December 29, 2013

Craft Beer Cellar plans nationwide growth

The Massachusetts beer store aims to expand into new territory with its focus on quality.

By Gary Dzen
The Boston Globe

BELMONT, Mass. — Kate Baker and Suzanne Schalow founded Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont in 2010, and today, at any given time, its 1,500 square feet of retail space are filled with more than 1,000 beers from 350 breweries. Beers are organized by region, from Worcester to the West Coast, with an emphasis on local brews. Employees have jobs like Head Beer Geek, Ambassador of Fine Ales and Lagers, and Hoptologist and wear hooded sweat shirts emblazoned with the words “Beer Geek.”

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Craft Beer Cellar founders Kate Baker, left, and Suzanne Schalow, right, pose with Craft Beer Cellar store owner Brian Shaw in Newton, Mass. Beers there are organized by region, from Worcester to the West Coast, with an emphasis on local brews.

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Craft Beer Cellar founders Kate Baker, left, and Suzanne Schalow pose in Newton, Mass.

Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe

“People take two steps in the door and they don’t know how to proceed,” says Brian Shaw, who opened a Craft Beer Cellar in Newton Centre recently, joining franchises in Winchester, Westford, and Braintree. “People say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know there was this much beer.’ ”

Is there ever. And now Baker and Schalow are betting their model can work elsewhere as they expand to New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as Florida, St. Louis, and maybe Seattle. Their goal is to make people think about whether to buy a Pretty Things Jack D’Or or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as carefully as they would wrestle between a cabernet or a merlot.

It is a risky quest. Despite craft beer’s popularity boom, creating a national franchise of specialty beer stores has not been done. One reason could be that craft beers accounted for only 10 percent of the dollars in total beer sales in the United States in 2012.

Craft Beer Cellar stores carry flavorful ales and lagers that are brewed to traditional standards and can be hard to find.

Baker and Schalow prefer to focus on other numbers, like the 2,403 brewers that operated in the United States in 2012, the most since the 1880s, according to the Brewers Association. Schalow and Baker hope to capitalize on this explosion by packing each small, service-oriented store with carefully curated beer while leaving out nips, cigarettes, and jugs of wine.

“Beer store is still not a ‘category’ in the world,” says Schalow. “No one has done this. No one has put everything on the line and said, ‘I can teach people about great beer.’ ”

Schalow and Baker, partners in life as well as business, met in 2002 when Schalow, then a manager at Cambridge Common restaurant, hired Baker. The first beer Baker consumed in front of Schalow was a Budweiser.

“I almost fell over,” Schalow says.

Around that time, Schalow wanted to take Blue Moon off the bar’s tap list. When ownership said no, she challenged her staff to “sell the heck” out of something else, and Magic Hat’s Circus Boy, a craft beer, eventually replaced Blue Moon.

Baker and Schalow married in 2010, and the couple decided that year to leave the restaurant and open the beer store.

“When I told her ‘craft beer store,’ she was a lot supportive and a little skeptical,” says Schalow. “I told her, ‘If we make it amazing, they will come, it doesn’t matter where it is.’ ”

The pair have scoured the region looking for craft beer from hard-to-find brewers. Stores carry multiple styles from brewers like Northampton’s Brewmaster Jack, Everett’s Night Shift Brewing, and Plymouth’s Mayflower Brewing, as well as beers from Belgium, Italy, and France.

“It’s all about building and cultivating the relationships,” says Baker. “And it could be with a distributor, or a bartender, or a homebrewer who has visions of creating their brewery.”

“They’re really in tune with the culture of craft beer,” says Mark Vasconcelos, craft brand manager for Burke Distributing, a Massachusetts company that delivers 37 craft brands to stores around the state, in addition to larger brands like Coors Light. “They’re proactive in letting us know if there’s something that’s going to be in demand by the consumers.”

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