Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).
A few weeks ago, I came down with (for me) a very rare case of the flu. Now that I’ve shaken it off and resumed normal breathing function, I’ve suddenly found myself with a backlog of beers in my refrigerator that I need to try. I know, we should all have such problems, but what struck me was how quickly these beers amassed themselves, and where they were coming from.
I had purchased a handful of limited run beers and new arrivals I wanted to try when I was feeling better (Great Lakes Rye of the Tiger; a pair of Stone Enjoy By 5.17.13 IPA bottles since I’d missed out on the last run) but for the most part the beers populating my fridge were coming from friends who had recently been traveling, and from distributors who wanted me to try new products they were representing in Virginia.
Unlike wine distributors, who come see restaurateurs and retailers every week with wines to sample and (hopefully) sell to them, beer distributors have been notoriously tight when it comes to ‘trying before you buy’. Over my career I’d found the experience of trying to get a sample of a new arrival before buying it for my job to be like pulling teeth. The attitude of beer distributors seemed to be “Look, if you’re not sure about buying this we’ll just sell it to someone else — we don’t need to let you try it”.
The growth of the craft beer business has changed the way things work in a very short period of time. There’s been a lot of chatter about the “wineification” of beer; that beers have become too pricey, or exclusive — but it’s in how distributors are handling new arrivals and competition that I’ve really seen the beer business become more like the wine side. Today there is such an influx of new breweries along with new beers from established stars that distributors who handle craft beer are having to fight for shelf space that was easy to fill even just a few years ago.
For retail and restaurant buyers, this is a very welcome change. I’m lucky enough to have found a love for craft beer in the late 90s, which scarily enough is a long time for someone in my position. I have a good library of tasting notes and experience to draw from when I consider new beer arrivals: meaning that at this point, I have a good feel for a breweries tendencies and often feel comfortable enough bringing in new offerings without feeling a need to try them out beforehand.
I meet buyers these days who are younger, of a generation stepping into a market of seemingly endless options, and I have no idea how they do it. I couldn’t imagine doing this job while learning the basics like many of the folks out there are. It’s a testament to their talent that so many places in our area have great craft beer selections, but it also makes it more important than ever that distributors provide samples so that they might broaden their own vocabularies to better shape their craft beer programs.
This all leaves me where I started: with a mess of beers that I am completely unfamiliar with. Many soon to hit shelves in our area; some likely never to; and a couple beers I picked up walking around DC the other day that aren’t yet available to us in Virginia (DC Brau/Ska Brewing Taster’s Choice and Mother Earth Windowpane Series Double Wit Raspberry if anyone’s curious — they can be found around town). I’m going to invite some friends for a couple bottle sharing evenings, and get my notebook out to decide on what I’d like to carry or pass on.
The bigger point is that even after all these years, there is still so much to discover. If you’re the type who is waiting for one or two breweries to come to Virginia: don’t stop asking, don’t stop hoping, but don’t miss out on the amazing diversity of beers coming to our area from all over the country and the world right now. There is always something new to try, and that has never been more true for beer geeks in this area than it is right now. Until next time.