Finding the Right Brew Shop

We believe very strongly that it is important to support a local homebrew shop. They are a part of your community, and as such contribute to it in more ways than just economic. As important as we find this, however, under no circumstance would we patronize a shop which gave bad or obviously incorrect advice, or which made little or no attempt to satisfy it’s customers. It’s a two-way street. Sure we’d shop there, especially if the price was right, but we wouldn’t feel any sense of loyalty as we would to a good shop.

So how does your average Joe figure out where to go?

The Customer is Always Right

As we’ve been known to say time and again, there are almost as many ways to make homebrew as there are homebrewers. With this in mind, we feel that a good brew shop is one which tries its very best to meet the individual needs of each customer. Obviously, that isn’t always going to be possible, but a good retailer will try his or her best to make it possible. Is there some special piece of equipment you need? Some special requirement you have? If the retailer doesn’t have it, they should be eager to help you find it.

Don’t Let Looks Fool You

Some of the best shops we’ve been in were by far the tiniest. Alternately, we’ve been in some pretty huge stores that look pretty fancy, but have little value to warrant one’s loyalty. While at first glance it may seem impressive to walk into a store and see hundreds of cans of extract on the shelf, take a closer look and see if there is actually a variety. A lot of retailers will warehouse out-front to make the store look more impressive to the customer. It may be a pretty fancy marketing trick, but if it isn’t going to help you make better beer, you might want to consider looking around. Some smaller shops I’ve been in have limited shelf space, but they only keep 2 or 3 cans of each out front. You can still have an amazing selection with limited space.

Selection

  • How many different types of kit does the retailer carry?
    20 or 30 should be a bare minimum (not 20 or 30 brand names, but rather total different beer brewing kits, as many as 8 or 9 brand names). More is certainly an added bonus.
  • Do they offer a good priced starter kit?
    40 to 60 bucks Canadian should get you a glass carboy, plastic bucket, hydrometer, and all the plumbing you need to brew your first batch. Add to that your own ingedients and big pot, and away you go.
  • Do they have hops in plugs, pellets and leaf form?
  • Do they store their hops in the fridge?
  • Do they have a decent selection of brewing gadgets? (filter, kegs, mini-kegs, mills, siphon-starters, false-bottoms, mashing manifolds, the list goes one … )
  • Check that stick-on thermometers have a range which goes down to at least 40F or 5C.
    Many stick-ons only go down to 68F or 18C. This isn’t of much use since that’s actually about the warmest you’d ever want to ferment most beers. These thermometers are actually for fish-tanks, not brewing. Look for the brand name “Fermometer”, or something similar.
  • Do they carry a variety of brewing books and magazines?
  • Can they point you to a local brewing club?
    If there is a club in town, a good retailer should be able to tell you how to get in touch with it. Alternately, a good retailer should at least be able to tell you with certainty that there is unfortunately no club in town. If they don’t know, they probably don’t care, and probably don’t deserve your business.
  • Do they sell hops, grain and other supplies in bulk?
  • Do they carry liquid yeast?
    There are several brand-names available. Good stores will carry at least one of them.
  • Is dry yeast stored in the fridge?
    It certainly should be.
  • Do they carry a grain mill?
    Many good stores carry 2 or 3 different mills. This is only needed in advanced brewing, but still it’s nice to know you have that option available to you.

Look for Bulk

Any good homebrew retailer will recognise that some of us brew so often that price really becomes an issue. If you are willing to do the measuring and packaging yourself, it’s cutting down on his overhead so you should be rewarded accordingly. Hops, grains and adjuncts really lend themselves to sale in bulk. You’d be amazed to find that most grain and some adjunct is marked up as much as 600% in brew shops. 25 kg (55lb) sacks aren’t difficult to find. Many retailers will order you entire sacks of grain and charge only a couple of dollars markup (if you are willing to wait for his next order to come in). Afterall, his overhead is minimal since you are buying the whole sack. Similarly for hops.

