CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's been just over a year since West Virginia's beer laws were modernized and "better beer" began to flow into our state. Several months ago I lamented that though craft beer was here, there were few area stores that were properly selling the stuff. That is changing quickly.
I thought it was to evaluate the main local beer retailers based on my experience and findings. Being a relatively small market, Charleston does have several good outlets where one can purchase craft brew with each having strengths and, of course, issues for improvement.
I narrowed the criteria to four items on which to rate a beer retailer. First and foremost is breadth of beer selection. Secondly is helpfulness and knowledge about the products. Third is proper storage. Then there are the intangibles like enthusiasm for beer or convenience of mix packs or individual bottles.
Let's start with the specialty retailers, of which we have two: The Wine Shop at the Capitol Market and The Liquor Company at Patrick Street Plaza.
The locally owned Wine Shop was the first place in Charleston that even attempted to sell what few craft beers were available before the law was changed. Today the biggest problem facing the Wine Shop is shelf space for beer (or more wine for that matter). So because the selection could be better, The Wine Shop gets a "C+".
As for knowledge and enthusiasm, the Wine Shop gets a solid "B-" thanks to employees like Scotty and Jerry who stand ready to help. The space issue also drives down their score for cold versus warm beer storage to a heartbreaking "D". To their credit, they are aware of the hazards of sunlight on beer and do their best to keep beer in the cardboard until they absolutely have to stock the shelf. Single bottles and mix-packs are available.
The Liquor Company is a large, locally owned and fully stocked wine, beer and spirits retailer located at the old Hill's Plaza on Patrick Street. The Liquor Company is coming on really strong with a beer selection score of "B". They do really well on the knowledge and enthusiasm benchmark, earning a "B" there as well. Matt and Dave are the main beer guys and are very helpful. "Shelf Talkers" are used to provide some point of sale information about certain beers, which is helpful for those who are too shy to ask.
For as much space as the Liquor Company dedicates for beer, most of the refrigerated stuff is macro or premium macro beer with a smaller cooler reserved for crafts. I give them a "C+" for cold versus warm storage. Individual bottles of craft brew can be purchased and mix-packs are also do-able.
Now let's move on to the non-specialty stores that sell plenty of beer, namely Kroger (Ashton Place) and Drug Emporium (West Side). Both stores carry a surprisingly good selection of craft brew with Kroger having the edge. Neither store can provide much help to the shelf-gazing beer consumer, so you are pretty much on your own.
Kroger wins hands down with a solid "B" on cold versus warm storage. The only thing warm when I left Kroger was the spot in my heart after seeing several cases of macro brew sitting in the warm aisle while the more profitable (and perishable) craft brews were sitting with dignity in the beer cooler. Drug Emporium edges out Kroger on the point of availability of single bottles. Drug Emporium consistently has the lowest prices for most brands over all of the venues discussed.
I have to conclude that for now, the Liquor Company gets the best overall score. The Wine Shop has an advantage if you are looking for a beer and cheese pairing because they offer a pretty decent cheese selection as well (and know how to pair them). Kroger is also a great place for well-kept craft beer if you know exactly what you want, and your wallet will like Drug Emporium's lower prices.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.