Last Sunday, Suzanne Schalow, co-owner of Craft Beer Cellar’s flagship Belmont store, had a moment that reminded her of the importance of what she’s doing.
“We close at 7,” says Schalow, “and it’s 7:07 and we get a woman on the phone who was frantic, in a good way. She was going to a friend’s house for a party and needed some beer.”
A beer emergency might not be an emergency at all, and in this case, it worked out — Schalow met the woman at the back door with a mixed six-pack of IPAs. But the incident also underscored how normal it is for a customer to call on the curatorial skills of Schalow and co-owner Kate Baker, who have run the Belmont store since 2010.
The Craft Beer Cellar inventory is a combination of the good old stuff like Orval Trappist Ale and St. Bernardus Abt 12, as well as beers from newer breweries like SingleCut Beersmiths of Queens, N.Y., and Maine’s Rising Tide Brewing Co.
Schalow and Baker have spent the last six years growing the brand. There are now 26 stores across the country, including 11 in Massachusetts after the opening last month of an outpost in Fort Point. The business model — small, selective stores with hundreds of beers and a staff that knows how to sell them — has both helped inspire craft beer’s growth and mirrored it.
One thing the couple has learned is that “local” and “craft” don’t always equate to quality. On Facebook recently, Schalow related a story in which she and her staff tasted a lineup of potential new offerings to put on the shelf.
“Sampled 12 beers and a cider today,” Schalow wrote. “Cider was infected, two beers will be ordered, 10 will not. Careful friends — it’s crazy out there.”
Schalow says she her intent is “never to be ridiculing,” but she stands by her position as a gatekeeper, adding, “Some of the beer out there is not even drinkable.”
The store’s staff takes tasting seriously, gathering bottles at the end of the day and comparing notes. Concerns about quality come at a time when more customers than ever are branching out.
“We have a lot of people who want to step outside of the comfort zone and have really imaginative beer,” says Baker.
But they need to be careful.
“So many retailers out there are jumping on the shiny new toys,” says Schalow.
Despite the caveats, Baker and Schalow say that educated customers can drink better now than ever.
“It’s an amazing time,” says Schalow. “The breweries that are making average to less-than-average beer are not here anymore. What’s on our shelves is amazing, and there’s so much of it.”