Don't consider yourself a beer drinker? The Urban Grape, purveyors of one of the best wine and spirits collections in this town, is set to prove you wrong with their new curated craft beer program, Urban Hops.
When Urban Grape opened its flagship Chestnut Hill location in 2010, beer certainly had a place on the shelves, but it was a small one. Opening the next store in the South End last year meant more shelves carefully stocked with choice vino, but also a renewed chance to delve into the beer world.
“When we opened the second store, we noticed that our customers were really looking for that next level,” says beer manager Ben Bouton. “So, Urban Hops is our way of giving it its own program and really dedicating ourselves to craft beer. It’s an industry that has experienced incredible growth in the last few years.”
Co-owner Hadley Douglas says she and husband TJ are learning just as much from Bouton as the customers are.
“For us, beer was just beer,” she says. “We love it, but St. Pauli Girl was always the craziest thing that we drank. We knew we wanted to have beer in order to be full-service, but we’ve been really blown away by how much the field has expanded. Customers are going back and forth across the aisle, and they’re looking for the same things in beer as they are in wine.”
“I think that’s what’s fun about it,” Bouton adds. “It can be a casual thing, or it can be something elevated.”
Bouton is currently working on the second stage of his Cicerone certification (a sommelier-esque program for beer) in order to better serve Urban Hops clientele.
“The more I know, the better I can help someone find something they’ll love,” he explains. “People are really starting to think about beer in a pairing sense too, it’s not just wine anymore.”
If your ability to describe your taste in beer stops at "in a can," don't worry. Bouton says that all newbie craft brew heads need remember is to stay open-minded and a little bit ballsy. It’s his job to wade through the collection and find exactly what you didn’t even know you were looking for, so don’t feel pressured to impress.
“The first thing that’s important for novice beer drinkers is a willingness to try something different,” Bouton explains. “Something like a Notch pilsner is totally accessible to a Bud drinker. These lighter, easygoing beers don’t require you to sit there and ponder it. There’s always a place for that.”
And don’t sweat it if Bouton tells you a beer has phenomenal notes of charred wood and spruce, a hint of boysenberry, and just a whiff of orange peel, and you get home and smell, you know, beer. Training your palate for maximum enjoyment takes time. Think Rocky, only instead of running along the train tracks, you get to try as many different wines and beers as you can.
“It’s incredible when you’ve been trying all these wines or liquors or beers, and suddenly, something clicks, and you’re like, ‘I DO get that note of coriander in there!’” Bouton says. “My beer palate has improved so much because of the wine in this store. When you’re trying such great, quality product at all different levels—$8 wines to $400 wines—you’re educating your palate immensely.”
Beers are set up a little differently than the wine, which is grouped by intensity. They toyed with organizing them progressively, but, as Bouton points out, it becomes confusing for some when Guinness—with its murky dark color— shows up at the front of the line as a light beer. In the South End location, bottles are arranged by region.
“The main idea is that both sides are curated,” Douglas says. “On the wine side, you won’t find the most typical brands, but you’ll find people with great stories or great growing practices who are putting out the best wine that they can. Same with beer—it’s about learning all about the brewers and what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”
Bouton’s curating style definitely has an edge to it. Half of the colorful labels are unrecognizable to many, having arrived from far-flung corners of the world. The local section plays host to a few tried-and-true favorites; Night Shift, High & Mighty, Notch.
Bouton’s current crush is a sour beer made with Barbera grapes out of Italy, fittingly called BeerBera, which will be making its way to their shelves soon; Douglas is partial to the $7 Tall Boy 4-pack of Bitburger (a beer that rescued her on a particularly sweltering New York day last August) and the Brunehaut Blond Ale, a gluten-free beer.
“It’s a phenomenal time to be getting into craft beer,” Bouton says, and Douglas nods. “The only limitations are what people can think of.”
On Sunday, May 19, both the South End and Chestnut Hill locations will host craft beer festivals to celebrate the official launch of Urban Hops. You can get your (tasteful) drink on, learn a little something in the process, and bring home a few newcomers to your fridge. And the tastings are free!
If you go
The Urban Grape Chestnut Hill
7 Boylston St., Chestnut Hill
The Urban Grape South End
303 Columbus Ave., Boston