By Josette Keelor
Photos By: Josh Triggs
You’ve seen the beer commercials:
Refrigerators stocked with lagers and pale ales. Partygoers pulling a frigid brew from a cooler filled with ice. A narrator telling viewers there’s nothing better on a hot day than a beer straight from a polar vortex of crisp Arctic air.
It’s good marketing, said Better Beer Store co-owner Kevin Eckles. It’s also a lie.
“Cold kills flavor,” Eckles said on a recent humid summer day at his family’s Valley Pike store, where he touted the logic behind enjoying a nice, cool room-temperature drink.
It’s the sort of personalized advice he said his customers are looking for at the specialty shop, which sells beer and ciders in bottles, cans, and growlers. It also features a tasting bar with drinks like Founders Sumatra Mountain Brown Ale, Winchester Ciderworks Blackcurrant Cider, Perennial Artisan Ales Suburban Beverage sour beer, and Old Bust Head Caramel Macchiato oatmeal stout.
Cellar temperature is about 55 degrees, and Eckles said that’s the ideal environment for providing a much better flavor for a quality beer like Belgian Special Dark Ale, make by Trappist monks in Europe.
“With this style beer, you’ll get a lot of dark fruit flavor,” he said. And since it’s a process that hasn’t changed much in 500-600 years, he said it’s a good bet the monks know what they’re talking about.
Chilling such beers is a detriment to the consumer, Eckles said, but for a manufacturer trying to sell an inferior product, it can be a win. It helps them hide the fact that their beer isn’t that great to begin with.
That’s not to say you should never refrigerate beers. Pink Lemonade sour ale, for instance, contains live enzymes and needs to be kept cold.
“This is very much a poolside beer,” Eckles said. Like Greek yogurt, he said, “It’s still alive and kicking when in the can.”
But, since many quality beers taste better a few degrees warmer, he said if you choose to keep them in cold storage, be sure to let them sit out for a little before consuming.
If you’re unsure which beers are better at which temperatures, just ask Eckles or his family.
“We want to help people have a better beer-drinking experience,” Eckles said.
“It’s kind of like hamburger versus steak,” he said. “There’s a whole universe of beer-drinkers out there that have only ever tried hamburger.”
Eckles, 43, of Winchester, opened his store at 3349 Valley Pike in Kernstown about four years ago with his father, Gregory; mother, Karen; and wife, Victoria. Though he and his dad discussed the idea for about 15 years, Eckles said the business they have now probably couldn’t have succeeded back then.
The American craft beer industry, which had all but dried out to 70 breweries after Prohibition ended in 1933, has exploded in recent years, growing to about 5,000 nationally. And they’re not just cropping up with the same old products; they’re blossoming with new ideas that no one’s ever seen before, and every day seems to bring something unique and fun.
Even 10 years ago, this sort of demand for craft beer and this level of quality wasn’t here, Eckles recalled.
It’s very much an experimental industry, he said. But, when it comes to quality beer, it’s all about ingredients and process.
Beer traditionally has four base ingredients: water, barley, yeast, and hops. The more ingredients you add—such as rice and corn—the lighter it will taste. But that also makes the recipe more difficult to replicate. And the need for quality ingredients makes it tough for companies to maintain consistency of taste.
“That level of quality control is huge,” Eckles said.
Before opening his family store, Eckles had a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Though he’s mainly focused on retail now, his knowledge of chemicals has helped him in crafting a business that’s largely about educating his customer base on how they might expand their tastes while also protecting themselves from the potential dangers of consuming drinks they might not have experienced before.
Eckles said he’s making it his mission to teach his customers how to read labels, not only for the sake of ingredients, but also for the alcohol content.
A standard light lager has an alcohol content of 4 ½-percent, Eckles said. But the highest percentage beer he sells in his store contains 18 percent alcohol.
He calls drinks like these stealth beers, “because they’ll sneak right up on you.”
Previously a toxicologist, Eckles explained, “I still deal in poisons.” Drinking these, you’ll get yourself in trouble in a hurry, he said.
But, that’s where education comes in.
“You have to make sure that you’re an educated consumer,” he said.
The store also sells gluten-free beers and ciders that either remove the gluten in the beer-making process or use alternative ingredients that never included wheat or gluten at all, such as rice.
“I’ve tried almost every beer in here,” Eckles said. “I try to make sure that I can speak intelligently about every beer in here.”
Since he and his family are still pretty new to the game, he said they’re trying hard to learn the business. His parents are former teachers, and his wife was a medical receptionist.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Eckles said. But they’re up for the challenge, and so far business is booming.
“I’m passionate about the American craft beer scene,” he said.
Eckles said the best part of America’s growing and changing craft beer industry is the variety. Even in areas of the world that have produced great beer for generations, Eckles said there was little choice in what to drink.
Looking for something different from the norm? “You go to the next town and hope,” he said.
But now, craft brewers are searching for something new. Eckles said that means quality and variety in the U.S. craft industry have never been better.
“There’s more people taking it more seriously now,” he added. More people are willing to challenge the tried and true process to see what they can come up with.
Eckles said there’s a “geeky science” to how the process of beer production works, so knowing that makes him excited to see what this new experimental industry of craft brewers will become.
For instance, he said India Pale Ales (IPAs) have long been known as hoppy, bitter beers, made from hops, a flowery plant that gives the beer different aromas and flavors based on when the hops are added during the steeping process.
But the new brut IPA is dry, like with wine, and doesn’t have as much sugar because the enzyme used in the process eats sugar that might not otherwise break down during the fermenting.
Another new beer craze, New England Style IPA, is the most recently sought-after among American craft beer brewers, Eckles said. And it’s a style that’s only three or four years old.
Eckles said the process of making this style of beer is like making tea, only with barley. Let it steep before adding in the hops.
Add them at the beginning, and the beer will be very bitter. Or, add them at the end after the boil to give the beer a good hoppy flavor that’s becoming more popular.
Regionally, Three Notch’d Brewing Co. in Charlottesville is taking off with their orangey Minute Man IPA, which ranked 10th on Draft Magazine’s national list of The 50 Best IPAs in America last year.
In the craft beer industry, various new style crazes are “all over the map,” Eckles said.
IPAs are traditionally light beers, but some places have made black IPAs, roasting barley to get the color and the roasted flavor. And it’s won over Eckles, who said this has become his favorite.
“Right now is the best time ever to be a beer drinker,” he said. “You’d never know a beer could taste like this.”
The Better Beer Store is located at 3349 Valley Pike, south of Winchester. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Beer tastings are from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday and 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 540-662-2337 or visit http://thebetterbeerstore.com.