So what’s the difference between working in cheese and working in beer?
I get that question about once a week from my regulars at the job at Westside Market’s East Village location in Manhattan. My answer depends on how much time I think they have. If they are in a hurry, then I’ll hit ‘em with a quip “beer doesn’t get moldy” or something like that. If they have some time, then I’ll give them a longer answer and it’s drawn from the information below.
First, here’s some background. About two years ago, I shifted from cheese into a position where I dealt mostly with the craft beer program. The primary motive was financial. After nearly 30 years of working in cheese and significant notoriety from the New York Times, New York Magazine and Wine Spectator, I was looking to leave my position as Cheese and Beer Manager for a small epicerie on the Upper West Side, and most of my cheese contacts told me to go get work that paid somewhere around $15 an hour. They weren’t being mean (well maybe one guy….), but rather that’s the artisanal cheese economy in NYC (there’s a discussion for another time about whether the business model is broken). My potential employers readily acknowledged that my purchasing, merchandising, and marketing skills could probably increase sales by 2K a week; it didn’t matter, that was the going rate. I figured it was time to get going and see what the world of craft beer was like. I’d put together a nice small program at the epicerie, where I worked from 2011-2014; after a brief consultancy for a small chain that failed to understand either beer or cheese, I landed a job at Westside Market’s East Village location I’d have a chance to apply my philosophies to a large scale program. To give you a sense of the change, at the epicerie, we carried about 75 types of beer; I took over a program at Westside that featured close to 400.
Here’s what’s similar in selling both products. In each case you’re talking with customers who are aware of somewhat better product (in cheese the general public is familiar with fromage like Humboldt Fog and Cave Aged Gruyere and in beer the parallel is anything brewed by Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada) and introducing them to what’s on the higher end, say cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy or the Cellars at Jasper Hill or beer brewed by Pipeworks or Stillwater.
In general the clientele welcome this counsel. There’s a LOT of really great cheese and EVEN MORE really great beer on the market today. It’s easy to get intimidated by sheer volume of deliciousness that is available. The initial challenge was to give people more than a product; I wanted to give them a road map into case, so that the next time, they’d have clearer agenda. That meant introducing an IPA lover to a brewery that does several really good ones and if they weren’t an IPA lover then my first tack was to get them on board with saisons. With cheese lovers the game was to get them familiar with certain affineurs. Even in a big pre cut and wrapped cheese case like ours at Westside, there are cheeses from leading European affineurs like Rolf Beeler, Caroline Hostettler and NYD.
From there, however, things diverge. Beer customers are much clearer on the connection between agriculture and flavor. People seem to have little trouble grasping that beer made from oh say, Citra hops, will be much fruitier than beer made from Chinook hops. OTOH, talk to people about cheese and bring up grass from different seasons or different breeds of cows and I see their eyes glaze over and a thought bubble over their head might read “ya know, Jarlsberg isn’t so bad.”
That situation is indicative of another key difference. People are better at grasping the outline in beer than they are in cheese. In beer you start with the style of beer, IPA, lager, stout, etc. The next step is the producer and then the ingredients. A parallel inquiry could be made into cheese but the general public is far less aware of how cheese is made much less how to parse the differences between cheeses.
Some of that may owe to the fact that every major American city has several breweries these days and many, if not most, give tours. Dairy farms don’t typically exist in cities, so a tour involves a road trip, and there usually aren’t drink tickets in a tap room at the end.
One thing that cheese has all over beer is in the reputation of the experts. Cheese experts like Max McCalman, Anne Saxelby, Tia Keenan and others are known for being enthusiastic, warm and articulate. While Garrett Oliver, the public face of craft beer in New York is also enthusiastic and articulate, that reputation doesn’t filter down to the front lines. The stereotype of a knowledgeable beer professional is of a hops snob eager to stare down their nose at you for not knowing the latest unfiltered IPA. I see that all the time when people ask me on the beer aisle where the Corona is. I don’t roll my eyes. They aren’t buying it for me. If a six pack of Corona makes their life a little happier, I’m fine with that. Yet, that customer will grab their beer and scurry off the aisle as if they are avoiding a withering gaze.
I graduated high school 38 years ago, long enough to have a pretty good handle on the idea that life isn’t high school even if there are often striking resemblances. The “cool kids” act of some beer geeks isn’t helpful. Fortunately the beer information pipeline dwarves the one in the cheese world, and many craft beer consumers get their information that way and avoid snobs.
Whether I was running a beer department or a cheese department, my goal is create community. I work in New York City; there are dozens of places to buy even the most rarified product. If that customer feels an attachment to our place, it gives us a competitive advantage. That community has been easier to build and maintain in beer. First off there’s Instagram and second both my boss and I enjoy chatting with regular customers about beer. Essentially, we’re succeeding in making an impersonal space, an aisle with more than 400 varieties of often crazily packaged beer, into a convivial area.
Do I miss cheese? Sure, I miss Winnimere. I miss Rush Creek Reserve. I miss coming on to the counter on a Saturday afternoon and getting six different picks of the week from my fellow mongers. OTOH, in 30 plus years of working in cheese, rarely did a customer bring me some. It happens every week on the beer aisle. It’s even better than drink tickets at a brewery tour.