I've written about the wonderful bottle shops of Charlotte before, and how they stock a plethora of uncommon beers you won't find in the aisle of your average grocery store. What I neglected to mention is that these shops are open year-round and should be visited thusly, not just when the latest liquid hot commodity hits shelves.
Over the past few days, I've seen a steady stream of fresh faces walking into local spots, armed with a laser focus, searching for bottles of the seasonal Cold Mountain Winter Ale from Asheville's Highland Brewing Company.
On Black Friday, a more hardened mob of beer geeks will line up outside local shops to hopefully secure Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout. November doesn't hold a monopoly on such myopic mentalities; NoDa's Hoppy Holidays made a big December splash last year, and folks similarly lose their minds at the mere mention of Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Bell's Hopslam.
"I have people that I kind of know, but don't really know, and somehow they have my number, but I don't have their name in my phone," one shop owner says. "So, all I can see is their number and past messages, and every time it's just, 'Do you have any Hopslam?' 'Hold me a Cold Mountain.' 'Do you have BCBS?'"
I'm not here to rain on anyone's parade. These are all great beers, and they've earned their glowing reputations. No giant ad campaigns ensure their success; their cultish followings are due to positive word of mouth. Their popularity is a sure testament to the quality of the beer.
I'm not claiming to be above the fray either, as I'm certainly no stranger to bottle release events and breathless hype myself. But until I spent several afternoons in local shops, chatting with owners and simply observing human behavior, I was lacking in perspective in the gottahaveit aspect of Charlotte's burgeoning beer scene.
The phone has gone off twice in the last 10 minutes. From what I'm told, the callers are anything but direct. "Hey, do you have some (regular beer) and, uhh, maybe any Cold Mountain?" Minutes on the heels of that call, a person casually walks into the shop, looking around for the familiar blue label. When asked by the owner if he needs help with anything, he simply turns with a "Nah, I'm good" and walks out empty handed.
The next person in the store is a bit more direct, walking up to the counter and asking for his target right out. He accepts the news of the beer's sellout with a look of understanding, and at least stops to pretend to look around for a few minutes before leaving without another word.
"If you're waiting on the delivery truck to show up and you've never been here before, don't just sit in the corner and ignore everyone. Grab a beer and meet somebody new."
Another shop doesn't even bother answering the phone this time of year. They don't need to; a steady stream of folks walk in the door and make a beeline to a prominent stack of cases full of bottles. A handmade cardboard sign sits unceremoniously nearby, explaining the allotment situation. Everyone buys their full allowed amount and nothing else, then leaves.
Within the last 24 hours, a number of things have happened in the Charlotte market. Two notable out-of-state breweries, Alpine and Six Point, made their debut in the Charlotte market. Midwestern favorite Prairie dropped their Christmas Bomb imperial stout. Fresh cans of NoDa's popular Hop Drop 'N Roll were just dropped off. Some folks don't seem to notice, sidestepping the case stacks of new product for the return of their annual holiday favorite.
"We work hard all year, selling the core brand products to earn the right to sell these rare beers. For you to come in and buy the rare beers without helping us support the core brands is, in my opinion, unethical. So, that's why I have no problem giving people a little bit of good-humored grief when they come in to obviously cherrypick us."
At one shop, someone tries to buy a store's own sixth barrel keg from their cold room, carefully dragging it to the counter before being asked to put it back. It's destined to be tapped at an upcoming event and is not for sale. Another store's Yelp page lists a negative review from a similar circumstance, when a person found themselves not allowed to buy a keg similarly designated for a future event and deemed the entire experience worth but one star.
I'm sipping on a Cold Mountain myself as I craft this article's closing. I bought a single bomber, well under my allotment, as not to deprive someone else who is fervently looking for it. Memories of people being frustrated about not being able to buy three cases are fresh in my head. They never stopped to realize that the practice of allocating is what prevented this store from being sold-out before he could get there, they just complained about limited buying power. The beer still tastes quite good, despite the baggage.
"What happens when (these beers) are plentiful? Does that change the game at all for people?"
These are just the horror stories though, because they're more infrequent and memorable. To the folks that were drawn in by the allure of the next hot thing, but took time to ask questions, look around, and leave with more than simply what they came for, your local beer retailer and I both thank you and hope you come back. Even to the folks that came in and left with only what you wanted, I hope you have a few more minutes during your next visit to see all that surrounds you.
Above all, owners of our local shops want to help you find what you're looking for, and not just sell you a product. Limited allocations of hot commodities put them in the uncomfortable position of having to tell people "no." Don't let rampant consumerism taint the fun that is craft beer, and if you're lucky enough to snag a bottle of your soughtafter elixir consider sharing it with a friend less fortunate.
"The only thing I hate about this time of year is you make a lot of people unhappy."