On a Wednesday afternoon in August, managers overseeing the seven locations of local chain, Baron’s Market, sat around a long conference table at the grocer’s headquarters, drinking with representatives of Abnormal Beer Co. The office day-drinking was no idle exercise: they were preparing for the next installment of Baron’s quarterly series, Backroom Beer Pairings.
16990 Via Tazon, Rancho Bernardo
The events take place on loading docks behind each market, from North Park to Murrieta, matching beers from a local brewery with food items on sale inside the market. But first, the happens here, in case adjustments are needed. For example, does Abnormal’s flagship Boss Pour IPA go better with the baked potato wedges, or chicken and dumpling soup? How does a pomegranate salad pair with Abnormal’s fruity, Mai Tai inspired witbier, Tiki Life For Me?
The results will avail themselves October 24th, when all stores host the event within their respective communities. Baron’s vice president of marketing, Rachel Shemirani, says 60-100 people turn out at each location, with proceeds from the $15 tickets donated to a designated charity. Due to the logistics involved, meetings like this are held months in advance.
“This is where we determine the exact menu,” adds Shemirani, noting this one went more smoothly than more challenging events the market has produced since starting the series three years ago. “Other pairings we’ve really had to switch around,” she says, “add ingredients, take away ingredients.”
The ease in this case has plenty to do with this season’s partner brewery. Because it’s housed inside Rancho Bernardo restaurant Cork and Craft, Abnormal’s beers are made for this. “All our beers are supposed to be drinkable, approachable to almost everybody,” suggests Abnormal head brewer, Nyle Molina, “something you could pair with food easily.”
The grocery venue is new for Abnormal, which started out selling cans exclusively out of its tasting room, during the recent trend of beer fans lining up to buy entire runs of special release, hazy IPAs in a single afternoon. With those days dwindling, Abnormal looks to distribute outward, with Baron’s being the first supermarket to carry the brand.
Molina says the results have been encouraging, improving both sales and brand awareness to customers outside Abnormal’s home area. “Before,” he says, customers included “everybody who could make it to Rancho Bernardo. Now people in Oceanside or Riverside even can go grab what they want off the shelf.”
Access to grocery shelves has been a concern among regional, independent breweries in their battle for market space against corporate behemoths. In that regard, Baron’s has been extraordinarily supportive by stocking its shelves heavily in local breweries’ favor: out of roughly 600 individual beers, or SKUs, in stock, 400 are local. Two-thirds.
That’s not simply a matter of rooting for the home team. “Local beers are the best performing,” reports wine and beer director, Jeff Slankard. After years of “explosive growth” in beer sales, it’s flattened over the past six months, so the chain has started reducing imports and out of town beer SKUs. But, says Slankard, “our focus is more local than it’s ever been.”
With the Backroom Beer Pairings, Baron’s tries to highlight newer, smaller contenders. “Our goal is to get a small local brewery shortly after they start canning,” he says. And usually, the result is a bump in sales for that new grocery store brand.