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Confessions of a Beer Retailer

As a beer retailer, so much of what I love about the beer industry in D.C. is the people. When I read Bill DeBaun’s departure post about how the beer brought him in, but the people kept him in and going, that really resonated with me. I’ve been saying the same thing since my first shift filling growlers at Chocolate City Brewing, and everyone to whom I voice the sentiment reacts the same way. Whatever we do or don’t agree upon elsewhere in life, beer is delicious and the people who are into it are, by and large, good people.

Beer, as both a product of agriculture and a social construct, drives a conversation that has much more at stake than just the liquid in our pint glasses. That liquid, and particularly how it speaks to people, is a highly subjective thing. Indeed, as the market becomes increasingly complex and crowded, people gravitate toward what others like; the context in which the perception of preference, style, and trend have as much to say as the beer itself or the people who make it.

No accounting for taste

Beer retailer Eric Kintner is Senior Manager at Wardman Wines.
Eric Kintner, Senior Manager at Wardman Wines.

If there is one thing I have learned in over a decade in the beverage industry, it is that there is no such thing as accounting for taste. Absolute zero, full stop. To put it a slightly different way: every beer – indeed every beverage – has a time and place. Matching that beer to a person in that time and place is, in its essence, what I do for a living. That is a much more difficult thing than simply saying, “oh, you came in looking for Miller Lite? Here, try this local craft pilsner.”

Any given beer will obviously taste the same on a Tuesday as it will on a Thursday, but people are complex and fickle creatures – this is one of my favorite things about us. Being able to read subtleties in a person’s demeanor to suggest the most appropriate beer for them is akin to a public speaker reading their audience to gauge the best way to present their message on the fly. The script is written, but the delivery has to be not only persuasive but instinctive.

A beer retailer’s friend: the tasting bar

At work, the tasting bar is the centerpiece of our shop and is generally the place where I have the best conversations, whether with customers, reps, coworkers, or friends. Like so many aspects of life in this industry, success boils down to engaging with people as equals. Gleaning a sense of where they are coming from and what they are really looking for, regardless of the specific words they use when they walk in.

The key moment for me, as a beer retailer, is in the 3-5 seconds after someone has tasted something. Whether or not they buy something is far less relevant than the potential experience of discovering something delightful that they never knew existed. Those are moments are that truly guide me in what to suggest for people, whether it is beer, wine, or spirits. I’ve been known to hand someone a taster of something and say, “taste this and make a face.”

Many – if not most – times, nothing particularly interesting happens. They taste whatever it is, think about it for a second (or not) and express an opinion of some kind (again, or not). Maybe they will buy something, maybe they will make a beeline for the door and go about their day having gotten their free tipple. It happens.

Then there are my favorite times: when someone is so surprised by liking something that their eyes light up and lose focus for just a moment, they are briefly somewhere else, experiencing something transcendental. Or, indeed, the converse of that – when someone tastes something so disagreeable that their eyes cloud over in disgust, and often their entire body will, however briefly, become engaged in the act of rebellion to whatever they just put into their mouths.

Both outcomes are equally informative to me in trying to determine which bottle or six-pack would best fit their situation. Meeting people where they are and helping them find the perspective and experience they need to make and feel good about a decision that they perceive they are unqualified to make. Beer is a full sensory experience, and as such cannot be summed up in words. Being in a position to share and expand people’s perception of it is, in fact, the great privilege of my chosen vocation as a beer retailer.

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