On Tap: The Upper Valley Has Good Taste When It Comes to Gas Station Beer
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The menu of beers before me was like some kind of “Greatest Hits” album, each selection just as good as the last.
Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. Stone Arrogant Bastard. Victory Golden Monkey. Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.
I’d be proud to walk into a room of my snobbiest friends and put any one of these down on the table.
Here’s the kicker, though. I wasn’t perusing the shelves at some boutique grocer or fine beverages store in Boston. I was at a gas station in the Upper Valley.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve developed this half-baked theory that if you want to get a true measure of the popular local beer tastes, you shouldn’t go to the pub with the most expansive tap list or a high-end retailer with the best selection. You should go to the places where people stop to pick up a six-pack on their way home.
Lots of regions could support an anomalous specialty beer shop where people would drive out of their way to buy the good stuff every now and then. But that wouldn’t tell you much about what locals are drinking on a regular basis. Instead, you have to look at the places where everybody goes. Where do people buy beer as a spontaneous purchase, rather than some planned trip?
Supermarkets might qualify, but they still segment themselves into the high- and low-end markets. With gas stations, you drive to the one with the lowest price, down to the penny, for regular unleaded and then stop inside for whatever else … bathroom break, gum, beef jerky, beer.
I never gave this much thought until I was driving with my wife and son to visit family in Virginia for Christmas. We stopped at a gas station near the West Virginia border and, as has become my habit, I stepped inside to survey the beer coolers. I was horrified.
There was nothing I would call great beer. Between the cases of Budweiser, Coors Light and Milwaukee’s Best was a sixer of something called “Pong.” Specifically “Pong Lite,” with the slogan “Let’s Play.” That’s right. It was a beer brewed for the notorious frat-house game of tossing pingpong balls into cups of beer and then chugging the brew.
This particular Virginia town, I concluded, did not share my tastes.
It made me appreciate the Upper Valley even more. Just about every gas station convenience store I’ve visited around here has a selection of premium products from across the nation. Twin State brewers such as Smuttynose, Long Trail, Harpoon and Otter Creek are ubiquitous, as is Samuel Adams. The Maplefields in Woodstock had Goose Island Honkers Ale. A Jiffy Mart in Claremont had Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. Huggett’s Mini Mart in East Thetford had Ruckus Brewing’s Hoptimus Prime and Gritty’s IPA. The Cumberland Farms in Fairlee had Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye.
The list I rattled off at the beginning of this column was at Jake’s Market & Deli in New London. The options at the Jake’s store on Mechanic Street in Lebanon are even more impressive. It has a walk-in cooler dubbed the “beer cave” and the store also allows you to mix a six pack, a nice option for people who are interested in sampling new stuff.
I called Ed Kerrigan, who owns the Jake’s Market chain, and asked him why he was making this push into high-end beer.
The simple answer is that it’s because that’s what we like to drink around here.
“The consumer taste for good beer has shifted and what we’ve found is consumer demand for that has shifted,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, it was mostly Bud and Coors, or what the industry calls “macro” breweries. Those mass market products are still around and you’ll see cases stacked high in pretty much all the stores I mentioned. But the demand for macros has leveled off, Kerrigan said. The real growth has been for craft beer.
There’s also a lot more available now. More than 400 breweries opened in the U.S. last year, bringing the total to 2,347 craft brewers nationwide, according to recent figures from the Brewers Association, a trade group. And in a year when the total U.S. beer market grew by 1 percent, the smaller craft brewers saw a 15 percent rise in volume and 17 percent increase in dollar growth.
So, like pretty much any retail business, convenience stores that stock a diverse selection of beer are really just responding to demand.
“The consumer demand has changed and we have tried to accommodate that,” Kerrigan said.
There’s nothing really surprising about this, when you think about it. It’s just sometimes strange to see the ubiquity of quality beer, even when stopping inside a mini mart.
Certainly, I’ve got some complaints about living here. But finding good beer isn’t one of them.
Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.