Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Craft Beer Cellar: The World's Best Beers, Coming To A Shelf Near You

Back in 2014, I wrote an article about how Craft Beer Cellar was changing the world, one craft beer at a time. At that time there were a total of 13 Craft Beer Cellar stores open across the country. Now there are 26, including one in our nation’s capital. The CBC franchise continues to grow, with many more stores in planning. As I said years ago, things just keep getting better with each new store that opens. It’s no wonder that Craft Beer Cellar was recently named one of the 50 Best Beer Stores in America by Men’s Journal and the best beer store in Massachusetts!
When I interviewed Suzanne Schalow, one of the owners of the Craft Beer Cellar franchise (and a #MasterCiceroneInTraning), back in 2014 she told me that each year they come up with a word to represent the year ahead. In 2014, it was “maturity,” in that with their rate of expansion they had to be mature enough to realize they couldn’t do everything. In 2015, the word of the year was “honesty.” Effective on January 1st, 2015, Craft Beer Cellar chose to no longer exclude beers based on ownership as it had in the past. There is an honesty in letting beer speak for itself, and it was an honest move by Craft Beer Cellar to focus on the quality of the beer it sells rather than who makes it. For 2016, the word to sum up the year for Craft Beer Cellar is “change.” Last year, owners Suzanne and Kate sold part of their franchise and brand store to longtime friends, Joseph Yarid & Marla Yarid-De La Cruz. They brought on others to help them with managing the daily operations of their rapidly growing franchise. This has undoubtedly changed things for the better and made the Craft Beer Cellar family stronger as a whole.
Considering how far Craft Beer Cellar has come, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on their success and to get a fresh perspective from some of the newer stores. To do so, I reached out to a couple of the new kids on the block: CBC Fenway and CBC Fort Point.
Craft Beer Cellar Fenway opened on April 2nd of this year. I live in the Fenway neighborhood and work right across the street from the store, so a Craft Beer Cellar opening nearby was a dream come true for me. I’ve been a loyal customer of whichever Craft Beer Cellar store was closest to me since I bought my first beer from them. It was the business model that attracted me. It’s all about choice at Craft Beer Cellar, and the amazing staff help you to make the best and most educated choices when it comes to beer.
It’s no different at the Fenway store. Owned and operated by Phil DiCarlo and Jana Wolfova, the store is located just a block or two away from the historic Fenway Park in Boston. I first met Phil and Jana before the store had even opened, when they invited me in to see how they were getting ready. Since their Grand Opening they’ve been just as inviting, greeting those who enter the store with a smile. I often stop by after work just to say hello or attend a tasting. Each time they or the beer geeks on staff have made me feel more than welcome. It is truly my favorite place to buy beer.
I reached out to Phil, who shared the story of how he became interested in opening his own Craft Beer Cellar store. “A few friends and I were at The Armsby Abbey sending off a friend to go west and work for Rogue.  Over drinks, one friend mentioned the newly opened CBC in Newton.  Having never been to Belmont, this was the first I had heard of CBC.” CBC Newton was also the first Craft Beer Cellar that I had shopped at and the one that turned me into a dedicated CBC shopper. “The next day Jana and I went to CBC Newton and were blown away.  It was an awesome store that just was so incredibly well merchandised and had really helpful knowledgeable people,” Phil told me. “I had a new favorite place to buy beer. Jana went straight to work to check on franchising.  We were both intrigued but spent the next few months doing research before initially contacting the Franchise team.  Jana and I had talked about opening a business but never found something that fit as well as this seemed to. When we did meet with Kate and Suzanne and were just once again blown away by their passion for what they were doing.   We signed up for a franchise two months later.”
Phil also told me about how they looked at several locations around Boston, but knew they wanted to be in Fenway after seeing an open storefront while driving through the area. It took Phil and Jana two years to open their store in Fenway, with many regulatory and construction hurdles to overcome. It was a trying time for them, but they were patient and committed to seeing their store open.
I next asked Phil what the craft beer community in Fenway is like. “Since opening in April, the Fenway store has been everything we could hope for in the two years leading up to opening;  a real vibrant enthusiastic neighborhood with very passionate craft beer drinkers,” he said. “We get a very mixed group of customers; some locals who have been thrilled to have us in the neighborhood, some tourists that are in town for a Sox game or a concert and looking for local craft beer, commuters working in the area.” I’d consider myself to be in the first category of customers.
Finally, I asked Phil if he’d recommend any beers that are on their shelves now. “I like to recommend beers from breweries that people may not have tried before.  So many customers had never heard of SingleCut and now we sell out in a day.  Another brewery I like to recommend is Brewmaster Jack, whether it is their IPAs or their Tennesse Prinse, they make great beer.  Jana has converted the neighborhood into Pilsner Urquell and Golden Monkey fans. Part of the challenge of our store is to have a constant mix of new and different product in that help us stay different from visit to visit.  A lot of customers like to experiment with new beers and keeping a pipeline of new stuff constantly arriving is both fun and challenging. We really get a lot of satisfaction hearing customers across the store actually shriek when they find something (it happens a lot).”
