Wednesday, March 4, 2015

How do you shop for beer?

I’ve been big into craft beer for many years now, though one thing that hasn’t changed is how I actually shop for beer. Whenever I go to the beer store (usually Westmere Beverage), I almost always opt to “mix a six.” First, I hit the new arrivals section as these beers are most likely to be the freshest in the store, plus they usually match the current season. Then I’ll check out the American aisle to see if anything catches my eye. Lastly, I’ll take a look at the international aisle if I haven’t already filled my six-pack carrier.

The majority of the beer I buy is American-made for two reasons:
  1. It’s far less expensive, on average, than imported beer.
  2. It’s much more likely to be fresh.
I’m not opposed to buying foreign beer; in fact, some of my favorite beers and styles are from England, Germany, and Belgium especially. Once in a while I’ll pursue the selections from a country not associated with high quality beer like Russia, Japan, Australia, or anywhere in Central or South America. The problem is those beers tend to be expensive and stale. I’m sure plenty of them are excellent when they’re fresh, but from what I can tell, beer from overseas just doesn’t arrive at my local bottle shop in a timely manner (Heineken and other macros aside).

Bottles from unknown breweries (both foreign and domestic) will just sit on shelves until they’re completely sold out before the store will order another case (or they’ll use that space for another product altogether). Sometimes they’ll move old stock to the discount bin, but not everything (if they did, I’d estimate upwards of a third of the store would be in the discount bin).

Photo courtesy of Nico Gonzalez at Oliver's Brew Crew.
Photo courtesy of Nico Gonzalez at Oliver’s Brew Crew.

As a homebrewer, I brew beer that I want to keep in the fridge for casual consumption, so I rarely buy six or 12-packs and I almost never buy growlers. If I’m going to pick up anything other than individual 12oz or 22oz bottles, it’s usually because I’m going to a gathering of some sort (picnics, sports-watching parties, camping trips, etc.). When I do buy one of these things, it’s usually a relatively light, easy-drinking beer that’s not a hop bomb (Genny Bock and Six Point’s “The Crisp” are often spotted at my house).

But what probably separates me from the average beer shopper is that the vast majority of the beer I buy is usually purchased with the intent of reviewing rather than drinking just for kicks (though reviewing beer is really fun). I’ve reviewed so much beer at this point that when I go to the bottle shop I find it difficult to find beer that meets these three criteria:
  1. I haven’t already reviewed it.
  2. It’s fresh.
  3. It’s reasonably priced.
Sure, there’s always plenty of great beer that passes the first two tests, but fails the third. Call me a cheapskate if you want, but spending more than $9 on a single bottle of beer is just too expensive. I’m sure a lot of the beers that retail for $10 to $20 or more are delicious, but unless I’m splitting the cost with someone or it’s a special occasion or extenuating circumstance, I’ll never know.

Additionally, there are beers that meet all three criteria that I still won’t buy because they’re very high in alcohol and only come in 22oz bottles. I can handle a single 22oz bomber of a 9% ABV brew solo, but anything stronger than that is a challenge. Call me a lightweight if you want, I don’t care. I’ve lost about 40lbs in the last few years and I just can’t handle as much booze (or food) as I used to. Also, I genuinely dislike being drunk.

So that’s how I shop for my beer, but how do you shop for your beer?
  1. Do you go the beer store already knowing what you want to buy or do you prefer to browse?
  2. Do you “mix a six” or do you buy six and 12-packs?
  3. Do you check freshness dates?
  4. What’s your upper price limit? How much are you willing to spend on a single bottle and/or a single six or 12-pack?
  5. Do you ever buy beer from an obscure brewery or country?
  6. Will you buy a bomber of high alcohol beer to drink by yourself?
  7. Where do you get your beer: bottle shops, liquor stores, beverage centers or supermarkets?
  8. How often do you replenish your stock?
  9. Do you buy beer just to keep in the fridge for casual consumption or do you buy individual bottles just to try once?


