Fritz and Maria's Beer Column
"You are probably meant to be talking to my boss," laughed Raymond Nicholson when we showed up to Richmond Fresh Choice to interview him. According to Raymond, store owner Gary Watson is the real beer fanatic and he's just doing what he's told.
No question Gary is a bit of a beer nut, and it has been obvious on the shelves of his supermarket for a while. But it's only since Raymond joined the team in April that the beer community has really started buzzing about this location, so that's why we chose to interview Raymond.
It's a funny combination, this shy humility in someone with almost aggressively friendly customer service skills. He certainly doesn't mind talking to people, and he shared several stories of approaching strangers in his beer aisle to give them beer tourism tips or a surprise gift.
In our own experience, we suspect he has either ESP or an "eye in the sky" because we're never browsing for more than a couple of minutes before he pops out to say hello.
But try asking him about his beer background, and he gets a bit nervous. On paper, maybe it doesn't look like a lot with just two years in liquor retail prior to this job, but he discounts over 10 years managing clubs in the North Island before that.
Was there any craft beer back then? "Hell no! It wasn't even in the vocabulary!" He knew about Tuatara while working in the Horowhenua, but wouldn't have been much involved with it.
In his view he came to Nelson for the lifestyle, got a job as a wine merchant, and quickly got corrupted by his boss into someone who now proudly curates one of the best beer selections on the island.
"People from Christchurch come in and their eyes sort of roll around a bit trying to take in all the choices," said Raymond, eyebrows raised in surprise and amusement.
When we asked how he does it, again, he tried to say that Gary does the research, but when we probed a bit further we confirmed our suspicions that he isn't a passive passenger in this.
His expertise becomes apparent with how quickly he identified that certain customers like novelty and usually they like hops, "something with a bit more grunt about it."
So now he scours for lists from his suppliers for anything that sounds similar to his best sellers, or sounds completely new and different.
And he's on a mission to keep educating himself about craft beer.
He went to Wellington to attend the Certificate in the Craft of Beer workshop developed by the Brewers Guild of New Zealand. While he had hoped to come home with more knowledge about beer styles and food pairing, he says the resource kit has been very useful. "I have customers asking for food pairing information all the time, so now I'm just hanging out for a laptop out on the floor so I can look things up for customers," he said, eyes flashing with excitement.
Also, he and Gary both will make every effort to source any beer that a customer asks for. And this is no mean feat - he has his main suppliers, but when dealing with small batch producers it can be very hard to maintain a continuous supply.
So, if necessary he works with a brewery directly to ensure they are getting their orders filled. He told of chasing up one brewer and then his father to get beer by 6pm for a customer heading off on their holidays, as if that was just part of the job.
And going beyond normal efforts extends into customer education as well. He found that doing craft beer tastings in store every evening for two weeks in November worked really well. While his core job is geared more toward the wine, he finds there is quite a lot of excitement about beer.
The store also recently hosted their first Craft Beer Evening event, a very enjoyable evening with Andy Deuchars talking about his Rennaissance beers and Cafe on Oxford catering an outstanding food pairing menu. "Yeah, it's not our core business, but we feel we've done reasonably well."
Raymond explained that the goal was not about making money, but to cover the catering cost and provide an experience and education for their customers. This allowed them to set a pricepoint that ensured a sellout, and they are looking to finding a time to schedule another.
While knowledge of beer is important, it's this exceptional customer focus that sets Raymond apart. In spite of his knowledge already extending to new breweries we haven't heard of, he will never be comfortable with the focus being on his preferences or experience.
For Raymond, what the customer likes is paramount. He stated definitively that he didn't ever anticipate a shortage of new offerings.
As the complexity of choosing the right beer approaches that of choosing a good wine, it's awfully nice to have your own guide and coach at the local supermarket.