Super Shoppers: Why Beer Buyers Are the Brewing Industry’s New Celebrity Gatekeepers

Feature by | Jul 2017 | Issue #126

Back in 1985, Carl Singmaster opened a record store called Manifest Discs & Tapes in downtown Columbia, S.C. It was a shoestring operation, launched during an era when people were snapping up cassette copies of Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A.

“I had $15,000, a MasterCard, and three employees—me, myself and I,” Singmaster says.

He stocked his downtown space with bins from another record shop in town, which had recently upgraded its furnishings.

“The guy at the shop asks, ‘Where are you opening?’ I tell him and he says, ‘Oh, you’re going to be selling gospel music.’ I was an alternative, metal, New Wave kind of guy. I thought, ‘I’ll never sell gospel music!’ I opened my fledgling store with no money and three or four of the first 10 people in the door asked for gospel music. Guess how long it took before I started selling gospel music?”

That experience stuck with Singmaster.

“You set something up, but then you follow what the customers do if you’re smart,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what I like or what you like… it only matters what the customers [do].”

Two decades after he started Manifest Discs & Tapes, Singmaster sold off his record shops and moved to Portland, Ore., where he “kind of impulsively” bought a majority share of Belmont Station, a new spin-off of the to-go retail shop attached to the Horse Brass Pub, the legendary beer bar opened by publican Don Younger.

When the Station opened, it was arguably one of the first true beer specialty stores—and it was a primitive operation.

“They used to have one bottle of everything on the wall and you had to write down what you wanted on a little sheet of paper and the staff would go in the back room and fetch it all,” Singmaster says. “I knew their style of merchandizing would not serve them well in modern America.”

Merchandising beer has come a long, long way since 2006. The art of choosing which beer to sell has become a highly competitive, data-driven process. “Beer buyer” is now a full-time gig at elite beer bars and bottle shops, and the tastemakers with the job are regarded as celebrity gatekeepers who make or break upstart breweries.

Jace Gonnerman, beer program director at Meridian Pint, Smoke & Barrel, and Brookland Pint in Washington DC. | Photo by Cielo Productions

Using Geek Metrics
Jace Gonnerman is one such person. Gonnerman directs the beer program for three of Washington DC’s top spots: Meridian Pint, Smoke & Barrel, and Brookland Pint. Each has 24 taps, and two of the three are focused exclusively on beers from American craft breweries.

Gonnerman’s two biggest challenges are balancing support for local standbys popular with regulars who stop by for a weekly burger against what the trend-chasers want, and making sure he’s got enough variety between the different locations since a lot of customers frequent all three.

“I would call it local-centric, but we’re never going to value local over quality,” he says. “Where there are local producers who make exceptional beer, we are going to pour them. Port City Optimal Wit is one of the only beers that basically has a permanent line at all three spots, same with Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager. But then we’re also conscious of making sure the lists are different enough.”

To do that, he keeps a close eye on the uber-geeks. He spends up to an hour a day watching what sophisticated DC drinkers and regulars are excited about—crowdsourcing, he says, is “the absolute best way” to stay sharp.

“For what we do, which is at the very, very upper echelon, it’s so important to really stay on top of what’s new, what’s fresh, what people are excited about,” he says. “That comes from keeping on top of what people are talking about on BeerAdvocate, what people are checking in on Untappd, what people are talking about on the hyper-focused one-percenter Facebook groups.”

That helped him become the first beer buyer to discover Aslin, a Herndon, Va., nanobrewery that currently has three of the top-250 beers in the world on BeerAdvocate.

“It’s literally a 1-barrel brewhouse. I saw them being mentioned in a forum on BeerAdvocate and I didn’t know who they were or that they existed. So I shot them an e-mail and introduced myself,” he says. “I think I’m still basically the only bar outside their brewery to ever pour their beer.”

Carl Singmaster, co-owner of Belmont Station in Portland, Ore. | Photo by Matt Coats

Keeping It Fresh
Staying on top of the trendiest beers is also a focus at Belmont Station, which today has both a retail bottle shop and a draft-fueled bar four blocks north of its original location. For co-owner Singmaster, it’s important to strike the right balance. Partly because Oregon law requires shops to pay for all product when the distributor drops it off, meaning dead inventory is costly, and partly because customers want fresh beer.

His goal is to order only a seven day supply, and to adjust the next week’s order to get another seven day supply and nothing more. To accomplish this, Singmaster has developed a spreadsheet that allows buyers to track and predict sales based on the most recent week’s sales of each product.

“It was so parallel to my experience in the record business, because records and beer have the same volatility in demand,” he says. “You may have some standards—whether it’s Led Zeppelin or Orval—where they may continue to sell 13 each week. That’s easy to manage. But new releases and seasonals have a different lifespan.”

When it comes to draft, that means keeping a list balanced by what customers want instead of by style.

“I would point to the statistics and say, ‘Look, whatever you think, whatever is going on with sour or whatever else, IPAs still sell the fastest, so we should have three or four IPAs on out of 24 beers,” he insists. “Sometimes I would get resistance from the guys, ‘The list becomes unbalanced, there’s too many IPAs!’ But if you put on two Stouts and they last two weeks each and you put on two IPAs and they last two days each, that tells you [that] you should have four IPAs and one Stout, otherwise you’re leaving money on the table. [People are] going to drink your two IPAs and then go someplace else to find another IPA.”

