Buying craft beer isn't nearly as difficult as it used to be. There are plenty of stores out there that sell craft beer, but how many are dedicated to it? There's only a few, and one of the more well known chains is Craft Beer Cellar. The Brewers Association defines craft brewers as small, independent, and traditional. It is their beers that Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow, the co-founders of the original Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, stock in their stores and promote with a passion. I had a chance to chat with Suzanne about how Craft Beer Cellar was founded, the people that work there, and the customer experience.
The Craft Beer Cellar location in Newton, Massachusetts, opened October 30, 2013.
Suzanne just finished taking the rigorous two-day exam to become a Master Cicerone® in Chicago. She's still waiting for her results, but she told me that she is better for having done it. She's had many supporters that have helped her prepare for the exam, including those from Cambridge Brewing Company and Valley Malt. When I spoke with her, she and Kate had traveled to Missouri to help with the opening of the most recent Craft Beer Cellar location in Clayton.
Suzanne believes location isn't the only thing that is important when establishing a Craft Beer Cellar. "More than anything else, we're picking people." The owners of Craft Beer Cellar Clayton are an example of the kind of people they're looking for. Brandon and Ryan Nickelson are brothers with a love for all things craft beer. They traveled to Boston to meet with Kate and Suzanne, who showed them around the stores. Now they're more than excited to bring the one-of-a-kind Craft Beer Cellar to the St. Louis area.
Kate and Suzanne founded the original Craft Beer Cellar (also known as The Mothership) in Belmont, Massachusetts back in 2010 with a focus on quality brews from across the country and a special place in their hearts for those brewed locally. The name Craft Beer Cellar (a play on the word "seller") was chosen to conjure up images of the age-old practice of cellaring beer and to emphasize their mission to put craft beer first. Since then it's become a franchise, with locations throughout New England as well as Florida and Missouri. Suzanne said that a store in Nashua, New Hampshire is in the works and that there are many more to come.
The chalkboard at Craft Beer Cellar Newton, featuring a schedule of upcoming tastings.
To get a better look at the Craft Beer Cellar business model in action, I traveled out to the store in Newton, Massachusetts to do a bit of shopping. Before even walking in the door there is a sign with information on beer classes and other products (such as wine, sake, mead, and kombucha) that the store stocks. Though craft beer is their focus, that's definitely not all they sell. There are brownies and cheeses available to purchase for pairing with your beer. On top of that, brewers from all over New England and beyond come to Craft Beer Cellar to host tastings on a regular basis.
Part of the selection at Craft Beer Cellar Newton.
The first thing you'll notice when walking into Craft Beer Cellar Newton is the incredible selection of beer on the shelves. Organized both by region (East Coast, West Coast, Central, International) with separate sections for cider, mead, and sour beers, it is relatively easy to find your way around. The hardest part is choosing which beer to buy, as Craft Beer Cellar offers customers the option to purchase any beer on the shelf individually, even if it's part of a six-pack. That's where the friendly and knowledgeable staff come in. Those who work at Craft Beer Cellar all take part in the Cicerone Certification Program, so they know a thing or two about beer. "We want to have fun and we want to be educated," Schalow says. They are there to answer your questions, give high-fives, and act as your guide through the world of craft beer.
"Kate and I are very proud of our relationships with people across the country." It's those relationships that they've established with brewers and distributors that have allowed them to maintain such a high-quality selection in their stores. "We don't ever ask for special favors. We just want to sell good beer." That is something that they've accomplished, especially through their relationships in the Boston area.
Suzanne told me of the time she spoke with JC and Esther Tetreault of Trillium Brewing. They are still a relatively small operation, so they're not able to send their bottled beers out to many stores. Yet, Craft Beer Cellar is one of the few stores that receives bottles from Trillium. "It's no problem," Esther told her. "We're happy you guys have it because we know that you love it and care about it as much as we do."
