Friday, April 22, 2011

Week #16 - Jon Brandt

Jon Brandt makes nights and weekends better. He demystifies gift giving and puts the right liquids on your dinner table when you're just not sure what belongs there. He can tell you what you might like better than you yourself might know. That's right beer and wine shoppers in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Jon Brandt is at Rick's Wine and Gourmet waiting for you. A Michigan boy from the get go, Jon's travels and trades brought him to the DC area where he know stands amid an intense selection of the finest beer and wine available to Virginians. His insight is only matched by his helpfulness, but that does not take opinion out of the game at all. Jon's blog, Notes From The Beermudgeon, is a look at beer critically, sometimes through the eyes of the expert but other times through the all important eyes of the Retailer (See: Open Letter to DFH). Selection isn't the only reason I send people to Rick's Wine and Gourmet, I send them there because I know they'll love Jon the second the start talking to him.

One thing I often see at off-premise shops is the staff's knowledge of some of their customers buying habits. With Rick's having such a thorough inventory of both wine and beer, do you see much cross over with people buying up both or are customers predominantly only buying one or the other?

I would say that our customers are predominantly either beer drinkers/buyers or wine drinkers/buyers. The nice thing is, however, that there are occasions when people on one side of the aisle need to cross over to the other side -- and we are there to help, given our knowledge of both and of our regular customers' tastes. There are, of course, many customers who happily indulge in products throughout the store.

In addition to beer, your knowledge of and background in wine is rather sophisticated. What tools from the CSW training program have informed your palate and your approach to thinking about beer?

The CSW program is geared more toward knowledge of wine than toward taste and description of wine. I'd say that the thing about wine that most influences my palate is the 50+ wines that I get to sample every week from our sales reps and winery reps. Those tastings then influence my thinking about how things taste and also expands my vocabulary to describe what I am tasting. (Parenthetically, I wish more beer people would sample their wares with us in the manner that the wine people do. It's really helpful.)

If, hypothetically, one had a reason to attempt swaying wine drinkers over to craft beer, what would be good steps to take? What should be avoided?

I am often amazed that the same people who have very refined wine palates have very pedestrian (i.e. Bud, Miller, Coors) tastes in beer. The best thing to do is to simply get those wine drinkers to taste interesting craft beers and let them decide for themselves. That's why we have our weekly tastings at Rick's. People will sample 5-6 wines, then have the opportunity to try 5-6 beers as well. Often, the wine people are surprised to find they like some beers that they would have never tried otherwise. What to be avoided? Well, something I struggle with is to not be condescending about people's choices ("White zinfandel? Surely you jest! Fat Tire? That swill?!) while still offering alternatives that might help them along the path of palate development.

Since coming on as the beer manager at Rick's, how have you seen the beer section of the store change? Have beer customers changed?

Since joining the Rick's staff as beer manager in October 2008, the sheer number of brands available to us has expanded significantly, but our shelf space has not. I am constantly trying to find ways to shoehorn in a few more brands, but often that has to come at the expense of less-popular brands. One key example is the Dominion Brewing Co. (a.k.a. Old Dominion); five to seven years ago, it was probably our best-selling brand, with lots of brand loyalty among our customers. However, when Dominion was bought out by a consortium that included Anheuser-Busch, then was moved from Ashburn, Va., to Dover, Del., and fiddled with many of Old Dominion's recipes, demand for the brand waned significantly -- to the point that I no longer carry any of their beers and they are rarely requested. Our main customer base is quite savvy to the comings and goings of the beer world and are constantly evolving.

What are some struggles that a beer buyer goes through? What's the tough part of the job?

One of the toughest parts of the job of a beer buyer is when a brewery creates what I would call "false" demand through advertising, promotions, TV shows, etc., then does not provide us with enough product to meet the demand they have created. (Examples: Sam Adams Utopias, Dogfish Head Bitches Brew.) Customers are understandably frustrated when they are told a beer they have read about or seen on TV isn't available -- it creates a lot of extra, unnecessary work for the store to have to explain why those beers aren't available. Another problem are the beer geek hoarders -- the people who want to get multiple cases of semi-rare brews like Bell's Hop Slam, Founders KBS, Dogfish Head 120-Minute IPA or Stone's latest anniversary beer. What people don't understand is that we do not have an unlimited supply of these beers and we have a large customer base looking for them. If I wanted to make it easy on myself, I'd just sell the five cases of Hop Slam to the first five people who ask for it, make my money and move on. But I usually have 50+ customers on a waiting list for Hop Slam each year and I try to dole it out equitably. I think that most (but certainly not all) our customers appreciate that.

What makes it enjoyable?

First, I enjoy educating our customers about beer -- it's origins and history, its variety, ways to pair it with food, etc. Second, It's fun to track down a particular beer that someone has been looking for for years and actually find it for them. I also enjoy doing private tastings for people and doing events like our Beer Cruise on the Potomac.

What's one thing that you wish consumers understood more clearly about beer retailers?

As indicated above, people should understand that retailers can only sell the beers (and wines) that are available to them. Just because you can get Pliny the Elder in Philadelphia doesn't mean that I am stupid or inept for not having it at our store; Russian River simply doesn't distribute their products to Virginia and there's nothing I can do to help that. Similarly, some distributors that carry a particular brand may not carry all their beers, which is frustrating to our customers and us as well. Believe me, we want to sell you all the beers you are looking for -- we just can't get them all. I do wish customers would appreciate the large and diverse number of beers they can get rather than complain about the few they can't get.

If you were quarantined inside of Rick's for an unknown amount of time, what is the one item in inventory that would disappear most quickly?

Depending on the time of year, it would probably be Bell's Two Hearted Ale or Bell's Oberon (sorry, Joel). But, I'm sure I'd tire even of those -- I just enjoy trying lots of new things at least once and also returning to my old standbys (like New Holland Mad Hatter!) to see how they are doing.

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