Wegmans expanding craft beer selection at two stores – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rising sales of craft beer are driving the entire beer industry, and one major Rochester-area retailer is taking notice.

Wegmans, which already has a solid craft beer presence, is seizing this momentum and expanding its beer footprint in two of its suburban stores. The supermarket chain is upping the ante at both the Penfield and Pittsford stores.

Penfield’s stock is expanding by nearly 40 percent, a move that should be completed by early next week, and Pittsford, the flagship store, should follow a few weeks later. If this model works, it could provide a template or blueprint for other stores, space permitting.

“We were lucky enough to have some space at the Penfield store that freed up there,” said Geoff Greble, the category merchant for beer (or head beer buyer) at Wegmans. “Certainly, we’re obviously aware of the explosion of craft beer and that our customers really love it and want it.”

According to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Colorado-based Brewers Association, citing numbers from market research group IRI, craft beer sales are up 20 percent this year.

“Certainly in the last few years whereas craft growth used to be dominated by on-premise (sales at bars and breweries), we’ve really seen a shift to off-premise growth,” Watson said. “I think grocery stores, multi-outlet stores and convenience stores are getting the message that craft is going to be the future of growth in the beer business.”

Watson noted that millennials — people ages 21 to 34 — accounted for almost 38 percent of craft beer consumption last year.

“What we’ve seen is really a generational change over the years,” Watson said. “As 21-plus drinkers come online, craft is just a much bigger percentage of their overall alcohol mix than it ever was before.”

New York, as a craft beer state, is following these national trends. According to the Brewers Association, the state ranked fourth in the country in terms of the economic impact of craft beer. Spurred by new laws, breweries also have dramatically risen, climbing from 75 to 220 in just over four years.

Wegmans started its transition into craft beer about seven years ago as it added brands in all of its stores. But the growth in these two stores is re-affirming the chain’s commitment to craft beer.

Non-refrigerated space is the only area expanding in both stores, according to Greble. No more cold storage has been added. That means the Penfield store will see about 100 new beers and increased space within the department for new-release displays. There also is a kiosk in the department to serve as a space for beer tastings.

“I was out at the store (earlier this week) and I can tell you that there’s already buzz about those new shelves,” Greble said.

Greble said Wegmans wants to stock rarer beers — ones that don’t see a lot of distribution in this area — “to nurture that culture and offer a little bit more for our customers.”

Wegmans is accomplishing that by welcoming some new craft distributors to its stores for the first time. Henrietta-based Rhino Distributing and Remarkable Liquids, based in Guilderland, Albany County, are helping to stock the new shelves.

“It’s huge for us, because it allows us to secure additional off-premise sales for package,” said Julie Bielecki, owner of Rhino and AJ’s Beer Warehouse in Henrietta, noting that even though the department hasn’t officially opened, they’ve already sold multiple cases of beers such as Queens-based Singlecut Bon Bon 2X TNT Double India Pale Ale and Horseheads Pumpkin Ale. “It gets us greater market exposure for our smaller breweries. It encourages our smaller breweries to take that next leap into canning or bottling.”

At first, Wegmans will carry seven Rhino-distributed beers, including some canned options to prolong shelf life.  Remarkable will stock beers from some wide-ranging breweries like Oklahoma-based Prairie and South Carolina’s Westbrook.

“It’s just good to see that Wegmans has its thumb on the pulse of craft beer,” said Matt Hartman, co-owner of Remarkable Liquids. “Just having Wegmans paying attention to what the consumer is really looking for, it matters a lot and it helps to validate our portfolio.

“Three years ago, we didn’t exist. And three or five years ago, some of the brewers we represent didn’t exist.”

Both Bielecki and Hartman said that the increased focus on craft will have a trickle-down effect on smaller breweries. Increased demand and market awareness will allow them to grow and increase production, meaning there should be a steady influx of world-class beer into this market.

“We hope it’s a continuing trend,” Bielecki said. “Our focus is buy local in New York state and we hope that is reflected in their sales as well and is their mission and focus, too.”

Hartman, who attended St. John Fisher College and previously worked for Syracuse-based distributor TJ Sheehan as a craft beer representative, said he believes Wegmans will play a huge role in growing craft beer in this region.

“I think this is just the beginning of where craft beer is going, especially in New York state. New York state is, at this point, pretty progressive with craft beer,” Hartman said. “It may not be Portland, Oregon, or San Diego, California, but I think that there’s a huge number of people out there, a growing number of people, interested in great craft beer.”

Greble said there aren’t any plans to offer draft beer through a growler-filling station like many smaller specialty bottle shops do.

“Where we have space and where the business allows it, we’ll continue to explore and see how it goes,” he said. “But right now, we’re really focused on these two stores and seeing how our customers embrace it.”

Not everybody is thrilled with Wegmans’ craft beer expansion. Some local enthusiasts are worried about the impact it will have on smaller bottle shops. There is also concern about how Wegmans will handle special or limited releases of beers that are only arrive once a year and come into this market in small quantities. Others have voiced apprehension over the lack of individualized attention or knowledgeable employees to provide advice and insight.

“Because they don’t have a dedicated beer staff, I’m concerned that very limited releases will be gobbled up by one or two people,” said Adam Kukucka, 32, of Rochester. “You can’t just put that stuff on a shelf, because one person will grab all of it. You need that staff to sell it and control it, but you also need knowledgeable people to give advice. All of the smaller stores have that.

“It could also certainly take business away from the smaller stores, maybe like Hegedorn’s (in Webster), or AJ’s (in Henrietta), or Nathaniel Square Corner Store (in the city), the real beer stores of the area. But I think because it’s only limited to two stores at this point that it probably won’t hurt them too badly.”

Managers of several independent beer shops declined to comment for this story.

Right now, Wegmans beer department falls under the responsibilities of each store’s grocery manager. Wegmans doesn’t have dedicated employees in each beer department like it does in specialized departments like cheese or seafood. That could change.

“Part of the good news with these projects is we are looking at having some staffing right over in the beer department that would specialize in beer,” Greble said. “They could kind of be a bit of an expert, helping customers on a Saturday or a Friday afternoon and doing more of that hand selling. Any department that has complexity to it, it’s always great to have one of our folks helping our customers.”

WCLEVELAND@Gannett.com