According to Suzanne, the key to establishing the relationships like the ones they have is being real. "We're here for the brewers. We're here for the community." It's the respect they have for the beers that the brewers make and their efforts to educate the craft beer community that make them stand out. "We want to help these breweries get more established and get their name out there." And that is exactly what they have done.
A table of craft beer staff picks.
After finding out more about how Craft Beer Cellar was founded, I wanted to know more about the people that worked there. So, I asked the staff some questions, starting with Ken Cioffredi in Newton. Ken is originally from New York and now works with Brian Shaw, the owner of the Newton store. He started out by visiting the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont as a customer, and those visits eventually led to him getting in touch with Kate and Suzanne about working at Craft Beer Cellar. He is hard-working, dedicated, and always willing to talk about craft beer. "He'll probably have his own store." Schalow says.
I also talked to Brett Bauer, who recently started working as an Assistant Brewer at Idle Hands Craft Ales. Brett also started out as a customer at the Belmont store. He was at the store the day that Kate and Suzanne made the public announcement that they were going to franchise and turn Craft Beer Cellar into a nationwide brand. He spoke with Suzanne afterwards about the possibility of working at Craft Beer Cellar, and has been with them ever since. "He's going to do well in this industry and I know that he'll get to do whatever he wants to do. He may eventually own his own brewery," Schalow says. Brett told me he wouldn't know half as much about beer and would not be working at Idle Hands today if it hadn't been for Craft Beer Cellar. "I've had the chance to meet some of the best people and attend some of the best events the Boston Craft Beer scene has to offer and I love it all."
"We don't work on a top-down management system," Schalow says. "Everybody's a manager, everybody has a key," she went on to say. "I'm not the boss. Craft Beer Cellar is the boss." You can tell when you walk into Craft Beer Cellar that everyone feels the same.
Lee Movic works for Craft Beer Cellar at the "Brand" Level. They are a small but growing team. He manages much of Craft Beer Cellar's social media accounts, and often travels between their various stores, or can be found out in the community. Since Belmont is the flagship store, he keeps a desk there as well. He, like many others, began as a loyal customer and started working for Craft Beer Cellar in 2013 after he was approached by Kate and Suzanne. His official title is "Brand BadAssador", a blend of Social Media/Community Management, marketing, training, outreach, event planning, and more. "I think one of the things that defines Craft Beer Cellar and distinguishes us from other retailers is how we put education above all else. Let's say you don't personally drink beer, but you're buying a mixed six-pack for someone who loves craft beer. We're going to ask you what you like and what they like: beer, wine, food, activities, etc. We're going to walk with you around the store, and make you knowledgeable about the beers that you're giving as a gift. It might not be that day, nor the next, nor this week, but eventually we want you to know that whenever you're ready to 'get into beer,' we'll welcome you with open arms."
Craft Beer Cellar is actively engaged in social media. Each location seem to post something on its Twitter feed, Facebook page, or Instagram account nearly every day. They also frequently announce contests online that those who follow them can enter to win cool craft beer prizes. For example, I entered a contest on Craft Beer Cellar Newton's page. They asked for followers to post their favorite craft beer and food pairings. I did so and ended up winning two tickets to Brewery Ommegang's HopChef competition here in Boston!
Suzanne and Kate from Craft Beer Cellar.
It was there that I had the opportunity to meet Kate and Suzanne in person. Ken and Brian from Craft Beer Cellar Newton were also in attendance. All of the dishes and beers at HopChef paired very nicely together. Everyone representing Craft Beer Cellar was very approachable, showing me that Craft Beer Cellar is about not only educating people about beer, but what food to pair it with. In fact, Craft Beer Cellar recently partnered with Tango Mango to showcase a selection of craft beers that pair well with tacos!
After meeting the minds behind Craft Beer Cellar, the crew from Craft Beer Cellar Newton, and speaking to some staff members, I reached out to the owners of other Craft Beer Cellar locations in Massachusetts to see if I could find out more about them.
