Saturday, August 24, 2013

For the Loathe of Beer: How Big Liquor Proves Beer Has a Long Way To Go

Disclaimer: It is not my intention to "expose" any particular chain with this editorial, but rather to highlight the plights of the beer industry utilizing said chain's flaws as demonstration of this fact.

Retail Hell

Up until very recently I held a position with a large West-Coast beverage chain, "working my way up the ranks" from beer bitch to overburdened-beer bitch in the span of about 9 months. In summary, my CG career had hit quite the snag, and I needed something, anything, to incite a bit of money flow once again. Luckily, I had this little project of mine, Ben Likes Beer, which proved sufficient enough to suggest that I had a bit more than a casual knowledge of the product, and would be a fine fit for the position. Over the duration of the job I, in addition to the honorable positions of manning the cash register and swishing a mop around in the vague hope that it constituted "cleaning," found an entire beer department under my "ward," with the tasks of stocking, sales, and eventually buying under my belt.

It was about as glorious as you might expect, wrought with all of the miseries that come with a low paying retail position: erratic hours, monotonous work; all of the fun stuff that you studied in school for. This was especially true given the eclectic collection of customers the store saw on a daily business, ranging from the swipe-happy house wives with little to do but complain about your cabernet selection to the homeless man who reliably pays for his cold Fosters with a wet 10 dollar bill (Don't ask. I certainly didn't).

I genuinely believe everyone should be forced to work at least a few months in retail - if only as a crash course in treating people like people and realizing how damn annoying you are. Every time you decide you don't want something and put it back wherever you want, you doom your soul to another circle of hell. Seriously. It's in the bible somewhere.

But the purpose of this piece is not as a public service announcement for how damn awful working in retail is (that would take me an awful long time and I'm sure merely reliving it would only prove to raise my blood pressure). Nor is it to "get revenge" on the company that left me so frustrated that I had to seek employment elsewhere. Rather, it is to bring to light the situation in which the craft beer industry quietly finds itself, and how it has a retail battle to fight before being considered as significant in the market place as wine or spirits.

Second Fiddle

It was not tremendously difficult to discern that beer is of tertiary significance to this particular chain, and it was apparent from the outset; I was required to take a Wine Tasting class before I ever clocked in. I don't deny the importance of this - though not really a wine drinker myself, the knowledge I osmosed regarding wine and spirits has actually proven quite useful, and was of course pretty valuable in calming down the errant wine snobs that cycled through. What was concerning, however, was the utter lack of any resource or event even remotely comparable in regards to beer education. As such, I had many a customer placed in my lap when a beer question would arise. Though, to be fair, I would often do the same with wine queries. ("You don't want my wine recommendation. I'm the beer guy.")

From the break room to the cash registers, the entire store was awash with pairing guides, recommendation guides, holiday guides; one need merely to be awake during their shift to find some ways to help someone pick out a wine. Such resources for beer, however, simply didn't exist. Meanwhile, while the chain is proud to support and pay for the development of sommeliers (wine experts), the beer equivalent (the cicerone program ) is scarcely even acknowledged.

Wine is their bread and butter and, naturally, would be the most aggressively priced. "People plan their weddings around our wine sales," it was proudly proclaimed, while an "on-sale" beer was rarely more than a dollar off of a six-pack. Most alarmingly, such sales would commonly, and much to my frustration, be focused on "Big Beer." That is to say, oftentimes the big guy's wares - including "wolf in sheep's clothing" (brands parading as craft brew) - would be the most frequently discounted sales. I don't blame the chain for this, of course; the girth of such companies allow for lower prices than "little guys," can (or want to) contend with. But when said Big Guys get to stack the deck even more in their favor, it's the consumer who suffers. When Budweiser came in and rearranged our cold case, fewer than a half dozen craft, independent options were left in the fridge.

My manager and I worked quickly to reverse what they had done.

The most concerning aspect of this is the reluctance to give the craft brews center stage, even when their sales were increasing at a notable rate. With such a tremendous amount of dedication to wine and mass brewed options, it is difficult for craft beer to prove itself as a significant aspect of their sales. When the odds are put so decidedly against them, it's no wonder they look so darn unappealing. And that means people will continue to fall victim to the same timeless traps: too afraid to try something new, to discover something better. It's an uphill battle suddenly covered in ice.

