Beer Buzz: Retail Ratings

Following in the footsteps of wine scores, beer ratings gain prominence at retail.

Ales Unlimited in San Francisco displays ratings from beer review sites for many of its more than 800 offerings, even when it comes to beer styles like lambics that don’t always see strong scores.
Ales Unlimited in San Francisco displays ratings from beer review sites for many of its more than 800 offerings, even when it comes to beer styles like lambics that don’t always see strong scores.

When Otto’s Wine Cask in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, landed a few cases of the coveted Double Trouble IPA from Founders Brewing Co. last year, manager Tim Berger erected a special display noting the brew’s perfect 100 score from RateBeer. Priced at $11 a four-pack of 12-ounce bottles, the offering “flew off the shelf faster than usual,” Berger says. “The beer scores really help sales. They grab customers’ attention.”

Bob Leever, beer director at Lukas Liquor Superstore in Overland Park, Kansas, says he often overhears customers talk about beer scores, usually from the likes of RateBeer, Beer Advocate and other publications. He says Lukas Liquor, which operates two locations in Kansas, has been posting beer scores for at least six years.

“Consumers are becoming more familiar with beer scores,” says Rob Hill, new programs manager for customer experience at Total Wine & More. The retail chain, which has 110 stores in 16 states, incorporates beer scores from several sources on its shelf tags, which are managed by the company’s inventory system, as are wine scores. Hill says the scores can help consumers when it comes to unfamiliar beers. Though there’s no specific data showing a correlation between the tags and purchases, he points to anecdotal evidence and comments received via social media, adding that it’s not uncommon to see customers searching for beer score information on their smart phones while perusing the beer aisle.

Most retailers that display beer scores opt to only promote high-scoring brews—generally those that earn at least an 88. Berger notes that only beers awarded a score of 90 or above are merchandised with shelf tags at Otto’s. “Beer scores tend to be more generous than wine scores, with 100-point ratings not that uncommon,” he explains. Indeed, the store recently offered five or six brews that had garnered perfect 100 scores—an unusually high rating for wine. Overall, Otto’s stocks about 1,000 different beers, generally priced from $4 to $20 a six-pack.

Ales Unlimited in San Francisco, however, has no minimum criteria for posting beer scores. “You can’t rely on scores alone,” says co-owner Betty Smith, adding that certain beer styles, such as lambics, don’t usually receive the highest scores. “It comes down to personal preference.” Ales Unlimited stocks more than 800 beers, retailing from $2.50 a 12-ounce can to $40 a 750-ml. bottle.

Beer retailers are starting to expand beyond shelf tags for the scores. In addition to occasionally using displays, Berger informs his customers about recent high-scoring arrivals via his blog and social media. Keelan Mulligan, beer manager at Applejack Wine & Spirits in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, cites RateBeer scores in product descriptions on the store’s website, as well as in email specials. Total Wine hasn’t yet used beer scores in displays or ads, but Hill notes that the chain’s website allows users to search beers by score and source.

But not all retailers support posting beer scores at the point of sale. “Craft beer has become so popular that virtually every beer we sell is a good craft beer,” says Dan Ratti, owner of Oak Tree Discount Wine & Spirits in South Plainfield, New Jersey. “We’ve found that it’s more effective to have people on the floor who can answer questions. That way there’s a level of accountability.” Jason Daniels, COO at the two-unit beer shop Half Time Beverage in Poughkeepsie and Mamaroneck, New York, rarely posts beer scores. “Our staff is extensively knowledgeable and can answer questions for customers,” he says, noting that many of his employees are “beer geeks, home brewers and certified Cicerones.” Mulligan from Applejack, meanwhile, prefers to use the tags in moderation. “When there are too many, the beer aisle can get cluttered,” he explains.

With multitudes of new brews launching every day, retailers expect that beer reviews will continue unabated and support materials will remain useful in their stores. “Beer scores will play an important role as they assist newcomers in making initial choices,” Total Wine’s Hill says. “The reviews serve as a resource and a point of reference as craft beer consumption grows.”