The biggest and the oldest craft beer store in Rotterdam, Bier & zO has had a breakthrough year. Parent company Bier & cO has recently given them full flexibility to sell any beer they choose and their beer assortment has taken flight – for the better. I find myself visiting on a very regular basis and love popping in for a chat. So much even, I asked if I could do a short ‘internship’ to learn more about what it takes to run a craft beer store. What a fun experience! And it seems I did a pretty good job, because I was asked to come back! So the next time you walk in, you just might find me behind the counter. In my two days of stocking the shelves and helping customers, I also asked store manager Ben Karreman and his colleague Justin Teeuw loads of questions. It turns out that no day is the same and it is actually really hard work!
Going strong for over 20 years
The beer store was originally a sample store and wholesaler for Amsterdam based Bier & cO, one of Europe’s biggest beer importers, which they acquired in 1997. More than twenty years later Ben has turned it into a craft beer heaven with beers from all around the world, including Russia, Estonia, Scandinavia, Japan, U.K., U.S. and of course the good old Belgian favorites. Since about a year now he has been given the freedom to buy beers from other importers and he didn’t waste any time putting in new shelves and filling them with every amazing brewery he could get his hands on. Every time I go into the store, boxes of new beers are being delivered. Many of them are the high rated Untappd every-beer-geek’s-wet-dream beers, but they are also keen to sell the beers that they like themselves and think people should try. “We are super excited about upgrading the beer store”, Ben says. “Our next project is revamping the website.”
Never a dull moment
One thing you learn very quickly when spending a day or two helping out in the store is that you need to be fit and wear good shoes. I literally did not sit down for one second both days that I was there. A big part of the job is filling the shelves (and then moving stuff around when new deliveries arrive and Ben decides to rearrange everything – aarrgghh). Of course when customers come in, you drop everything you’re doing to help them out, meaning you’re pretty much walking back and forth all day. Racking up 10,000 steps is a cinch. Like me, most customers like browsing and gawking at all the goodies. Some ask for advice or help. “And some”, Ben says, “are even rude when I offer help, saying they have Untappd and certainly don’t need my advice.” Apparently, customers also think they have superpowers and can order anything from anywhere. “They come in looking for that amazing beer they had in Australia with the blue label. I appreciate the vote of confidence, but customers don’t always have realistic expectations of what is possible.”
The downside, if I may call it that, to selling more exotic craft beers, is that they can be expensive. Now I have no problem with spending 10 euros on a lovely beer once in a while, but that is more the exception than the rule. Evidently there are others that don’t even blink at those prices. Justin told me about the seven boxes of beer they recently sent to a customer. “He ordered almost one beer of everything in the store. His bill was over a thousand euros. One of the craziest things I experienced was when a guy came in with a list of beers he wanted for a new bar he was opening. He wanted twelve of each beer on his list. He bought almost half the store that day. And we helped him fit it all in his Volkswagen Caddy.”
Forget about Untappd and discover your own taste
Ben has been at the store since Bier & cO took over in 1997. “Twenty years ago serious beer and food pairing also existed, there was Young’s Christmas pudding ale (for all you pastry stout lovers); we had excellent beers in the store. People scoffed at beers from the US, saying Americans can’t make beer. Well, look where they are now. We’ve been playing catch-up for twenty years. We think the craft beer movement is a new thing, but it really isn’t. The audience is just younger. That is one of the reasons why the obsession with Untappd really bugs me. People often rate a beer based on personal taste (‘this gose beer is too sour’) and judgement (or lack thereof) or follow the hype. Perception is a powerful thing. The ratings often don’t take into account the beer’s quality or if it fits the beer style. I don’t use Untappd. Basing your choices only on scores 4 and higher? Ridiculous.”
He makes a good point. In the short time I have been active in the beer scene, I have witnessed an explosion of outrageous beer experiments and hyped beer styles. The rule seems to be ‘the more crazy ingredients the better’. Peanut butter milkshake stouts and triple hopped ‘my mouth is on fire’ IPAs are all the rage. “We carry a large selection of Double Dry Hopped IPAs, NEIPAs, stouts and sours, because that is what customers ask for. It makes it harder to achieve a balanced beer assortment. Hypes and Untappd are killing the variety. Maybe we should introduce the hashtag ‘makeIPAclearagain’ ?”
So what would he advise customers who visit the store? “I always ask them what they don’t like. That is a good indicator of their taste. Or I let them sample something. Recently I opened up a box of Oud Beersel one year old Lambic (yes, they have beer from a box now!). People loved it, even those who said they don’t like sour beers. Maybe because there is almost no carbonation in it. It was gone in no time. I believe you should ignore what others say and discover your own taste.”
Their personal favorites
I am also curious to know which beers or breweries they get excited about. Favorites change all the time of course, but the current ones may come as a surprise. They’re both a fan of traditional, no frill styles. Justin’s favorites include Upland Brewery, Yeti Imperial Stout by Great Divide and Humidor by Cigar City. Ben is a big fan of Thornbridge. Tired Hands is also one of his favorites. “They produce a broad range of very high quality beers. And not to forget Hill Farmstead. They make excellent pilsners.”
Looking for local beers? Bier & zO is a Brouwerij Noordt ambassador and has a large selection of their beers (including the limited edition Stoute Fred and Winterbier). They also sell beers from most of the other local breweries like Kaapse Brouwers, 4 Islands, Rott.Brouwers, Maasgoud, Vet & Lazy, De Bebaarde Brouwer and more.
Thank you Bier & zO for a really fun, inspiring and educational two days!!
All photos were taken by Tina Rogers.