Bill Murnighan, buyer at Bailey’s Taproom in Portland, Ore. | Photo by Matt Coats

Sticking to Styles
Across the Willamette River in downtown Portland, Bailey’s Taproom buyer Bill Murnighan has another system for making sure his list is always balanced: He dedicates each of his 26 rotating taps by style.

“For example, taps four and five are my lager taps. Tap four is my light lager tap, so I typically try to keep a non-hoppy Pilsner or a clean lager on there, whereas tap five could be anything from a hoppy Pilsner to a Blonde Ale to a Golden Ale,” he says. “Taps eight and nine are my single IPA taps, so basically between 5 percent and 7 percent. Tap eight is strictly Oregon IPA, tap nine is US—it can be Oregon. … Tap 12 is called my ‘IPA variation.’ It could be an IPA that has rye, a white IPA, a red IPA, a black IPA, or recently the hazy IPAs, I’ve been rotating those through that tap.”

Bailey’s whole list goes like this, with loose style guidelines designed to offer something for everyone—even if that means a dedicated IPA drinker might bounce after sampling the day’s offerings.

“The way Bailey’s has run has attracted guys who are those people who are looking for constant rotation,” Murnighan says. “I feel like it works better for guys who are chasing IPAs because every time they come in the list is completely different.”

Those Untappd check-in chasers that Gonnerman looks to for buying advice in DC also make up a significant part of Bailey’s customer base, Murnighan says. And they can be tough to please. Last summer, Murnighan, who regularly blind-tastes new beers, experimented with buying two kegs of one of the most sought-after local IPAs by Breakside Brewery and running them back-to-back so they’d last longer than one night. It was not a popular decision.

“It’s hard to tell whether places like Bailey’s created that culture or if that culture created Bailey’s, but there is that customer we’ve seen who refuses to return to the same beer twice,” he says. “I could tell that my customers were like ‘Oh, there’s another Breakside going on?’ They were kind of frustrated by it.”

Suzanne Schalow, co-founder of the Craft Beer Cellar franchise, at the original store in Belmont, Mass. | Photo by Jim Brueckner

Offering the Best
Saying “no” is another important part of beer-buying. As more bars have gone to constantly rotating taps, buyers are inundated with visits from upstart brewers, sales reps, and distributors all trying to finagle their beer onto a line or two.

At Bailey’s, the trove of data provided by Digital Pour, a draft inventory management and point of sale system, has helped Murnighan deal with this increase in sales calls. He knows exactly how fast various kegs kicked, and how much each customer spent.

“It kind of puts the buyer back in the power position because I have the data right there. If a distributor tries to re-sell me a keg and says, ‘Let’s give this another chance,’ I can say, ‘Actually, no, that was the worst-performing beer of the last year, I’d rather not.’”

Belmont Station has been using sales data long before Digital Pour, and keeps its own spreadsheets tracking draft velocity. There’s even a “do not buy” field for seasonals that’ve flopped in the past.

“What you’ll find is that any new purchaser will repeat the same mistakes as were previously made,” Singmaster says. “Having historical data helps avoid that. They don’t make [the mistakes] because they’re dumb, they make them because they’re applying what they think works or what they like.”

Saying no is a delicate art, especially when dealing with upstarts and breweries that produce coveted kegs as well as not-so-coveted kegs. The trick is to deliver any bad news tactfully.

Last December, saying “no” went badly for bottle shop franchise Craft Beer Cellar, a chain of more than two-dozen stores across the country, from Maine to California.

Co-founder Suzanne Schalow still works the floor at her original shop in Belmont, Mass. In an effort to maintain standards across the franchises, Schalow and the other shop owners formed a “product evaluation team” made up of Certified Cicerones and beer judges who collectively decide whether beers should be purchased or not.

“We all work hard to vet beer, in all of our markets, so that we may offer all of our store owners a glimpse at a list that currently consists of around 4,500 beers that we know are beers that we can be proud to sell, because the liquid is remarkable, there is a story, the packaging is good, and the price point makes sense for Craft Beer Cellar,” she explains.

The list is fluid and updated on a monthly basis. But when a memo about the list was leaked to beer bloggers—by a “jealous,” rival she claims—it ignited a firestorm. The local business journal covered the “blacklist” and one of the breweries categorized as “not fit for consumption” threatened to sue.

“We had a ton of support, especially on the brewer side, but [also] from many a customer who battled for the cause in forums and on discussion boards,” she says. “We both know there are beers out there that don’t stack up. How could there not be, with the rate of growth in this industry? We have never had an interest in offering less than amazing beer to our customers. Period.”

Schalow predicts a tough decision for the evaluation team with Wicked Weed Brewing. Its recent sale to Anheuser-Busch sparked a massive backlash. Wicked Weed started distributing in Massachusetts last year, meaning Schalow and the panel will soon have to decide whether to add Wicked Weed to the do-not-buy list.

“Part of what people want when they’re buying with craft beer is the story,” she says. “The liquids are going to still be amazing. But, before, Wicked Weed was a great story. But now that it’s owned by A-B, is it still a good story? Is that something we’re going to feel comfortable telling our customers? I don’t know.”