At the top of the escalators leading out of New York City's Grand Central Station, there was once an amazing newsstand.
Thirty years ago, back in the analog days when the world wasn't instantly available at all times via cell phone or laptop, this newsstand was only one place I knew of where you could find the same rich flow of international information that you might find these days, logged on and connected. It was the size of a small bookstore and absolutely crammed with a fresh harvest of the latest newspapers and magazines from faroff, exotic places.
After a day in the city, my family would often stop there before taking the train home to the suburbs. Usually I left with a few obscure movie or monster magazines under my arm, but what I most enjoyed was the sense that I was getting a glimpse of what the rest of the world was reading any given week. The stand was full of odd customers in search of obscure periodicals and foreigner readers scanning alien typefaces.
The place is probably still there—the last time I checked it was —but in these digital days, even as a newspaper man myself, I've felt its lure diminish.
But when I first stepped inside Easthampton's TrüBeer I was reminded of that newsstand's polyglot approach and attention to detail. Suddenly my winter didn't look so bleak or my dining options so meager.
The goal of owner Sam Braudis and partner Tyson Holub is simple: assemble a store with as many high-quality, interesting beers from U.S. brewers as they can. It's possible to leave TrüBeer with only one variety of beer, but it's unlikely that you will. The shop clerks have a few cold six packs in their coolers—Smuttynose India Pale Ale (IPA), Narragansett lagers, and a couple of High & Mighty varieties are regularly stocked—but most of their inventory is arrayed on the shelves in single bottles. They recommend you fill an empty six pack with your own selection. They're willing and able to offer suggestions, but you'll want to browse on your own, too.
The shelves are lined with large quantities of beer, labels displaying exciting titles and alluring art. Instead of being arranged by brewer, Braudis organizes his titles by genre. There are two large sets of shelves devoted to thrilling IPAs, and a corner set aside for mysterious stouts. There are shelves full of well-traveled porters, lighter ales for midday study, fruit beers and more.
Far away from the hub of culinary delights that is Manhattan, here is a place every bit the equal of the kind of beverage emporium you might find in the metropolis. But this place is 10 minutes away from my door, rather than two hours.
TrüBeer opened earlier this fall.
It's located in Easthampton, just down the hill from the downtown traffic circle on Northampton Street. A travel agency used to be there, bearing the world's least exotic sign advertising cruises to the world's most exotic places. The handsome TrüBeer sign that replaced it announces upcoming beer events and tastings. The store is tucked away from the road. Its front door is the side door to the house. The driveway looks out over the Department of Public Works' gravel pit.
Ever since it opened, I'd heard promising things about the new place in the Valley with a great selection of beers. Still—maybe it was the umlaut—I was dubious of the rumors. It all sounded like a tune I'd heard before. Beer nobody else had? Yeah. As if.
I thought I had a pretty good handle on the beer selection across the Valley.
Unless it's brewed locally—and we are blessed with many fine breweries up and down the river—what a store sells is limited to what distributors make available to it. Of course some stores offer a better variety than others, and there are often surprises on the shelves to keep us guessing, but on the whole it's like listening to a radio station: the same songs and the same artists have a habit of showing up.
I knew there were many great beers out there in cities far away and on the other coast, but apart from enjoying them on tap in some of the area's beer bars, a finite selection was available in any of the area's package stores. There were many fine beers I would never enjoy in the comfort of my own home. I'd learned to accept these limitations.
Why would anyone want to challenge my beer reality with visions of a cloud cuckoo land that I knew could not exist?
A few weeks ago, I stopped by late one Saturday to check Tr?Beer out for myself. A glimpse was all I was expecting it would take to assess (and dismiss) the store's lofty claims.
When I showed up, the Internet connection was knocked out by the freak October blizzard, and Braudis was only able to deal in cash that day (his cable has been mercifully fixed since). After discussing my tastes, he helped me select $20 worth of beers I'd never brought home before. All were good, some excellent.
He insisted on Ithaca Brewing's Flower Power IPA, and I'm glad I bought two. With a pungent nose and a satisfyingly citrusy hops slurp, it became a new favorite after only a sip.