  1. This is John S. Great blog! 1) I prefer to browse. 2) I do pre-mixed seasonals the majority of the time but I've been getting into 32 oz Boston rounds 3) I don't check freshness dates (but I should) 4) $15 is my cap on a 6 pack (unless it is a special occasion like X-mas) 5) Obscure brewery is okay if local shop recommends or it is on sale 6) high alcohol bomber - yes... but I may drink it over the course of two nights by corking it 7) local bev center and I also have a pretty good craft beer specialty shop that carries only quality beer 8) every 2 or 3 weeks 9) 1/2 and 1/2 I like to try stuff and will buy "known" beer that won't be a surprise. .... I have the added challenge of having my kids/wife yell at me to hurry up when I'm picking stuff out. Also, I'm kind of cheap and I'm always tempted to buy last seasons beer on the cheap (but I usually regret it when I do).

  2. In list form:
    - I almost always browse. Even if I am there for something in particular I will browse for more.
    - almost always singles, sometimes a 6 of something I know is a favorite or world class and not too "big". I almost always look up a beer's rating at Beer Advocate if I haven't had it before. There isn't time to try every beer out there and I find that greatly increases my chances of avoiding a lame one.
    - Not often. I'm too lazy. And I'm generally buying something new or things that I guess move relatively quickly.
    - I'm fortunate that I don't have to be too price sensitive. But if it is expensive I have to have some pretty solid knowledge that it is really good. For example I love Maine Brewing and try everything from them and try and keep a few in stock, but I'm not going to buy a random $12 Belgian.
    5. Yes, but there has to be a reason that drew me to it. Rating, article, friend, etc. Hitichino white is awesome with Sushi (but you have to watch for it being old).
    6. 22oz high alcohol beers are my pet peeve. WTF? I am not allowed to have a firestone 17th anniversary beer by myself? Even my friends that are beer geeks don't like that style so what the heck am I supposed to do? Drink a 22oz 17% beer by myself? Those should be 7.5 oz bottles (like the ones from Rogue) not 22oz. Geez.
    7. Westmere & Olivers. There is good beer in the supermarket in a pinch, but only a few that are worthy so I can't browse.
    8. I won't allow myself to buy more beer until I have drank down what I have to a reasonable level. Otherwise I get too excited and keep buying more. I have anywhere from 18 beers (time to go buy more) to 48 bottles (overstocked) on hand.
    9. I used to try new beers non-stop. Many, many years ago I felt I had tried most things out there, and I was always trying to keep up. But there is an explosion of choices and nobody can keep up. And a lot of what I tried was bad. Hell, by definition, half of all beer is below average! Finally I had a vision and realized I knew what the best beers in the world were (at least to me) and I never drank them because I was trying the latest Pumpkin Imperial Farmhouse IPA with spices. What an idiot . Now my beer fridge always has multiple selections from my list of the best 20 beers out there. I have some new stuff to try, but usually it is from a great brewery, or highly rated. When I go out to beer places I still experiment more.

  3. I would also add for #7 that there are now a few places that have wonderfully curated selections of beer. This is how to buy beer: someone has picked the best beer from the best breweries and done all the work, almost EVERYTHING there is good. Plus there is more turnover, and you don't have to choose from 2,000 beers, there are only 100 choices. I have seen this in quite a few places including Honest Weight Coop (my favorite), Whole foods, and other places while traveling.

  4. 1. A little from A and a little from B. I always like to browse, but, I usually have a general idea of what I'm looking for.
    2. I usually mix six, unless I'm looking for a specific beer that isn't in the mix six display.
    3. Always.
    4. My store charges a flat rate for a mix six, regardless of what's in it.
    5. Occasionally. If I'm browsing and something catches my eye and piques my interest.
    6. I haven't yet.
    7. I mostly buy my beer from the local Wegmens grocery store. They've got a great selection.
    8. Usually after I drink it all. Unless there's something that I really want to get ASAP.
    9. Mostly for casual comsumption, to have with dinner or while watching a movie with the wife, or unwind after a long shift at work.