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When one store closes …

It’s not that I’m a cynic, but for me bumper sticker platitudes such as “when one door closes, another opens” offer cold comfort in the face of life’s vagaries. Take, for example, the recent announcement that Macy’s will be closing its store in downtown Boise. Even as the loud, slamming sound reverberates throughout the city’s urban core, I struggle in vain to hear the faint stirrings of any new endeavor that might fill the impending void. I can, however, offer one bit of consolation, despite its difference in location and scale: Brewforia.

Located at 435 N. Milwaukee between Ross and Target, Brewforia is poised to become the first national retail franchise for craft beer. Although it first launched as a Web site only a year ago, it has already become one of the largest online retailers of craft beer in the country, according to founder Rick Boyd. Brewforia opened its brick and mortar location a little more than two months ago, and plans are in place to open a Moscow location. The store will launch its franchise program this July at the annual Brewtopia Fest in New York City – the largest beer festival in the world. Two weeks later, Brewforia will repeat its debut event at the Great American Beer Festival in Chicago.

Brewforia, which Boyd defines as “the joy of discovering beer,” boasts a retail mission that would have been highly unlikely a decade ago: “giving people an opportunity to experience beer in every way that it is brewed around the world.” The inspiration came to Boyd, whose career was in food service, while shopping for beer at a local supermarket. Frustrated by the limited selection of craft beers, he recalls, “I went home that night with a six-pack of something I wasn’t that excited about, and I thought to myself, ‘why doesn’t someone open a beer store where I can get what I want?’ Then I thought, ‘I could open that store!'”

Although Boyd’s original intention was to start with a physical location and then extend its reach through online sales, lack of available investment capital necessitated a reverse approach. In retrospect, launching the Web site first, along with a Facebook page, proved an invaluable source of customer research, as well as allowing Boyd to build credibility as an information source on the subject of American craft beers.

A sample from a Rick Boyd beer review: “The Late Harvest pours a beautiful copper color with excellent clarity and a delicate off white head that dissipates quickly leaving just a trace of lacing on the glass. The aroma is almost pure malt with the Vienna and Smoked malts coming through strongly. You also pick up an earthiness like wet hay and a tinge of floral sweetness on the nose from the Saaz and Chinook hops.”

Take that, wine snobs!

The intimacy of sharing stories and experiences around great beer carries over to the brick and mortar experience: if craft beer had a theme park, it would be Brewforia. Like the store’s social media presence, its retail model is driven by engagement and education. Give Boyd a challenge when it comes to your preference in fermented grain beverage and his likely response will be to crack open something from his cooler or pull a handle on a sample brew and gauge your response. “There is a beer for everyone,” he claims, “and nine times out of 10 we can find it within two beers.”

Given the state of the economy, it might seem that creating a retail concept around craft beer is at best frivolous. But what is niche today may be mainstream tomorrow, and part of what I find so intriguing about Brewforia is Boyd’s belief that America’s growing fascination with craft beer is not an indulgence, but instead part of what is happening in the larger American culinary scene.

“I grew up in a small town in Texas, and we’d never seen a red onion until I was in high school,” Boyd recalls. “I never thought of cooking with olive oil until after college.” Times have changed, and Boyd notes that, “today, in my mom’s town of less than 400 people you can now buy goat cheese.”

Ironically, Boyd points out, the proliferation of regional breweries may be a recent phenomenon, but it is hardly new to the American experience. “Prior to Prohibition there was a much livelier beer industry in this country, and it has taken us 80 years to get back to that environment, thanks in part to the liberalization of laws affecting brewing in many states. Our store could have existed prior to now, but it would have carried mostly imported beers. Today, imports are on the decline, and craft beers are surging. By comparison, the major beer brands are in decline by 5 to 10 percent.”

Despite his bullishness about craft beer in general, Boyd is a bit less sanguine about the future of breweries in the Gem State, particularly in the Treasure Valley. There are currently 19 breweries in Idaho, but only two of these consistently bottle – and not bottling means not getting your brand out to a wider market. By contrast, Montana (with half the population of Idaho) has 24 breweries, all but three of which bottle their beer. Boyd cites two major liabilities for craft beer in Idaho: archaic state laws and the unwillingness of local brewers to band together.

“We run the risk of losing many of our craft brewers because they view each other too much as competitors,” said Boyd. “Montana has a brewers guild, and so does Colorado. By pooling their resources and working with their governments for more favorable laws, they can develop, market, and ship their brands around the country. Colorado even features brewery tours as part of its tourist promotion efforts.”

It’s going to take a lot of Brewforias to replace the hole in Boise’s retail sector left by the closing of Macy’s, but in many ways Rick Boyd’s concept points to the future of retail. Brewforia “taps” into a broader movement (local food), it blends traditional and online retail, it focuses on customer experience rather than deep discounting, and it eschews a monolithic brand identity for one driven by regional uniqueness. I’ll drink to that.

Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Rick Boyd of Brewforia.

About Michael Boss