“Don’t be a dick.”
That’s what Arrowine beer buyer and notable man-about-town Nick Anderson (@the_beermonger on Twitter) says is the key not only to the beer and wine industries, but to life in general. Honestly, I’m inclined to agree with him. From the general notion of the beer snob to the vociferous pining and scheming of the beer geek, there’s an abundance to be said about the need for civility in the beer world, let alone the world outside it.
To some extent, it was that growing angst in the beer world that led me to seek out the opinion of my local suds provider for an interview. However, after spending some time knocking back pints with my friendly neighborhood beermonger, something seemed just plain “off” about writing a basic back and forth interview post. What Nick had to say wasn’t fact or figure or muted explanation but instead a prescription for how the beer world ought to view itself and its relationship with the (gasp!) world at large. Speaking most generally, what Nick had to tell me about his experience in the world of retail beer was the stuff of stories more than the stuff of interviews. So, that’s how I’m going to tell it.
I met up with Nick at the LA Bar and Grill in Arlington on a Sunday afternoon. I showed up a little late (you have no idea how fast my dog can run away from me with my socks), and Nick was halfway into a pint of Guinness as I approached the well-worn bar in the dimly lit, basement space. I sat myself down next to him and ordered up a pint of New Belgium Dig and started with what seemed like the most appropriate question: how do you get into the retail beer business in the first place? “I sort of got into this by accident,” Nick told me. After spending his late teens and early 20s playing in bands, Nick stumbled across a classified ad for a part-time gig at a wine store named Cecile’s Wine Cellar (now Chain Bridge Cellars).
After landing the job, Nick started to learn the ins and outs of the wine retail business and, after some time at the store, was asked by the manager to run the “beer department,” which at the time consisted of whatever he could find in the space’s walk-in fridge. As he had a been a craft beer fan for a good while at this point (Arrogant Bastard was his “gateway” beer and Dogfish 90 minute – “the old cork and cage, unfiltered ones” – was his go-to at the time), Nick walked in to discover a number of serious beers in the walk-in. What kind of serious beers? “There were just bottles and bottles of Cantillon, and more. It was great. I tasted them all.”
This brings me to the first major point that Nick had to make: want to know more about beer? Taste everything you can get your hands on and take notes. Don’t just think about whether or not you like it; instead, think about why you feel that way and make a note of it, mental or otherwise. “I worked for a guy, when I was still mostly dealing with wine, who used to hold blind tastings for the staff all the time. He’d take a bottle and put it in a paper bag and let the staff taste it and ask them what they were tasting and what they liked,” Nick told me. “That’s where you learn how to find the stuff you really like.”
After stints working at Rick’s Wine and Gourmet for a bit, Nick made his way over to his current post at Arrowine, which he’s manned for almost a year. If you ask him, his goal isn’t to grow the size of his beer department, but instead to focus on the beers he knows his customers enjoy and, as he gets to know them better, the beers he thinks they’ll enjoy that they haven’t yet had the chance to try. “If people want more options, they can go to Rick’s or to Norm’s or somewhere else. I’m happy to send them there if I don’t have something and I know they do. Why should they miss out on the beer they want?”
Of course, this begs the question: how does Nick actually get his beers? It all comes back to the three-tier system that was established after the end of prohibition. I won’t get too much into it, but basically brewers sell beer to distributors who sell beer to retailers. Some exceptions are made for smaller breweries (and taprooms and brewpubs), but the basic idea is to put some distance between the producers and the consumers, thereby satisfying the angry mobs of temperance (do those still exist? That’s a conversation for another day). From a retail point of view, this system requires that Nick source his beer from the distributors that serve the NoVA market and, to some extent, places him at their mercy as far as the supply of high-demand products goes.
So in this distributor-dependent industry, how does a neighborhood beer buyer at an independent shop go about doing right by his customers? “I’m a pain in the ass,” Nick said. “In my opinion, if you’re not, then you’re not doing your job right.” Allow me to expand upon this a little bit. Beer buying is, to a large extent, all about the relationships you develop with the distributors, reps, and other key industry players. By following rule #1 (not being a dick), you build up enough nice-guy capital in order to push some buttons here and there to get your customers what they actually want. An extra case of Troeg’s Nugget Nectar? A few more bottles of Firestone Walker Sucaba? Two runs of Bell’s Hopslam? If you want to snag some of these tougher-to-get, in-demand beers on your shelves, you need to be willing to push your way through the crowd.
Speaking of pushing through crowds, I couldn’t help but ask Nick about limited release beers and the clamor to procure them. “Some brewers will take it too far,” he told me, “until some beers end up ‘too pricey’ and ‘too limited’ and it pushes people away. By the time the beer arrives, consumers will have lost interest.” I’m inclined to agree with Nick on this one. To some extent, it’s the approachability of craft beer that draws people in; if that disappears, we’ll no doubt see a decrease in the consumption of some of the world’s greatest brews.
Taking this a bit further, I had to ask: is this a bubble? One day, is the beer market (in the DMV in particular) going to burst, or are we in for some sustained growth? According to Nick, it varies on a case-by-case basis. Some breweries might overdo it, while others will continue to read the market correctly and grow at a steady pace. There’s plenty of room for more craft beer in the beer market, and that’s why, overall, it looks like some great breweries will continue to expand, particularly in an area as beer-friendly as the DMV. I think I speak for all of us when I say that that’s certainly a good thing.
Stop in at the weekly Arrowine beer tasting on Friday nights from 5-7PM and hang out with Nick, sample some of the finest suds around, and hey, you just might learn something.
4508 Lee Hwy
Arlington, VA 22207
(703) 525 0990