Phil left me with me with some parting thoughts on their store. “After 5 months we think our store is still learning and will continue to get better.  What we hope to be able to replicate is that feeling people get when they walk into an Apple Store.  In an Apple Store, having a great product to sell is only part of it. It’s also the knowledgeable and helpful team and the experience around the product.    We have a long way to go to meet the standard set by one of the best retailers of the #1 consumer product in the country, but that's the bar we set.”   
Craft Beer Cellar Fort Point just opened on August 17th. Located steps away from the renowned Trillium Brewing Company, CBC Fort Point adds yet another option for beer geeks near Boston’s Seaport District. Trillium is an incredible brewery, there is an amazing restaurant and bar known as Row 34, and now there is an outstanding bottle shop right around the corner at 34 Farnsworth Street. I attended the Grand Opening at which I tasted some of Suzanne’s favorite beers, including the Orval Trappist Ale. Those that came in for the tasting couldn’t help but learn something as Suzanne spoke knowledgeably about each beer she sampled, noting the Brettanomyces used by Orval. It was tasty and educational!
I also had the opportunity to meet the owner of the store, Barry Sussman. He told me, as many others have, about how he had been a customer at the Belmont store and had been inspired to open one of his own. He also spoke of how helpful Phil and Jana of CBC Fenway had been in dealing with the hurdles the city and the state put in front of him. It was nice to hear how supportive other members of the Craft Beer Cellar family had been, and as I looked around I noticed it for myself. Owners of several other stores had stopped by and were there as customers continued entering the store to buy and taste beer.  One big, happy family!  
I asked Barry to share the story of how he decided to become a Craft Beer Cellar store owner. “I had been thinking about doing something different for a long time. I'm a CPA by background and knew it was time for a change. The challenge of course is finding the right thing to do. Ideally, you can find a way to combine a passion and a job. Two of my passions are running and beer. I looked down both paths and quickly decided with the craft beer explosion that beer was the right way to go. Since CBC is a great franchise and it had a local opportunity, it was a fairly easy decision to make.”
Barry also told me about what made his location special. “Being in what Boston Magazine called ‘the beer hub of Boston,’ Fort Point is already a beer destination with Trillium and Row 34 and all the other local restaurants with strong beer offerings.” As for the craft beer community: “It’s interesting. In our short time open there's actually three distinct communities here: the residents, the office workers and the tourists. It’s a surprisingly big tourist community and they're very interested in our local offerings. But they all seem to be quite knowledgeable.”
Barry had more to say on what makes Craft Beer Cellar stand out. “We strive to offer the widest selection of great craft beers, not just any craft beers but the great ones. We also love to talk beer with our customers. Some people come in just wanting to browse around and chat about what's good but they don't need anything at the moment. We love those conversations. Especially with the out-of-towners.”
As far as current beer recommendations go, Barry had a few. “Can I say, all of them? I just tried Innis & Gunn's rum aged beer for the first time. Terrific beer. Aeronaut's Hop Hop & Away is a strong session IPA. A personal favorite has always been Left Hand's Nitro Milk Stout. There's really too many to name.”
After talking to Phil and Barry, I wanted to get some fresh takes on Craft Beer Cellar from the customer’s perspective. TJ Farrell is closest to CBC Westford and has shopped at CBC Belmont frequently. Wherever he goes, he says he has always had a great experience at CBC because of their great customer service and supremely knowledgeable staff. “Freshness is never a question when you shop there, and the ability to buy singles and mix your own six-pack is huge. It’s a great way to try different brands or styles,” TJ told me. “I also love the annual Advent Boxes they do, so much so that I now buy three every year – one for myself, one for my brother, and one for a friend. Another excellent way to expose yourself to some brands/styles you wouldn’t normally seek out on your own.”
Mike Callahan expressed similar feelings. “Awesome staff, amazing beer selection,” he said. He’s been to both the Fort Point and Westford locations, but goes to Westford more based on its proximity to him. Seems people like visiting their local Craft Beer Cellar as much as they like visiting their local brewery.
Craft Beer Cellar continues to age like a fine barleywine. With each year that passes and every new store that opens, the brand grows stronger. Owners, beer geeks, and customers all become more educated as they become involved in the continuous learning process of craft beer. People come to associate the name Craft Beer Cellar not only with the selection and service, but also with the experience. There’s nothing quite like shopping at a Craft Beer Cellar and, if you haven’t already, I’d suggest visiting the one nearest you as soon as you can.

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