Raley’s beer buyer seeks out regional craft brews for West Sacramento grocer’s store shelves

07/06/2014 12:00 AM

07/04/2014 10:24 PM

It’s a job that many might thirst for: official beer taster.

As the wine, beer and spirits buyer for the West Sacramento-based Raley’s grocery chain, Curtis Mann’s typical workday entails visiting wineries and brew pubs to sip, sample and evaluate various alcoholic beverages. Increasingly, those official tastings are for a special category: craft brews.

“All of our potential growth is in craft (beers),” said Mann, 35, who started with Raley’s last August.

As the craft brew scene has exploded over the past decade, both here and nationally, major grocers are increasingly stocking their shelves with more locally brewed beers. In Northern California, larger chains such as Woodland-based Nugget Markets and Pleasanton-based Safeway, as well as mom and pop stores, have devoted staff time – and shelf space – to craft beers.

They’re doing so to meet consumer demand. In 2013, U.S. craft beer sales soared more than 17 percent over the prior year to more than 15.3 million barrels, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. In an overall beer market of $100 billion in 2013, craft sales totaled $14.3 billion.

Locally, bottles of Coors and Budweiser are increasingly sharing shelf space with regional brews with quirky names such as Elevation 6225 Pale Ale, a shout-out to Lake Tahoe’s elevation, or Rusted Butte Red Ale, named after Sutter Buttes, the Sacramento Valley’s mini-mountain range.

For Raley’s, which started a chainwide push into craft brews about two years ago, the job of deciding which regional brews make it onto store shelves falls to Mann, who started his career as a wine expert. While individual Raley’s stores have some leeway in what they stock – depending on availability from local breweries, shelf space and other variables – Mann said no craft beer makes it onto a Raley’s beer aisle that has not first passed his lips.

Last August, for the first time, craft brew sales exceeded mainstream beer sales in Raley’s stores and that momentum has not waned since, said Mann. Throughout the chain of more than 100 Raley’s, Bel Air and Nob Hill Foods stores, sales of craft brews are up nearly 50 percent over the past five years.

With an undergraduate degree in history and an MBA, both from UC Davis, Mann has more than a dozen years in California’s wine and hospitality industries, including management stints at the Trinchero Family Estates winery in St. Helena and The Vine at Bridges shop in Danville. He’s also completed extensive training from the prestigious Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a London-based organization that covers all aspects of wine education, from product knowledge to retail management.

During a typical week, Mann said he is “presented” 50 craft brews, about half of which he samples by taste. Typically, “(I will) scope out a beer or wine at festivals or trade events where I can be more anonymous. If I think the beer is of good quality, I set up an appointment with a brewery to get the whole story. I would say that once every two weeks I’m at a beer or wine tasting of some sort.”

No matter where he’s tasting, Mann is focused on three key factors: taste, consistency and labels.

Many craft brews have a distinctive first taste, but Mann also evaluates how they finish on the palate. Secondly, he’s looking for “consistency of style.” A beer’s quality and taste need to hold up, whether it comes from the tap or a bottle.

Not surprisingly, given the competition for limited space on grocery shelves, a beer’s label is also important, Mann said. An eye-catching label that makes a brand instantly recognizable from 10 to 20 feet away is a plus, while one with too many tiny details might appear as nothing more than a colorful blob.

During a recent craft beer-tasting outing, Mann visited breweries in Rocklin, Sacramento and Davis, where some 25 glasses of beer were placed before him over a seven-hour period. However, his palate requires only tiny sips to evaluate flavor notes. At Out of Bounds Brewing Co. in Rocklin, for example, he consumed about 3 ounces total of beer from among a dozen glasses served to him – “enough to get the mouth feel but not too much to blow out the palate.”

Still, it never hurts to be prepared.

“I got a Breathalyzer for this job,” Mann said, noting that blood alcohol levels are more likely to creep up near California’s legal limit of 0.08 percent when tasting wine or spirits, which generally have a higher alcohol content than craft beers. While on-the-job impairment has not been a problem, Mann said he would call a cab if his alcohol level ever exceeded the legal limit.

A “spit bucket,” commonly used by wine tasters who sip but don’t swallow during tastings, is not typically used with craft beers, Mann said. That’s because of beer’s relatively low alcohol content by volume and the taster’s small intake.

At Out of Bounds, Mann chatted with co-owner Bruce MacPhee, who is head brewer and a partner in the 8-month-old business, which operates from a 6,700-square-foot, solar-powered building. Although a relative newcomer to the Sacramento beer market, Out of Bounds already appears on Raley’s store shelves. MacPhee, who brews 10 staples and two seasonal beers, has ambitions to be in stores through the Midwest in the next five years.

“This isn’t a hobby. This is an industry,” said MacPhee, whose brews also are carried at Whole Foods, Nugget Markets and Costco stores as well as smaller grocers in Placer County.

From Rocklin, Mann’s next stop was midtown Sacramento, home to Rubicon Brewing Co. With nearly 30 years in business, Rubicon is a veritable pioneer in the region’s craft brew industry. Two years ago, Rubicon expanded brewing operations to a new facility on Stillwater Road in West Sacramento, increasing the 2,000-barrels-a-year capacity of its garage-size space in midtown.

Rubicon owner Glynn Phillips remains committed to developing new beers to match consumer tastes, including an “American-style pale ale” called Monkey Knife Fight. With various Rubicon beers on Raley’s store shelves for years, Phillips recognizes the value of having a presence in local stores.

“If we go to a beer festival or other event where people try our beers and like them, it’s a big deal to be able to tell them that they can pull it right off the shelves (at a Raley’s store),” Phillips said.

Mann’s last stop of the day was Sudwerk Brewing Co. in Davis. Although only a “smattering” of its German-style lager beers are carried in Raley’s stores, Mann hopes to add more Sudwerk beers. The Davis resident tasted about half a dozen Sudwerk brews, noting his approval of several offerings.

At every stop, Mann takes notes or shoots photos of beers on his ever-present iPad. In most cases, he’s evaluating prospective beers, not making sales commitments on the spot.

While craft brews likely won’t overtake mainstream beers such as Coors and Budweiser on store shelves anytime soon, Mann expects the craft beer craze will spread from the West Coast and East Coast into the middle of the country.

“We’re seeing pockets in the Midwest, and it’s making its way south,” Mann said. “I think that’s going to continue … across the country.”

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