So explore some of the wine stores in your area and see how their craft beer section looks. You might be surprised to find a beer or two that you thought was gone from the state. I just hope that not too many of my readers live near the same wine store I frequent.
Of course, no matter what methods you use, you're not always going to find that beer you're looking for. You're not going to find Goose Island Bourbon County Stout…not without driving across state lines. And some beers you'll need to really plan out to get your hands on. Three Floyds Dark Lord requires quite of bit of planning and luck…or the right bait. Sometimes you need to travel in order to find what you're looking for. Confucius said that a journey of a thousand bottles of beer on the wall begins with putting the keys in the car…or something like that. Let's explore that in the next entry.
Next Time: Beer Hunting - Going National