With close relationships with distributors, local brewers and an authorization cycle that allows for product approval in under seven days, Hiller’s mix of mainstream domestics, imaginative crafts and high-end imports is hard to beat.
“We have one of the best beer selections in Michigan,” noted McClure.
Top-selling craft brands include Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Michigan-based Bell’s Brewery and Founders Brewing Co., with much of the growth coming from styles and forms that play to craft consumers’ experimental nature.
The popularity of “over the top” hoppy beers, like double Indian Pale Ales: Bell’s Hopslam Ale and Founder’s Double Trouble, is indication that craft enthusiasts have developed more sophisticated palates and are seeking bolder tastes than in the past.
“Historically pale ales were perennially the No. 1 style, but that’s fallen to number three,” explained Dan Wandel, senior vice president of beer, wine and spirits for SymphonyIRI.
Hops contribute to a beer’s flavor and aroma, with the acids contained in hop flowers giving beer its bitterness.
IPAs and other styles that are high in hops command slightly more than 20% share of craft beers, and posted the most significant growth in the space at 19.7% during 2011, said Riberi.
The acidic and tart taste profile that is characteristic of sour beers is also gaining appeal. So much so that McClure has scheduled a tasting to introduce his beer buyers to some of the variants of sour brews.
“They’re my beer mavens and I bring them into the office several times a year for tastings and educational seminars,” McClure explained.
Training is even more important now that a new law has made in-store sampling of beer, wine and spirits permissible in Michigan.
Hiller’s samples about two beer products each week, and limits tasting stations to one per store. Associates check an individual’s license and write down their name to ensure they haven’t exceeded their three pour per limit.
With the average sampling event boosting sales about 500%, tastings have been a boon to Hiller’s.
“Perhaps you’re selling one case of beer on a Saturday during a particular four-hour period. If you have a sample going for that same four-hour period you might sell five, six or 10 cases of that product,” McClure said.
Sampling draws new consumers, like those who are partial to wine. Given the crossover appeal of these beverages, A-B suggests that that retailers merchandise craft beer in the wine section.
“The craft and wine customer are closely aligned,” Potthoff explained. “Making craft available in the wine section allows the retailer to capture a ‘plus one’ purchase occasion.”
At Hiller’s, the ability to try before you buy helps shoppers know exactly what they’re getting before paying a premium.
Costs are justified since brewers use the highest quality ingredients and sometimes even farm their own hops, according to McClure.
“These are beers brewed in small batches and with great personal care; there is no factory turning out Michigan craft beer,” he said.