999 BOTTLES OF BEER Plus a few more at Nikki's.
I spend a lot of time in liquor stores (hey, it's in the job description). And, while prepping next week's spectacular Best issue (come to the Awards Show at Fête on 4.11 — there will be free samples of Revival's beers!), I spent way too much time thinking about what would constitute The Best Beer Store (if I had a beer for every time the word "Best" was said in the office the last coupla weeks, I could open my own bottle shop). Here's the list of the features that yield Retail Beer Bliss.
Most places are haphazard. And with the proliferation of new brands and releases, and the limits of shelf/cooler/walk-in space, that's understandable: "Squeeze this in over there." It's better to have a plan. Some stores group beers by geography: East Coast, West Coast, New England, Europe, etc. Nikki's and Wines & More, among others (though the latter needs to move the Widmer Brothers from the New England aisle to the West Coast). I'd suggest that stores emulate the Total Wine chain: they arrange six/four-packs alphabetically by brand, and rack singles/bombers by style across the aisle.
BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER
There are a lot of beers out there; about 150 breweries distribute their wares in Rhode Island (Massachusetts has about 250). If you want to peruse a Vast, Huge, Sprawling Array of Beer — perhaps a Confoundingly Astounding Beer Selection — head to Yankee Spirits or the superstore Julio's in semi-nearby Westborough, MA. But a well-chosen and varied selection at smaller stores is usually all you need (and doesn't hurt your brain). Be true to your local packies for go-to favorites, and save the beer immersion trips for the weekends.
SPOTLIGHT THE NEW
There are new brands and releases every week. But too many stores make the new stuff difficult to find ("Squeeze this in over there"). Beer geeks know what's coming out (they've been haunting the forums on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer). Folks curious about craft offerings will be attracted by the word "NEW!" (it's Pavlovian). The better stores have a shelf or rack or table or area trumpeting their New Arrivals. There's something to be said about making it a treasure hunt to find the new stuff ("Hmm, that Founders I just read about should be around here somewhere . . ."), but getting new beer shouldn't devolve into a game of Where's Waldo?
MIX IT UP
Mix-a-six options are fantastic: you can sample new releases, explore unexplored styles, etc., without committing to a six-pack. Your best options for mixing are at Nikki's (they have it all), I.M. Gan, Wines & More (they have singles at the head of each geographical aisle), unlike the sprawling jumble that's found at most stores, High Spirits (lotsa great deals there), Bottles, People's Liquor Warehouse, and a new mix-a-sixer, Haxton's on West Shore Road in Warwick, which has a modest selection but earns kudos for having all of their singles in the cooler (last week they had singles of Green Flash's new Palate Wrecker, a delightful mega-hoppy 9.5% ABV double IPA, for $3.50 — quite a deal since it's priced at $15/four-pack at most stores).