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Beer stores add tap rooms as retail reflects craft brewing's creativity

A generation ago, back when the United States was home to fewer than 500 breweries, a beer store existed for a simple transaction.

Customer enters store.

Customer grabs six-pack from shelf or cooler.

Customer pays for six-pack and pretends not to eye nudie magazine behind counter.

Customer leaves store.

Then something changed. The craft beer industry stirred to life and took off, resulting in the most breweries in the nation's history — a whopping 4,269 at the end of 2015 with about 2,000 more in planning, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association. Those brewers began employing ingredients and techniques that resulted in wildly inventive beers unimaginable to the American palate a generation ago. Gradually, that standard six-pack transaction began to seem dated. Fortunately, creativity in beer sales has started to catch up to what's in the bottle.

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Stores like Beermiscuous and the newly opened Bitter Pops sell beer both to go and at bars within their stores. Beermiscuous and Archer Liquors have declared death to the six-pack by selling every can or bottle in the store individually. The Beer Temple is committed to both education (a weekly beer podcast) and clarity (including a freshness date on almost every beer in the store) and plans an expansion that will include more retail space, more refrigeration, a taproom and classrooms.

Beer's retail revolution is on.

"When there was very little heart and soul in the vast majority of beer being made, it was reflected in the retail establishments," Chris Quinn, owner of The Beer Temple, said. "Now that you do have brewers putting hearts and souls into their beer, it's really unfair and unjust for retailers to just treat it like everything else. The least we can do is try to keep the brewers' intent and pass it along to the consumer. It might sound a little corny, but there is a level of stewardship here."

And then there is the empowerment of the consumer.

It was his frustration as a beer consumer that led Paul Leamon to launch Beermiscuous — a combination European-style cafe, craft beer bar and bottle shop — in the Lincoln Park neighborhood during the summer of 2014. Customers are encouraged to show up with a book or laptop and stay as long as they want. Beer is served from 12 taps in two sizes (4 ounces and a larger size that varies depending on the beer), and the taps intentionally mirror what's in the cooler.

Asking consumers to invest $10 or more for a six-pack of beer they've never tasted just didn't make sense in a booming beer industry, Leamon said.

"I knew there had to be a way to fully integrate the things that would make for a better experience," Leamon said. "Empowering to explore is our whole theme."

The new breed of beer seller tends to talk beyond sales. They use words like "education," "experience" and, like Leamon, "explore." It's not simply the consumer either buying a beer he or she has had before or taking a chance on a snazzy label or familiar name. It's spending time to taste and talk before choosing what to bring home, and in what fashion: six of the same beer, three of one and three of another or just a bottle or two.

Just a few blocks from Midway International Airport, Archer Liquors was among the first to break up the six-pack; it has sold every beer in the store individually since the late 1990s. At first the reason was the convenience of trying a bottle or two of an unfamiliar beer. That usefulness has only grown.

"Now that we're talking about $18 four-packs of beer, it becomes even more beneficial for the consumer to be able to just get one," store manager Randy Wesselhoff said. "Not to mention the selfish reason for breaking everything up: I wanted to be able to just try one myself mostly because I wanted to mentally catalog each and every beer we carried. That used to be easy. Not so much anymore."

(Don't confuse individual bottle sales with "mix six" racks at many supermarkets or big-box stores; those can be clearinghouses of old beer that shouldn't be sold anymore. At better stores, single-bottle sales are about empowering customers, not deceiving them.)

Freshness has also taken on greater urgency. While there is still far too much old beer on shelves — always check those "bottled on" or "best by" dates! — the best beer stores are ensuring freshness. Bitter Pops, which opened in April about one mile north of Beermiscuous on Lincoln Avenue, buys one case of most beers — a mere four six-packs — at a time.

"We try not to store beer," owner Mike Jorndt said. "We want to keep it cold and keep it fresh."

When creating Bitter Pops, Jorndt said he started with a mission statement — "Try to deliver the ultimate beer experience" — and worked backward. The result embraces beer as something to take home, something to enjoy socially and as an event: On weekends, Bitter Pops hosts two tastings per day (usually with a brewery representative on hand). The long-term goal "is to have bottles open every day," for customers to sample, Jorndt said.

The handsome barroom in back, assembled largely of lovely rustic wood and metal, rotates kegs often and offers beer in two very affordable sizes: 5 ounces ($2) and 16 ounces ($5). Of the eight taps, one is dedicated to beer carbonated with nitrogen (for creaminess and body), one is dedicated to sour beers and one is for cider.

"We want to move away from just being transactional-based and more toward experiential," he said. "We want to be a place where people want to go, rather than just think, 'Oh, I have to go to Jewel.'"

Jorndt wanted to create a place where beer lovers will linger.

"I like the idea of community," he said. "That's what beer is. Sharing. Discovery."

jbnoel@tribpub.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

Better beer

Which stores offer more than just a six-pack to go:

Archer Liquors (5996 S. Archer Ave., 773-582-4767, www.archerliquors.com) Every beer in the store is available as an individual bottle or can.

Beermiscuous (2812 N. Lincoln Ave.; 855-450-2337, beermiscuous.com) A relaxed European cafe vibe crossed with an all-star list of beers to drink on-site or to take away.

The Beer Temple (3185 N. Elston Ave., 773-754-0907, www.craftbeertemple.com) Nearly every bottle and can in the store features a date indicating freshness.

Binny's (1720 N. Marcey St., 312-664-4394, and 1132 S. Jefferson St., 312-768-4400, www.binnys.com) Both locations feature 16 ambitious taps.

Bitter Pops (3345 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-857-7677, www.bitterpops.com) Eight taps in a cozy, handsome back-room bar where the kegs change quickly, and almost all the beer to go is stored cold.

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