Whole Foods Breaks New Ground with Craft Beer at Steep Brew

Slowly but surely, craft beer is pushing Miller, Coors, Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois farther and farther down the refrigerated beer section shelves. Not that long ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find any local craft beer beyond maybe Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Nowadays, even Safeway has some decent craft beer from Drakes, Lagunitas, Trumer and Speakeasy.
Whole Foods Market has for several years been on top of this trend, and was one of the few grocery stores where you stood any chance at all of running into Russian River's Pliny the Elder or Victory Prima Pils.
Buoyed by its success selling bottles of craft beer, Whole Foods opened a 16-tap pub in its store in the Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa. Emboldened by that achievement, Whole Foods went whole hog with the taproom in its Potrero Hill store in San Francisco, renovating the entire street-level floor into a combination 16-tap pub, wine bar, coffee bar and restaurant, called Steep Brew Taproom. Although Steep Brew has been open for several weeks, it “officially” opened last Friday, March 30 (pushing up the original grand opening by a week due to popular demand.)

The Neophyte's Dilemma
Steep Room addresses a dilemma that perpetually plagues people shopping for craft beer. They're bored with Bud and Corona, but the array of choices in the refrigerated beer section is so daunting and confusing that they end up grabbing a sixer of Stella Artois simply out of frustration. Steep Brew provides craft beer newcomers with an opportunity to discuss and sample some unfamiliar beers, confident that once they return home with their bottles they won't end up pouring them down the drain. And since Steep Brew is situated in the familiar, friendly confines of Whole Foods, people don't feel as intimidated as they would in, say, Toronado, Beer Revolution or Zeitgeist.
The concept will require a bit of shaking out to find the sweet spot with the neighborhood clientele, and some work remains to be done to coordinate the various moving parts and streamline the operation. But it looks like it could be a good investment for Whole Foods and may create a virtuous circle with the rest of the store. People might come in to do some shopping, decide to have (or share) a flight of four beers ($7 for four 4-ounce pours, three 8-ounce pours for $14), find a beer that they like and stash a few bottles in the cart while they're shopping. And since Steep Brew also features a very nice kitchen and pizza oven, a customer could sample a flight of tasters with, say, an arugula pizza with truffle oil to experiment with food and beer pairings (Almanac's Winter Wit paired very nicely with that particular pizza).
It might take Steep Brew a little while to triangulate with the Potrero Hill beer and food palate, but this pub ultimately could become a destination not only for shoppers, but for neighborhood workers enjoying a glass of session beer with their lunch, as well as people who just like good beer.
Although Steep Brew represents a certain amount of risk, I think it's a risk well worth taking. After all, Whole Foods has staked its reputation on high-quality produce, baked goods, meats and fish, all sourced locally whenever possible. What could be more natural than letting customers taste craft beer from both up-and-coming local brewers like Almanac, Dying Vines and Pacific Brewing Labs, and established San Francisco brewers such as Anchor and Magnolia? And what could be more fun than chatting with the brewers and learning how they execute the alchemy of transforming grain into liquid deliciousness.
But don't take my word for it. Stop into Steep Brew, order a sampler or a pint, and ask beer manager Wesley Anderson anything you want to know about beer. Before you realize it, you'll discover that there's a whole lot more to beer than Blue Moon or Corona.

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