The Retailer: Brian Nelson, Manager of the Village Beer Merchant

I thought I was only passing through Buffalo — but the city had other plans for me.

I grew up and went to high school in a small town in Upstate New York. Like most small town high schoolers my first experiences with beer involved bonfires out in the woods — and the beer was always crap. I hated everything about beer — I never understood it — it tasted awful, so what was the point?

When I was 17, almost 18, I went to California following the Grateful Dead — and it was here I was introduced to my first “craft beer.” I didn’t think much of it when I took the bottle — it was just another beer, with a funny label and some annoying gold foil over the cap — but after I tasted it, I knew I’d never forget it: a “Taddy Porter,” from the great English brewery Samuel Smith. I didn’t look like any beer I knew, and it definitely didn’t taste like the dishwater we used to drink out in the woods. It was a far reach from my grandfather’s Utica Club or my high school Miller Lights. I did not know it then, but craft beer would become a big part of my life.

For a couple years I remained in California, traveling around the country and getting myself in trouble — and along the way, slowly getting to know more about quality beers, both the older European styles and the wilder west coast brews just then starting to grow and gain in popularity. The west coast for me seemed to be way ahead of the rest of the country, in everything from food to politics — and definitely in beer. I could get three 22oz Sam Smiths for $5 at the local Safeway, and little bodegas had a beer selection that was nothing like I had ever seen.

I had just turned 21 when I ended up back east, in Buffalo, NY. I was working at a bar/club and quickly went from a bar back to a manager. The first thing I did was put some good beer on draft — Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada to start — and stocked some bottles of Sam Smith, and other high quality brews. That was around 1995. I thought I was only passing through Buffalo — but the city had other plans for me. It was at this bar one snowy night I meet my wife — and I was hooked, just like I had been on that first Taddy Porter. I asked her to stay for a beer; she said she couldn’t, she was working as a nanny and had to get up early the next day. But I was persistent. Sort of like I’d done with the Grateful Dead, I decided to follow her, wherever it took me — even if it led to a little bit of trouble. I went on to own bars and clubs, always having craft beer as a selection.

After what seemed like a lifetime in bars, I needed a change.

Even though I stocked some good beers in my bars, I still had to drive outside the city for good beer to take home. I knew couldn’t be the only one who had this issue. My wife, my parents, and I had toyed with the idea of opening a store for years, and finally we felt like this was the right time. My parents were getting ready to retire and I suggested opening a store to fill a neighborhood need. We quickly learned I was not the only person wanting craft beer at home — so we decided to go on another adventure together, and opened Village Beer Merchant at 547 Elmwood.

This year is VBM’s 10th anniversary, and the 5th anniversary of our second location at 1535 Hertel. What I thought would be helping my parents with a little store to help supplement their retirement has become a way of living for me. I never looked at it as a “movement” — like I said, we just couldn’t get that much craft beer in the city of Buffalo at that time. VBM started of like a lot of other places that sell beer. We boosted on how many brands we had — we were “Bigger, Better etc. etc.” — but that isn’t why we opened.

We didn’t want to be this box store with every kind of beer in the world with a dusty back stock. The idea was to provide fresh beer for the neighborhood. So we’ve tried to stay focused on just that. Instead of bulk buying a huge order and filling in holes with small weekly orders, we started cutting beers that were not fast movers or brands that were not our favorites, and started getting orders daily. We want our customers to have the freshest product. This even applies to beer that can age: that ageing process should take place in a cellar, not in a retail settling, under lights, and the effects of temperature changes.

This concept is strange to first time shoppers as most people shop with their eyes, thinking “more is more.” But unless you are buying for a big party, do you really need to see 30 cases of Bell’s Two Hearted on an end cap? Chances are, the store is only going to sell five cases of that brand that week —  meaning some customer will get older beer, an inferior product.

Retailing craft beer is a tough thing. The margins suck and the hours are long. But we bring the neighborhoods fresh beer on a daily basis. Providing that beer, watching the Buffalo brewing and drinking culture mature, and talking about new beers every week with the customers we’ve gotten to know over the past decade — these things make it all worthwhile.

Brian Nelson is manager of The Village Beer Merchant, a family-owned store offering fresh-bought craft beer and imports, with locations on Elmwood and Hertel Avenues in Buffalo.

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Content for the July 2017 issue, Craft Beer and the Buffalo Economy, presented by Waterbourne Group of Companies, LLC.

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