Hops and Punishment

I can hardly decry an emphasis on wine when the business plan revolves around it, and the above issues were rarely more than mild frustrations. Wine is their focus, so it's not a tremendous problem if the beer department had taken a support role, right? It's not as though they actively sabotaged the department, did they? Except that they did. Often.

Beyond a poor distribution of sale focus, the errors go from casual grievances to downright insulting. I've heard tale of certain store locations situating its beer section next to pane glass windows (for those of you just joining us, light is the mortal enemy of beer). My particular location wasn't guilty of anything so heinous, and I can only imagine that the health of the beer section depended largely on the staff that was running it. Our particular location had some luck in collecting a lineage of employees with some passion for the beer industry. On a corporate level, however, the entire department was reliably dicked over, try as we might to defend it. It wasn't a position I ever regarded of anything other than one of necessity, but I did my best to use my interest in beer to properly run the department. Under the Age of Ben, our craft beer sales increased over 13%, and our line up went from 800 some beers to well over 1000. Not that anyone noticed, or cared.

The first strike down came with the discontinuation of an already pathetic single bottle program (ours took up a laughable 3 shelves on an even more laughable miniature shelf). Instead of expanding (we didn't really need three shelves worth of the same brand of pub mix), it was dismissed as too bothersome to deal with, despite the fact that a rival chain has had a tremendous amount of success with the concept. It's a safe way to experience new beers without investing too much on something that doesn't resonate with you, and I thought that the lack of a single bottle problem - admittedly difficult as it presumably is to maintain - was a true sign of a ambivalent beer seller.

Strike two came with an unrivaled stubborn streak that meant that they'd rather let beer sit on shelf until it was out of date before they priced it to sell. Christmas beer was a great example of this - many sat on the shelf until well into 2013. That an IPA is allowed to sit on a shelf for more than a couple of months is one thing. But to let one stick around for more than half a year is pathetic.

Strike three - the real deathblow - was the appalling mistreatment of the beer tasting. At first a fine demonstration and platform for beer education, beer tastings were a great weekly event in which I'd choose a themed flight (Beers of England, Beers With High Levels of Bittering Hops, etc.), it was something I actually looked forward to. And so did everyone else - I had regulars - crowds, even - and I sold quite a bit of beer. And then they happened.

Corporate. Though there were murmurings of change rumbling around months in advance, I had been optimistic that their proposed "upgrade" of tastings would be recognized as ludicrous and dismissed. I was not so fortunate; downgraded and combined with wine tastings, the beer tasting aspect became something of an insult: Please...enjoy these 4 lovely wines. And this one beer. It's called Blue Moon, maybe you've heard of it? I slapped my forehead at the "craft beer" line up more than once. Though, to be fair, one guy would later come in and tell me it was a great discovery. So at least we made him happy. Good for you, you sheltered bastard.

"The chain showed no loyalty to established customers," says one manager who felt as burdened as I did by the worrying changes, "[and it] left established customers insulted and wanting to go to another store." From Brasserie Scotch de Silly to Blue Moon, Trappist Orval to Stella Artois; a uniform destruction of the beer experience I had helped beer-curious locals to. I died inside. And so did the fans of the beer tastings - outcries of bullshit resonated as strongly with the customers as they did with the brokenhearted beer clerk. And the worst? This, so far at least, is still the case. That's right - even after a summer's worth of complaints, the tasting schedule has yet to revert to its superior version.

It's a mountain of mistreatment that of course puts craft beer in a negative light. What should be one of the biggest vehicles toward its success - a big-name liquor chain - has actually stood to do little than paint its beer department as a distraction from more (perceptively) lucrative departments in the store. For my Californian readers, I recommend speciality beer shops, filling growlers at breweries or other more focused, passionate endeavors that will regard the beer in a manner in which it ought to be. Craft beer is an ingrained, significant, and most importantly, growing, aspect of our culture. Seems foolish to ignore it so readily.