Whenever you buy a new craft beer at the store, you essentially roll the dice on whether you’ll like it and hope that it will meet your standards for flavor and quality.
Unlike going to a brewery where servers are happy to let you try a sample before you buy a pint, most retail stores typically do not offer consumers a preview of the product, even though they’re dropping $10-$20 per six-pack for craft beer in most cases. And the price is even higher for craft spirits.
Luckily, that trend is starting to change as new specialty stores create space for small bars, taprooms or growler/crowler filling stations within their footprints.
Horrock’s Market, 4455 Breton Road SE in Kentwood, was among the earliest adopters, carving out space inside its grocery store to add a bar so patrons can sip and shop, try a handful of beers and fill growlers. But two new Grand Rapids-area stores also have latched on to the concept.
A cross between a beer bar, a whiskey bar, a neighborhood pub and a cozy living room, Riverside Lounge opened last month at 5430 Northland Drive in Grand Rapids next door to Riverside Liquors.
“We felt like this area needed something more upper class, like a speakeasy,” said co-founder Roger Plowman, who owns the adjacent store. “I like a relaxed atmosphere where you can sit, type up emails or just come to chill.”
Riverside Lounge offers 50 taps of craft beer and cider — 42 of which were dedicated to Michigan beers when Revue visited — plus an extensive array of craft spirits, including more than 100 bourbons and whiskeys, with the goal of reaching 700. The bar also sells crowlers, making it one of the first non-brewery locations in the Grand Rapids area to offer the 32-ounce filled-to-order cans.
Plowman said the idea behind the lounge was to offer customers a way to try products before they bought them at the store.
“If you’re not sure about a bottle of scotch or bourbon, try a sample pour (at the lounge) and then buy it next door,” he said, adding that the same goes for beer. “We want to stay strictly craft, for everything from spirits to beer. We think craft can survive in this town.”
Riverside Lounge also posts its tap list online using Digital Pour. Patrons can download a free phone app to see what’s on tap in real time, the cost per pour and how much is left in the keg, as well as what’s on deck. The company is one of only four breweries or bars in West Michigan to leverage the user-friendly platform.
Plowman said he thinks the app could help draw in customers from around the region, especially for rare or specialty beers. Riverside Lounge also plans to work with a different local craft brewery every month on exclusive beers. When Revue visited in April, the two specialties — a Mosaic IPA and a Strawberry Stout — were both brewed at Saugatuck Brewing Co.
On the spirits side, customers receive cocktails with all craft spirits — no bottom-shelf liquor allowed, Plowman said. All the mixers and other ingredients are handmade and hand-pressed, and the bar will be adding a “master mixologist” by the time this report hits the stands.
“We also want to bring spirits to a new level,” he said.
While the business may offer food at some point, it currently plans to work with local restaurants and food trucks, according to Plowman.
Meanwhile, across the street from the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids, Craft Beer Cellar is focusing strictly on beer for the moment.
Owned by Jessica Beeby and Brian Beaucher, Craft Beer Cellar is a locally-operated franchise beer store and taproom selling more than 600 different brands in bottles or cans, and offering 20 beers, ciders or meads on tap at any given time.
The local owners are leveraging the back office for business questions and support, but make their own decisions about who to hire and which beers to sell, said Beeby, who grew up in Kalamazoo.
“We order in relatively small quantities unless we know it’s something people want,” she said. “With a lower quantity, we keep stuff fresh and turn it over.”
Patrons can buy a single bottle, pay a small uncorking fee and try the beer before plopping down the full amount for a six pack.
The cozy, laid-back bar area also features a range of tasting events with breweries, as well as a plethora of board games to play while you sip.
“We want to focus on beer — we’re a bottle shop first,” Beaucher said. “We do a lot of our own research.”
Interestingly, owners at both Riverside Lounge and Craft Beer Cellar say their most popular beers have been New England-style IPAs, especially M-43 from Old Nation Brewing.
On the spirits side, Plowman said sales at Riverside have been strong for Sazerac and Weller 12-year bourbon. Cocktails like the 77 — made with St. Germain, lemon, in-house simple syrup and champagne — have also gained traction in the opening days, he said.
Craft Draft 2 Go
4520 Stadium Drive, Kalamazoo
• 50 taps of regional craft beers
• Offers 5-, 10- and 16-ounce pours, as well as fills growlers and crowlers
Campau Corner Meat Market & Growler Fill Station
6785 Whitneyville Ave. SE, Alto
• 23 craft beer taps
• Fills 16-, 32- and 64-ounce resealable glass containers