I’ll say it right up front: Online shopping is pretty nifty. I love that I don’t have to deal with the crowds, search for parking, or put on pants. Especially not putting on pants. Everything is delivered right to my door, easy-peasy. It got me thinking that everything you could ever want can be bought online.
Well, Not Everything
Yeah, not everything. There are limits to online buying. You can’t get a haircut online, after all. You’d be a fool to try to get an expensive tailored suit fitted online, am I right? And don’t even talk to me about those Russian brides.
But for things like books and movies and pots and pans, cyber-shopping beats a trip to the mall, hands down. And hey, look! There are online suppliers for homebrewing equipment and ingredients! They have everything you need to take it from grain to glass, from carboy to keg. They’re efficient and reasonably priced. They deliver right to your door.
So why do I continue to put on pants when I need to shop for my next batch of beer?
I talked it over with Joe Verzi, owner/operator of my LHBS, Cask & Kettle Homebrew in Boonton, NJ, and with JoEllen Ford, who owns Brewer's Apprentice in Freehold, NJ, and they provided some compelling reasons to shop at your brick-and-mortar LHBS.
More Than the Grain
I’ve worked in customer service and retail for over two decades. One of the nicest things about it is the regular customers. Nothing beats the genuine pleasure of a warm, personal greeting when paths cross. Let’s face it, we would all love to be Norm and have everyone call out our name when we walk through the door.
And that’s what happens when I walk into Cask & Kettle. I just don’t understand why they call me “Norm.” Seriously, though, the casual, friendly, “Hey, Dave,” or “What’s up, brother?” just feels a lot better than a password that contains at least 8 characters and one number.
JoEllen is the same way. “Customer service,” she stresses. “Friendliness of staff who will take time to answer questions, give advice, and offer feedback” is what puts Brewer’s Apprentice above the internet.
Also, while there’s a wealth of information for homebrewers online, “There’s lots of bad information on the internet,” says Joe. “We spend a lot of time debunking misconceptions. And we know what questions to ask” to help clear up confusion. I don’t know about you, but that seems better to me than pausing and rewinding a YouTube video.
Hands-on vs. No Hands
It’s more than answering questions, though. To be fair, most of the online homebrew stores have FAQ links and “Ask the brewmaster” features that do provide some feedback for individualized questions.
What internet shopping can’t provide is the opportunity to handle the merchandise before making a buying decision (again, don’t talk to me about the Russian brides thing).
I’ve heard enough stories from homebrewers who ordered something for their next brew day, only to realize when it arrived that it didn’t really suit their needs. There goes that brew day, and now they have to deal with the hassle of returning the item and finding the actual right one.
I like to walk through the store and examine the equipment I’m thinking of buying. Is this funnel too big? Is this scale the right one for me? Do I want the wooden mash paddle or the metal one? Does it feel right in my hand?
This idea is even more important when it comes to ingredients. When I was developing a recipe for a black IPA, I went over it with the staff at Cask & Kettle. They recommended I use BlackPrinz instead of the Black Patent I was considering. Same dark color; same rich, roasted taste, but without the bitterness. I was convinced when they let me taste a few grains each from the two bins. (
Had I done my shopping online, I would have been unaware of the difference, and most likely displeased with my beer without knowing exactly why. And more than once I’ve asked to taste a grain I’m unfamiliar with. It’s all part of the personal service at your Local Home Brew Store.
But Wait! There’s More!
Locations like Brewer’s Apprentice and Cask & Kettle provide more than just a friendly greeting and some one-on-one Q&A, though.
One of the most frequent types of questions they field is the “How-to” question. “How do I build a keezer, set up a kegging system, build a mash tun?” These are the questions JoEllen told me she deals with most often.
Speaking for myself, Joe dispelled a lot of the mystery from assembling a kegging system. He took the time to go step by step with me, and was able to make recommendations based on my personal requirements. “It’s the hands-on service you can’t find online,” he says.
Both locations sponsor homebrew clubs, host educational seminars, and participate in local community activities. Both stores have Brew-On-Premises facilities, which encourages people to dip a toe into homebrewing and keeps interest in the hobby growing. They support their local homebrew communities in ways an online supplier simply can’t. (
In Terms of Trends
It’s no secret that the craft beer industry is full of trends. Right now, hazy NEIPAs are all the rage, threatening to supplant the West Coast IPAs that have risen to prominence over the past few years. And while both online suppliers and an LHBS can help a homebrewer keep abreast of them, the more localized brick-and-mortar store has something of an edge.
“Homebrew trends and craft trends mirror each other, and feed off each other,” says Joe. “And homebrew clubs create smaller, regional trends.” Again, it’s that personal, local touch that encourages this and allows them to stay in the forefront of exactly what their customers want.
JoEllen sees herself dealing with both national trends and more individual-oriented ones. “It’s fifty-fifty,” according to her. “Growing your own hops, using more all-grain than extract, what can I substitute for this ingredient?” These are things both she and Joe feel you can’t fully get from an online supplier.
The Individual Approach
One other way the LHBS can outshine the internet is when they’re able to bring more personal service to their customers. I’ve talked to Joe about more than just beer; we share stories about our families, projects around the house, and what kind of music we’ve been listening to lately.
He came through in a big way for me when my daughter got married. She asked me to brew some beer as a thank-you to their groomsmen, and she let me know she wanted to get the pair wooden six-pack carriers, plus a third one as a surprise for her husband. You’ve probably seen them available online. (
I had seen hand-crafted ones at Cask & Kettle, made by a local artisan with wood reclaimed from construction sites. When I asked Joe about them, he told me he didn’t have any at the moment, but he would contact his guy and ask for me.
A few weeks later, when I visited the store, he presented me with three of these. (
Yes, the design is identical, but these were made from wood taken from a 200-year-old barn that had been torn down. Some of the pieces still have red paint on them, and the genuine antiquing of the wood makes them unique. This was the personal touch we were looking for, and Joe helped provide that because he understood it. They still display and use them, from what I understand. Way more useful than cufflinks.
The Numbers Game
“But, Dave,” I hear you ask, “aren’t online suppliers able to price their stuff lower, because they stock in such large numbers?”
Perhaps, in terms of pennies per pound. Shipping costs may offset the savings on ingredients, however, and Joe is proud to point out that, in over seven years, his prices have risen only for the vanilla he sells; not for barley, hops, yeast, or finings.
For me, any price difference is mitigated by the fact that I’m not just a number to him. He and JoEllen represent the best not only in small business, but in what a Local Home Brew Store is meant to be.
If all you want is the convenience of buying from your laptop, go ahead and order online. But if you want genuine customer service with a human touch, put on your pants and hit the LHBS.