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Total Guide Spreads the Word on Beer

Rarely has one beer dinner changed the lives of so many beer drinkers.
Rob Hill Total Guide to Beer
Rob Hill (Photo credit.

When Rob Hill attended a special beer and wine dinner hosted by The Boston Beer Company at the Smith and Wollensky restaurant on Boston’s waterfront in 2006, he realized his drinking life needed a course correction. The president and co-founder of Boston Uncorked, an organization for wine enthusiasts, Hill discovered he had a palate for darker, maltier beers – and that beer could be a better accompaniment to fine food than wine.

Despite spending time developing an affinity for white wines in California during a career in the Navy and later as a software salesman and despite being engulfed in red wines once he moved to Boston, Hill voted for beer over wine in three of the five pairings presented that night at Smith and Wollensky.

“I didn’t know much about beer,” recalled Hill, who now oversees the beer sales at Total Wine & More. “Prior to that dinner in Boston, my memories of beer were more about my college days, travel overseas and typical American pale lagers.”

The beer versus wine faceoff dinner was filmed by Boston Beer and footage was used in a TV commercial, one that helped the Sam Adams brand change the perspective on American craft beer. For Hill, it was a life-altering event. Having never really taken to red wine in favor of the Chardonnays from California, he realized his imbibing life was finally in balance, telling himself, “I like white wine and dark beer.”

The circumstance soon led to a career-altering event. Once again his position as the president of a wine enthusiast organization led to an opportunity – this one to join Total Wine & More, where he anticipated his focus to be on wine. But that quickly changed to overhauling the presentation of beer in Total Wine’s chain of stores, which feature extensive selections of wine, spirits and beer.

“During the interview process I visited one of the Total Wine stores in Virginia.” said Hill. “I found this huge long wall of Chardonnay. Then we got to the beer aisle. I had never seen that much beer in one place in my life, nor had I ever seen such a large selection of single bottle beer where you could mix and match your own six-pack.

"It was an eye opener,” continued Hill. “I thought, ‘Wow this is awesome.’ Within 30 seconds I went from being amazed to being bewildered. All they had was the beers on the shelf and the little white tag stuck in the groove that gave the price. There was no description, nothing explaining what the beers were. You had all these colorful, crazy labels but in most cases they didn’t even say what kind of beer it was.

“I was looking at it as a relatively new consumer,” said Hill, “having only recently having entered the craft beer scene with an interest in the darker, maltier beer. Then the business hat went on. It seemed like there was a big opportunity here to help customers find their way through all this beer.”

Hill’s vision led to not only the re-imagining of how the beers were presented in the Total Wine & More stories, including groupings and detailed, descriptive labels. He wrote a large-scale pamphlet – or small book depending one’s perspective – titled TOTAL GUIDE TO BEER.

This new approach to beer has helped Total Wine, which was started by brothers David and Robert Trone after taking over their father’s beer store in Pennsylvania, achieve annual revenue of $1.75 billion.

“When I first arrived, a lot of ideas came to the fore and the company allowed me to experiment,” said Hill. “Before I knew it, everybody at the company started referring to me as the beer guy or the beer expert. But I wasn’t by any stretch. I was no beer expert. It kind of stuck. I really started to develop a lot more knowledge about beer. I was assigned to write a book, which became the TOTAL GUIDE TO BEER.”

The booklet, available at no charge in all the stores, is a key link in the Total Wine presentation. Written by Hill and starting with the history of brewing and the brewing process, it provides a detailed visual and prose look at beer styles. The full-color, perfect-bound booklet also contains chapters on food pairing, glassware, serving temperatures and a glossary. With a total of 200 pages, 800,000 of the guides have been printed and it recently became available for download on iTunes.

The booklet is written in a style that emulates the experience Hill and his team at Total Wine are trying to present at their stores. It’s approachable, welcoming, fun and interesting due to its breadth of knowledge and absence of pretention.

“There are certain subjects where you can read about it once and it just sticks,” said Hill. “There are other subjects that no matter how much you study and study, it just won’t penetrate the brain cells. I think this is true for everybody. For whatever reason, beer just came much more easily to me than a lot of other subjects, because I enjoyed it and it was interesting.

“That’s how I grew from being a wine guy to being the lead beer expert at a company with $1.75 billion in sales of wine, beer and spirits.”

One of the results of the booklet and store overhauls has been the doubling of sales of the single beers. It’s a reminder of the old K-mart announcements: attention beer samplers! “I think we have perfected single bottle selection,” said Hill. “Our beer aisles and the singles mix and match has become a place where people explore.”

For a former Naval officer, software salesman and a current wine aficionado, Hill has come a long way when it comes to beer – and helped changed the face of the industry.