Getting Strategic About Beer Hunting

Jeffrey Wiser, October 06, 2015

I’m at a weird point in my beer-drinking. Basically, I’ve had just about everything that’s readily available that I really want. After a couple of years, you start to get a good feel for what you can get in your local beer market and the excitement starts to wane. I don’t drink much in terms of volume (at least that’s why I tell myself) but I’m up for just about anything special, unusual and/or hard-to-find. Essentially, I’m hunting the good stuff these days.

The hard part is that the beer market in a place like Southern California is wildly competitive. And the problem in Los Angeles, specifically, is that very little of the epic beer in SoCal is produced here. So you can't drive to the brewery and pick up the latest Firestone Walker special release or AleSmith’s newest Speedway Stout without six our eight hours of driving.

Instead, you’re reliant on liquor stores with good distribution, high-end grocers or inside connections to get your hands on Russian River Brewing, Kern River Brewing, limited Noble Ale Works releases or the rare Bourbon County Barrel-Aged Stout. These things aren’t found on the shelf – they’re kept behind the counter in most instances, in the cooler and out of the hands of the average shopper.

In a place with a dozen-million people and limited supply, you can understand why this is true. These beers would be a waste of shelf space since each store only gets a few bottles at a time and it would be gone in minutes. 

But it still kinda feels wrong. I don’t know, I get caught up in whether I agree with the practices, but regardless of how you feel about it, it’s just how it is for the most part. So acquiring these can be a matter of tactics -  knowing where to look, knowing when to look, knowing what to look for, knowing who to ask and knowing how to ask. It’s this that I want to discuss, or rather, share. Because out of necessity, I’ve come up with a reasonably good system that’s paying dividends and, if your market is anything like mine, this could be helpful.

Or it could not. I don’t know. Let’s just try it. 

Where to Look – at this point, you probably have a good idea what the best places to buy beer in your area are. In SoCal, these are specialty liquor stores that generally have an owner who values and enjoys craft beer. If they’ve got a great selection, there’s a chance that the really great selection is chilling in the cooler out of sight. Whole Foods is another option – they receive beers that you won’t find on the shelf. Trust me, they get them. You know your market best, but all beers come through distributors if you’re not getting them at the brewery or a tasting room, so look in the places with the best selection first.

When to Look – get to know the distribution dates of beers in your market. For me, they get delivered usually on Mondays and Thursdays. That’s when the stores I frequent get their shipments. I had to ask, but once I found out, I began timing my beer runs. If I’m looking for something specific, I usually go on a Monday or Tuesday evening, or a Thursday evening. Those are my best chances. By Saturday, Pliny is usually gone.

What to Look For – speaking of looking for something specific, you need to shop with a list in mind. It’s not sufficient to go to the clerk and ask to see a list of what they have in the cooler in the back. You’ll get a newby eye-roll and probably get no answer. So, stay in touch with the limited releases that are coming out by connecting with your favorite breweries on social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are vital beer tools if you don’t have a connection that can tell you what’s being released and when it comes out. But breweries often release this information to build up the hype around their product. Get an idea of what you’re looking for, then head to the store, preferably after a shipment has arrived, and ask for a specific beer or two. If you get turned down, ask if they have something comparable. At least by this point they’ll know you’ve done a little homework and you mean business.

Who to Ask – I can't stess this enough: make friends with your beer man/woman. Get to know them, build a relationship. Don't view them as the person who rings you up at the register - view them as the gatekeeper to the beer you really want to get your hands on. I fly-fish and any as any good fisherman will tell you, people guard their secrets. But if you can make friends and weave your way to the inner circle of good information you'll be better for it. Most of these folks are beer snobs themselves and would love to chat about good beer with you. Just make sure you earn their trust before you really start digging in with the questions. 

How to Ask – I had no idea that Whole Foods had beers that weren't on the shelf. But lo and behold, they get special stuff in my market all the time. Luckily I was tipped off to this and standard protocol at my WF's is to head to the specialty cheese counter and inquire about special releases or their usual shipment of Russian River beers. This is how I've got my hands on some fine stuff in the past. For really limited stuff they'll often hold a drawing. What can you do? There are so many people vying for these beers that a drawing is really the only civil way to do it. Also, if you know anyone working at one of these stores, it's worth getting in their ears to see if they can score some of the special stock that's not on the shelf. Having connections and friends with accessibility is vital. Just be sure to be friendly in all of you requests, whether at WF's or the liquor store, and build good will. 

Hopefully some or all of the information will help how you look for and acquire great beers. You're going to come away empty-handed a lot of the time, and that's okay. Just say thank you and try again. You might be amazed at what you're able to score by knowing where to look, knowing what you're looking for and going about it the right way. 

If you have any other tips, please leave them in the comments section below!