The Role of Bottle Shops in Shaping the Craft Beer Scene

As a bottle shop owner, this is something I think about on a fairly regular basis. But I wanted to write about it a bit because it's bubbled up to the surface in two different ways recently.

First, All About Beer Magazine wrote a piece about the bottle shop scene that has emerged in Durham over the past couple of years. They were nice enough to interview me and one of our customers for the story, and include a photo, which is great. While it's a good overview of the shops in the area, I'm not sure it gets to the heart of the role that bottle shops are playing and why we're seeing them spring up.

Secondly, Katy and I recently traveled to San Francisco to attend a wedding and to do a little brewery hopping while we were there. We went to breweries big and small, from Lagunitas and Anchor to Rare Barrel and Cellarmaker. We also visited a handful of the bottle shops and craft beer bars that have a strong reputation in the Bay Area. It's always great to see how people on the other side of the country are running a store that serves a similar role in the community as your own.

City Beer Store. San Francisco, CA

Reading the All About Beer article while riding the "Muni" bus in San Francisco, having just left City Beer Store, I found myself really pondering they "why."

Why are bottle shops becoming so popular? What is different now that is causing bottle shops to pop up everywhere and to (mostly) be very successful? Why are people spending their evenings and weekends hanging out at these types of shops?

Before I get much further, however, I should probably define what I'm referring to when I say "bottle shop," as that definition has changed fairly dramatically over the past 5 years or so.

For the purpose of this article, what I'm calling a bottle shop is a place that derives close to (or more than) 50% of their revenue from the retail "to-go" sale of craft beer (bottles or cans), but also has draft beer on tap available for on-site consumption. By this definition, I am not referring to craft beer focused bars, or wine shops that also have craft beer for sale but no beer on draft. So it is a fairly narrowly-defined focus, but this is the segment of bottle shops that we're seeing spring up in towns across the country.

But, back to the why...

I think the obvious surface-level answer to this is that we're seeing more of these types of shops due to the rise in popularity of craft beer.  Craft beer is growing (in production volume and sales dollars) by about 18%, while the overall beer market is only growing at a fraction of 1% (based on the numbers released for 2014 by the Brewer's Association).

There are lots of reasons why craft beer is becoming popular - the rise of everything "craft" and the desire to support small, local, and independent businesses is just a start. But that's another article for another day.

So it only makes sense that we'd see more bottle shops appearing as the product they sell is seeing an increased demand. But I think there is more beneath this surface-level conclusion.

Prior to the rise of craft beer in the past decade, bottle shops existed, but not in the capacity that we defined earlier. You could go to a bar and find a craft beer or two on tap or available in bottles, or you could go to a retail shop and find a small (but growing) selection of craft beer available to take home, but it's only recently we've seen the expansion of the hybrid store/bar that offers both on-site options, as well as packaged beers to take home.

Now, before I give my theory as to why this is, I do want to post the disclaimer that I am a bottle shop owner, and as much as I may try to approach this in an un-biased manner, it's likely that I'm romanticizing things a bit, given my viewpoint. But hey, that's what you signed up for. ;)

I think the rise of bottle shops is linked to the desire for an accessible, friendly community gathering place. 

In England, they have the traditional public houses that have filled this role for generations, but in the US, our pubs and bars tend to come with a bit of a stigma. People often think that bars are where you go late at night, where it is dark, the music is loud, and everyone is there to get drunk and/or to pick-up dudes/chicks.

While this is certainly not true of all bars, when you mention a "bar" to a lot of people, this is often what comes to mind.

Bottle shops have become the "Cheers" of our generation. You know, the place where everybody knows your name.

They're a place where you can go to meet friends, play a board game, plan a party, and enjoy a delicious beverage or two. You can come as you are. People of any age, gender, or walk of life. At our store, we've seen all of the following groups meet here (that we know of): church groups, neighborhood associations, community garden planners, farmer's market committee, office/work project groups, beer traders, and of course our JUGs (Just Us Gals) ladies-only craft beer group.

Additionally, bottle shops are positioned well to host a variety of small (and large) craft beer events. These events often involve tap takeovers, where customers can try several beers from a specific brewery or of a specific style, helping them learn what breweries or styles they prefer. Often times there are free samples, and, on many occasions, a representative of a brewery will visit the store during the event to chat with customers. At The Glass Jug, we've hosted lots of local brewery reps, brewers, and owners that are always more than willing to spend time speaking with consumers. 

These types of events make for a fun, easy night out, where you can learn a little more about the craft beer scene, while having some free beer and talking to other craft beer enthusiasts. Event nights always draw a great crowd at The Glass Jug, for just this reason.

There are certainly other places folks can go to meet up, but due to the growing popularity of craft beer, bottle shops have become a go-to place for this sort of community center. Add in the perks of being a specialty retailer, such as being able to special order kegs or cases of beer for parties, weddings, and other gatherings, and a staff that can make recommendations and help expand your palate, it becomes a very attractive venue for spending a laid-back evening or weekend afternoon.

As always, I've just spewed my opinion on the subject at you, but I am curious to hear from others on this as well. As a craft beer consumer, why do you spend time at bottle shops (or why don't you)? Or, as a brewery, what is the role that bottle shops play in your planning, production, and marketing? Do you go to bottle shops mainly for picking up beer to go, or do the events they host influence your decision to visit your local bottle shop? And what makes you choose to visit a bottle shop over just buying beer from the grocery store and drinking beer at a craft beer bar?

I'll hopefully get back to a regular email schedule soon, as I've enjoyed the conversations this has sparked. And as always, if you know anyone else who may like to subscribe, just forward them the link to sign up!