My first visit to a bottle shop was in college, right after I turned 21, with a friend who had the beer bug as bad as me. The rows of bottles behind the frosted glass, the hum of the refrigeration, the watchful eye of the owner — all together, it cast a spell on us. We were suddenly giddy, like kids in a beer-filled candy shop.
Then we were overwhelmed. This is the problem with the best bottle shops: you’re spoiled for choice. But it’s better than what you’ll sometimes find elsewhere: overpriced beer, old bottles (so-called “shelf turds”), asshole patrons or, worse, asshole owners. Oftentimes, it’s enough to drive you to the corner store, where the selections might suck, but at least you’re not harried about beer, of all things.
A better solution: find the right bottle shop, and go from there.
ABC Beer Co., in Manhattan, has been open for seven years. It’s one of the best beer stores in New York City, replete with well-stocked coolers, a small bar, communal seating and tasty bites. Zach Mack, its cofounder, says things have only changed for the better since they opened. “Seven years ago, there were fewer beer options out there, and people considered themselves a lot less knowledgeable,” he says. “Now, people who didn’t drink beer back then are drinking sours, saisons, all sorts of stuff. It’s widened the market.” We asked him how to navigate the craft bottle shop scene. Here are some of his tips.
Don’t be crippled by indecision, embrace it. The reality is, at a good bottle shop, there’s too much to choose from. “Sometimes I get FOMO standing in front of my own refrigerators,” Mack says. “I sit there for upwards of 25 minutes. People are like, ‘don’t you own this place?’”
It’s fun to take your time. “When I was growing up,” Mack says, “I loved walking around record stores, and bookstores, spending time perusing shelves and seeing what jumped out. The act of standing in front of products is quickly vanishing from lives. I revel in doing that with beer. And the same path to discovery can happen at a bottle shop. Sometimes, if I stand there long enough, I end up picking something I never knew I wanted.”
Pay attention to freshness. More breweries and distributors are worrying about freshness than ever before. You should, too. “It matters more for specific styles,” Mack says. “IPAs need to be as fresh as possible. Barrel-aged stouts are a different story.”
“Some breweries use cryptic, strange systems,” Mack adds. One prominent example is the Julian code, which is based on the day of the year. December 21 would be 365. “It’s more of a European thing, but it’s happening in the U.S., too,” he says.
Consult a human, not an app. “Don’t go on an app and double check to what people say you should buy,” Mack says. “God forbid you’re shopping for a pilsner, and look it up. Apparently, all pilsners in the world are mediocre at best.”
Have a human interaction instead. “Talk to other shoppers and ask what they like. Certainly ask the staff. Any place worth shopping at will have knowledgeable employees. Some of the best beers I’ve had are from asking someone to point me to the last thing they had that really opened their eyes.”
Subscribe to a newsletter. Yes, newsletters can make you cringe. But a bottleshop letter is the best way to keep up to date about what’s coming and going. “We use our newsletter to let people know which new breweries are available, cue big releases and update about special events,” Mack says. Following your local shop on social media, where they’ll often post about upcoming releases, can give you a leg up, too.
Become a regular — but don’t expect special treatment. “We have a bunch of regulars who are good, friendly people,” Mack says. “You don’t have to spend a ton of money to be a regular. It’s about engaging in a positive way. They let me know what type of beer they’re interested in, and ask politely that they’d love to be made aware if I can get it in.”
Just don’t get too comfortable. “Spend a few nights drinking with the owner, become their buddy, but at the same time, know that that doesn’t guarantee any special treatment,” Mack says.
Widen your horizons for shops, not just beers. “Your spot doesn’t have to be a hip bottle shop,” Mack says. “It could be a guy who’s passionate about beer at your local grocery store. Explore all avenues, and don’t settle for something you don’t like.”