In general I would rather go to a brick-and-mortar store than use the mail order places but recently got a box of ingredients from Northern Brewer because I did not have time to run out to the local places. I like most of the mail order sites because they have good prices and tend to have a few things my local stores might not have. Not much more, but a few things. What I don’t like about mail order is that you can’t see the store and get visual cues about how the place is run. However, these places are typically responsive, have fast shipping, good prices, and seem like reputable organizations. It’s a toss-up. I like dealing with people and seeing how my ingredients are handled but sometimes I like the convenience of not having to go to a real store, especially since there are none very close to where I live.
Here are some qualities I think make a store good:
- Refrigerated ingredients. If you see hops sitting on a shelf unrefrigerated, turn tail and leave. The same goes for yeast, obviously. Hops have very volatile oils whose spoilage loses the unique characteristics of the particular hops strain. These should always be refrigerated.
- Climate-controlled grain storage. Dried grain can last a long time in various temperatures, but this is not ordinary grain you might make into bread. The delicate taste of the particular roast and the stability of the sugar content is all aided by a good climate control system.
- Clean packages. Whether it’s a can of malt extract or a bag of bottle caps, keeping the merchandise clean is a general indication that the retailer cares about the image he or she presents.
- No old products. Have you ever seen something in a store that was in an old package, yellowed with age? That is a sign that the store management does not care enough to present an attractive front to the public.
- Helpful, knowledgeable staff. They need to know what they are talking about and admit when they don’t know something and also know how to find the right answer. I have been to homebrew stores that had people working there who reminded me of the comic book guy on The Simpsons. Bad places to shop.
I have been to less-than-ideal stores. You can kind of tell when you walk into a bad store. There is a combination of unhelpfulness, poorly handled or rotated products, and general disdain for customers. I have been talked down to at some homebrew shops because I did not know what something was or was not familiar with a particular ingredient. I have seen that happen to others as well. That’s no way to treat a customer unless you do not want him to come back. That type of unhelpfulness will drive me to go just about anywhere else and give my money to someone who is pleasant. If you encounter stores like this, I suggest you do the same.
Where you go is up to you, but these are my criteria for choosing where to take my billfold.