Thirty minutes into what would be a nearly 40-minute beer stop at Beacon Hill’s Charles Street Liquors, Mark Higgins had yet to make a selection.
He paced. He perused. He plucked the occasional bottled beer from the shelf to examine its label. But the New Hampshire resident, in town in part to stock up on beers he’s not able to get back home, appeared in no hurry to make his purchase.
“You can really explore,” he said, stationed in the shop’s sizable craft beer section.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when shopping for beer consisted of dropping into your neighborhood liquor store, grabbing a six-pack of Miller High Life from the back cooler, and calling it good. A two-minute process, maybe. Three if there was a line.
But as America’s beer industry has undergone a fundamental shift — led by a flourishing craft-beer movement — so, too, has the manner in which consumers go about buying it.
Today’s beer drinkers are increasingly knowledgeable, passionate, adventurous. And as they seek a more customized experience, retailers are devising new ways to accommodate them.
At Trader Joe’s in Coolidge Corner, for instance, customers can purchase individual 12-ounce bottles of beer or create their own personalized six-packs, mixing and matching from an assortment of different, individually priced offerings. Star Market in Back Bay offers an entire shelf of single bottles and allows customers to fill up a cardboard six-pack carrier with any combination for $9.99.
This is to say nothing of the liquor stores that have begun filling their shelves with obscure brews.
“Certainly over the past two years we’ve seen a real increase in retailers offering more diverse ways to sell beer,” says Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Colorado-based Brewers Association. “Consumers, particularly millennial consumers, really crave variety. So mix-six, growler fill-stations, [these are] attempts by retailers to satisfy that demand.”
The result is a beer-shopping experience that would have been unrecognizable even a few years ago.
As consumers encounter a nearly endless array of information — magazines, blogs, and phone apps dedicated to all things beer — many have turned the old-fashioned beer run into something of an experience — part treasure hunt, part choose-your-own adventure.
“During weekends, people like to come and make a time of it,” says Brad Johnson, general manager of Charles Street Liquors, which specializes in wine and craft beer. “A lot of people are on their phones, looking at [beer] ratings. People will be here for an hour sometimes.”
Even beer window-shopping has become a thing these days.
On a recent evening at the Beacon Hill store, a pair of middle-age men walked in and found their way to the store’s craft beer aisle, a lengthy, double-sided row that includes individual bottles from the store’s vast stock of craft beers. For 10 minutes, the pair moved slowly down the aisle, asking questions, trading tidbits of knowledge. But when they exited the store after about 20 minutes, they did so empty-handed.
‘During weekends, people like to come and make a time of it. A lot of people are on their phones, looking at [beer] ratings. People will be here for an hour sometimes.’
The sale of beer in different ways has proven to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Services like beer-by-the-bottle or build-your-own six-pack allow retailers to stock a wider variety of labels and, in some cases, have provided a financial boost as well. Charles Street Liquors, for instance, says it has seen at least a 30 percent increase in wall-beer sales since it began offering many of its 2,100 different beers on a build-your-own basis about a year ago.
For customers, meanwhile, it offers freedom, a chance to sample different brews without much of a risk. While customers might balk at spending $15 on a six-pack of a new beer they’re not sure they’ll like, boldness comes easier when you’re only devoting a couple dollars to a bottle.
And even though the build-your-own arrangement generally costs a little more, consumers seem willing to shell out a few extra bucks for the flexibility it affords.
“There’s so much to try now that when I go to a liquor store, I always make my own six,” says Emily Sauter, a New England-based beer blogger who runs the Pints and Panels website. “I’m constantly trying stuff, and I want to be able to try as much stuff as possible, and the make-your-own six gives you the ability to do that.”
The new arrangements, meanwhile, don’t appear to be going anywhere.
In a recent Brewers Association survey conducted with Nielsen, 41 percent of craft beer consumers said they purchase single-serving cans or bottles “always or often,” while 25 percent said they always or often partake in “create-your-own-six-pack” offerings.
“It used to be that people all had a brand and they stuck with it,” Watson says. “Today’s beer lover wants variety; they want to have different beers for different occasions.”
And so it was that Higgins, still lingering inside Charles Street Liquors, finally set his attention on making a selection.
Outside, it was getting darker. His daughter, along for the trip, had begun asking how much longer.
“This has sentimental value to me,” he said, picking up two bottles of Corsendonk, a Belgian beer, and dropping them into his basket. He wandered farther down the aisle, where he stopped to pick up a Weihenstephaner he knew he couldn’t find back home.
“What about this?” asked his wife, Cindy, holding up a bottle of Duvel Belgian Golden Ale.
He paused for a moment, considering the bottle.
“Meh,” he responded. “We can get that in the supermarket.”
Then he turned back toward the vast row of beer in front of him, lost in a sea of possibility.Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.