I also grabbed two Bengali Tigers by Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn. I'd enjoyed this beer on tap at the Northampton Brewery and the Dirty Truth a couple times, but I couldn't pin down what I liked about it so much. Not a typical IPA, it had a darker complexion. Like its flavor, the beer was elusive. Whenever I returned for further study, the Tiger was tapped and the beer was off the chalkboard. Imagine my delight when Tr?Beer had the shiny aluminum pint cans stocked on the shelves. The phantom flavor I'd been hunting? A foundation of sweet malt to counteract the bitterness of the hops.
At home, standing outside in the crisp winter air, feeding a fire made from the limbs that had fallen in our yard, I shared my six pack of treasures with my wife and neighbors. As aspiring epicures, we reflected on the bounty of fine food and drink available within our reach right here in the Valley.
I returned to TrüBeer the next day and have been back two or three times since. So far, my favorites are usually available, but I make sure to wander outside my safety zone, browsing and buying from unfamiliar shelves. Of course, I like some better than others, but I've never had a dud. I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of what the store has to offer.
I'd been wrong. All the rumors were true.
Depending on which week he's interviewed, Braudis has been quoted as having between 460 and 550 brews available on his well-organized and clearly marked shelves. Like the New York city newsstand, his product is best enjoyed as fresh as possible and is only produced in limited runs.
Like every other package store, TrüBeer is limited by what distributors can procure for its shelves. But it seems Braudis has inspired more than just this thirsty beer reviewer—the distributors he works with have apparently been going the extra mile to find him obscure microbrews. He told me a couple of stories of stray cases of rare and wonderful limited runs that have made it to his shelves only to be snapped up in a single greedy purchase.
Every time I've visited over the past few weeks, the inventory's been a bit different, but I'd say I never recognize more than a quarter of it. The small parking lot is often brimming to capacity with cars, and several times I've heard grateful patrons declare their allegiance and nominate themselves to do the store's publicity.
Turns out, I wasn't the only one who was wrong about TrüBeer.
"I had $50,000," Braudis said during one of my recent visits. Part of the money came from savings after years as a manager at Paradise Copies in Northampton and part from the investment of a small group of friends and colleagues. "I wanted a bank loan that would match that amount, but they all turned me down. Many of the loan officers I spoke to all thought it was a great idea, but it never got past them. People thought it was a crazy business plan."
Undeterred, he scaled back his initial ambitions and did as much of the work of furnishing the space as possible with help from family and friends. The result is a warm, well-lit beer boutique that transports literate beer patrons into a well-curated library of libations.
Braudis says his selection is guided partly by his tastes, partly by what's available, and partly by what sells. "I can speak for my stock," he said.
When asked if there was a brewer he purposely didn't stock, Braudis replied, "Harpoon." After we shared a moment cringing in disgust, he added, "But we've also got some of the specialty and seasonal beers from Sam Adams."
While he agreed the Boston-based brewer was largely responsible for the American beer renaissance that has made a store like his possible, Braudis wondered if Sam Adams, America's biggest brewer, was now working at cross purposes with the craft beer movement by depending more on marketing and gimmickry than quality. Still, Sam Adams sells well.
During my first visit, Braudis was most excited about a double Indian pale ale called Gandhi-Bot that came in a can emblazoned with a drawing of a Mahatma automaton. A few cases had been found in a warehouse somewhere, and a distributor thought of the weird little place in Easthampton. On a subsequent visit, there were bright yellow bottles of a super hoppy IPA from Wormtown Brewing in Worcester.
Some of the beers Braudis offers are for sale elsewhere, but nowhere else is anyone willing to hazard a guess as to whether I'll like it.
The only drawback I've encountered is that with most of the TrüBeer inventory sitting on shelves at room temperature, the beers need to be chilled when you get them home. This can sorely test the patience of an excited beer discoverer.
"If you want to call 20 minutes ahead," Braudis offered, "we'd be happy to put a case in the fridge for you."
He's also got an eye on legislation on Beacon Hill which, if passed, will allow licensed stores to sell draft beer from the spigot into growlers. Fresh, cold beer into the glass jugs I bring from home: imagine that.
And partner Tyson Holub is working on an online database where regular patrons can keep track of beers they've been drinking, what's available and what's coming.
My prediction for this coming winter? More and more beer lovers like myself will be driving toward Easthampton to slake their thirst for fine brews. If you can, please leave me a Bengali Tiger.