Tasting Time Is Back

After a pandemic pause, in-store beer sampling returns to prominence.

At Hi-Lo Liquor, a three-unit shop in Southern California, in-store beer tastings bring the chain’s message full-circle, providing samples (offerings pictured) while showcasing excellent customer service.
At Hi-Lo Liquor, a three-unit shop in Southern California, in-store beer tastings bring the chain’s message full-circle, providing samples (offerings pictured) while showcasing excellent customer service.

With a selection of more than 2,500 active beer SKUs, making a choice can be overwhelming for customers at John’s Marketplace, a two-unit beer emporium in Portland, Oregon. But complimentary beer tastings every Friday are a great tool in helping people make purchasing decisions. “The tastings help expose customers to new beers and new breweries,” says co-owner Rob Petros. “Having a brewer or brewery representative present at a tasting can make all the difference in getting a consumer to try a new beer.” 

Similarly, at Randall’s Wines & Spirits, which has five locations in Missouri and Illinois, beer samplings have become so popular with customers that “we’re frequently asked what kinds of tastings we have coming up,” says Vicky Benson, beer manager at the Fairview Heights, Illinois store. Held several times a month, the beer samplings are a great way for shoppers to not only try new brews, but also interact with brand representatives, Benson notes. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, brought most in-store tastings to a halt. “For the safety of staff and customers during that uncertain time, we discontinued tastings,” says Melissa Surdyk, CEO of Surdyk’s in Minneapolis. But these days, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday beer tastings are back in full swing. “Customers are loving it more than ever,” she says. Anthony Turner, director of technology and media relations at Freetail Brewing in San Antonio, says that while disposable plastic cups and gloves are now often used at tastings, and efforts are made to limit congestion in the aisles, “retailers have pretty much gone back to their old processes for sampling” post-pandemic. Stew Leonard’s Wines & Spirits, which samples beer at stores in Connecticut and New Jersey, meanwhile, is putting a bigger focus on best-selling brands and new beers since resuming the events, according to vice president Blake Leonard. 

While the opportunity to sample brews—often for free—is a boon for customers, retailers also benefit from hosting tastings. “These events can help bring our message full circle in terms of customer service and leave a lasting impression on our customers,” says Chase Dipple, beer program director at Hi-Lo Liquor, which has three stores in southern California that host beer tastings on weekends. Petros of John’s Marketplace and Leonard of Stew Leonard’s agree that beer sampling events are valuable in building good will between community members and breweries. 

“People can buy beer anywhere,” Petros notes. “With tastings, there’s a value added to the shopping experience.” And according to Pat Pikunas, general manager at Yuengling Co.—which recently partnered with Texas merchants on samplings for the launch of the brewery’s Hershey’s Chocolate Porter—the events “build shopping basket sales for retailers with profitable items.” 

There are only a few drawbacks to in-store beer tastings, brewers and retailers note. Pikunas points to space constraints in some stores, particularly during peak shopping periods. “We try to work with our distributors and agency partners to use a small footprint so as to not interrupt the flow of shoppers and in-store operations,” he says. Petros adds that retailers need to monitor consumption by ensuring samples are only given to those of legal age and that there’s no abuse. “But in seven years, we haven’t had any incidents,” the Oregon retailer says. 

Craft brewers are particularly fond of retail tastings. Turner from Freetail Brewing, which has partnered with H-E-B stores around Texas on samplings, concedes that beer tastings can get expensive for small brewers, but says the benefits outweigh the costs.“I can’t think of a more powerful way to market beer than getting ‘liquid to lips’ in the beer aisle and right at the point of purchase,” he adds. 

With pandemic sanctions hopefully now in the rearview mirror, retailers say beer tastings will remain in their merchandising toolkits. Hi-Lo’s Dipple is even considering a series of tastings led by local beer writers, beer judges, and historians to “provide a deeper dive and education” for customers, he says. “We expect to continue to build a bigger customer base while also providing our customers with enjoyable events,” adds Randall’s Benson. “The events are also fun for our staff, so it’s a win-win.”