Ask Some Questions

Here is a list of short questions which you can memorize to ask at a homebrew shop. Most of them are the correct answers to questions which we’ve heard answered very incorrectly at brew shops. The rest are just things we thought up which fill in the gaps. Even the greenest beginner can memorize 2 or 3 of these and check the answers against the ones listed to rate a foreign brew shop. Some of these are fairly advanced questions, so don’t let it scare you if things sound complicated. And you may have to try to fake your way through if the retailer does know a lot. In the worst case, if you feel you’re about to look foolish, just say something like “A friend asked me to pick it up for him, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about”. But if you can bluff it, you should be able to guage how much the person knows. Keep in mind, though, that one person may not know much, while another may know significantly more. So don’t judge the entire store by one employee.

  • What’s the malting process?
    Malting is the step prior to brewing, where barley and other grains are turned into malted barley (still in grain form) for use in brewing. Few if any brewers actually malt their own, but most good brewers can at least describe the process to you. Watch out for retailers who think that malting is the process by which malt extract (either the powder or the stuff in the cans) is made. I’ve heard that one more than a few times, and it’s just plain incorrect.
  • Do you have plug hops? Hops come in leaf, pellet and plug packaging. Plugs are a very compacted leaf hop. Often you buy a package of 10 x 0.5oz hop plugs for about 10 bucks Canadian. Sometimes they are in a poor plastic package, but that’s no so bad as long as they are refridgerated. In any case, no matter what form their hops is in, make sure that they without exception store all hops in the fridge. Actually, there is one exception to this rule : nitrogen-foil packaging. Since even the best plastic packaging allows oxygen through on the molecular level of the plastic it inevitably will skunk the hops. So plastic is not great for long-term storage. Foils block oxygen and light completely, and are much preferred. (But plastic packages can be stored in the freezer for many months). In fact, even a foil package that’s been evacuated with CO2 and then vacuum sealed can be kept unopened for extended periods at a cool room temperature. But once opened, without exception all hops ideally get stored in the freezer. NOTE: fridge is fine before opening, but freezer is far better afterwards.
  • Well this isn’t really a question, but watch that all hops without exception (even those labelled “finishing hops”) have an alpha-acid rating clearly written on the package. We know one store that has a nice fridge full of bins, and the bins are nicely labelled with alpha acid content of the respective hops, but the numbers given are but the average for the variety of hops. This can be looked up in any book, and even bought in poster-chart form. Check our hops page for further details. If it isn’t clearly written on the package, it isn’t doing you any good. Especially avoid packages where the varieties are not similarly clearly stated on the package. “Finishing Hops” is not an adequate label. There are 10’s of different varieties of finishing hops; some extremely different from others. One key supplier in Canada is notorious for not providing alpha acid numbers. For this reason I am extremely reluctant to purchase their hops.
  • Pick up any bag of lighter-coloured (non-black) grain and ask
    What’s the Lovibond rating of this?
    Really light is anywhere from 1.2 to 7 or even 10. Medium is 20 through 40. Numbers above that get darker up to about 400 which is pretty darned black.
  • then hit them with
    How many points per pound per gallon will I get out of this?
    Most base malts (ie: the ones which are used most in the recipe) will be in the 30-40 range. Check out our page on mash efficiency for details on exactly what this means.
  • and finally
    Do you have any/is this 6 Row?
    Do you have any/is this 2 Row?
    Do you have any/is this Lager Malt?
    Do you have any/is this Ale Malt?
    Read the package first, of course, to make sure you aren’t asking something which is clearly stated. These are the 4 most common terms used to describe the types of malt which make up the bulk of the Grain Bill for a given beer. In the US, 6 Row seems to be more common, where in Canada and most of the rest of the world, 2 Row is used almost exclusively. Lager malts will typically have a Lovibond rating of around 2, where Ales will be a bit higher around 4 or even 5. They have different nitrogen contents, too, which is significant in determining the mashing schedule to be used. See our page on all-grain brewing for details.

Room to Grow

Room for you to grow. You might want to consider asking up-front what you’d need to do some all-grain brewing. Realistically, if you are just starting out it will probably be at least a year before you might find yourself wanting to do that, but why not find a place now that can take you there when you are ready? Ask some advanced questions (from this page), and see what the answers are. Is this shop going to be able to meet your needs both now and in the future, or are you going to have to go looking again if you are one of those brewers who decided to get his or her feet wet with more advanced techniques.