I spoke with Kay Lorenz, one of the owners of the Craft Beer Cellar in Braintree, along with Jeff and Matt Young. Craft Beer Cellar Braintree opened on November 20, 2013. Kay told me that they are lucky enough to be surrounded by great restaurants (El Sarape, Four Square and Passport), a craft beer bar (Union Brewhouse) and the South Shore Homebrew Emporium, as well as having such wonderful neighbors who have welcomed them with open arms. They look at Weymouth Landing as an up and coming area and they look forward to growing along with it. Their customer base is made up of seasoned beer lovers, homebrewers and open-minded new comers to the craft beer "scene" who are interested in learning about beers they may have never heard of. They may all be certified beer servers, but they always look forward to learning from their customers. "We pride ourselves on fostering an environment in which people feel comfortable asking questions and learning. We are constantly learning as well and look forward to passing that information along to our customers. We always want to help them find what they're looking for, listen to what they want, get to know them and welcome them back. Oh, and, we are dog friendly and keep dog treats under the counter!"
I also had the chance to speak with Walter Miska and Marc Marino, the owners of the Craft beer Cellar in Westford, Massachusetts, which opened in October of 2013. Walter and Marc have known each other since college, where they were Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers at WPI. "The craft beer community is in the very early stages in the Merrimack Valley. Many of our customers are being exposed to the world of craft beer for the first time when they walk into our store…we love that!" When asked what he thought everyone should know about Craft Beer Cellar, Walter had plenty to say: "We love beer. We drink beer. We sell beer for a living. We want to share our passion for craft beer with everyone that we can. We treat all beers in the store with an equal respect, whether it be a limited release or a brewery’s core brand."
Next I spoke to the owners of some stores outside of Massachusetts. Tom and Monica Himes own the Craft Beer Cellar located in Brandon, Florida. They opened their store on January 13th, 2014. According to them, it is the only true Craft Beer store in the area. "Florida is fairly new to the craft beer scene when compared to New England," they say. "I think it is obvious the success and notoriety of Cigar City Brewing in Tampa has helped fueled the recent 'boom.' Several new breweries have opened in the Tampa area (as well as the rest of Florida) over the past year or two and several more are in the works. More and more we see bars carrying a better selection of craft beer and often focusing on craft beer and Florida beer."
Mike Lynch owns the Craft Beer Cellar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which opened its door on January 9th, 2014. I asked him what he thought was special about his location. "The Seacoast has been home to great craft breweries, from Smuttynose to the many new talented nano breweries that are opening up, and it is therefore a great time to be selling craft beer. We're also just a mile from downtown Portsmouth!" Since New Hampshire is the second largest per capita beer consumer in the entire country, the craft beer community is huge and getting bigger. Lynch summed up what Craft Beer Cellar Portsmouth is all about: "We love to provide access to, and knowledge of, great beer!"
Inside Craft Beer Cellar Newton.
Finally, I wanted to get some views on Craft Beer Cellar from the customer's perspective. Speaking to those who shop at Craft Beer Cellar, I heard consistent praise for both the staff at Craft Beer Cellar and the selection. Brian Hatch spoke very highly of the store: "Amazing selection of course, but the staff really sets Craft Beer Cellar apart from the rest!" Dominic Antonelli of Clown Shoes Beer also told me what he thought: "Craft Beer Cellar Braintree is awesome! They appear on my weekly bank statement." Even Rhode Island's Foolproof Brewing chimed in: "They always have a great selection at Craft Beer Cellar Newton!"
Craft Beer Cellar is here to stay. It continues to expand at a fast pace, which is one of the challenges that Suzanne said they have to deal with. "One of the things we do is come up with a word every year that is representative of what our year's going to look like." This year's word? Maturity. "We have to be mature enough to know that we're growing at a certain speed and we can't do it all," Schalow says. That may be true, but it's certainly not going to stop them from trying. Craft Beer Cellar continues to mature with every store that opens and, like a robust craft beer properly cellared and aged, it just keeps getting better.