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BOARDMAN, Ohio -- No beer geek could travel near Youngstown without stopping at the best beer store in the nation.
That's what users of ratebeer.com voted Vintage Estate Wine and Beer in Boardman, rating it 2009's No. 2 best beer retailer in the world, just after Ølbutikken in Copenhagen, Denmark. (The latest rankings, a product of reviews of 100,000 site users, just posted, moving Vintage Estate to No. 1; see related story.)
This place is a flashing red light on the craft brew radar, so I was excited to find it -- in a little strip mall just off Route 224 -- on a recent Saturday night.
I could barely get in the door.
Dozens of laughing, chatting people were packed in for the third-Saturday "Wine Taste" of six wines, plus appetizers, for $10. I had to peek around folks in line to see inside the beer coolers along one wall and the shelves of more bottles on the opposite wall.
I saw one of the owners, Phill Reda, but he was so busy helping and talking with customers I didn't even try to talk to him then. I grabbed a few unusual brews -- Philadelphia's Monks' Cafe Flemish Sour Ale from Belgium, a Crooked Tree IPA from Dark Horse in Marshall, Mich., and a bottle of Baird Beer's Rising Sun Pale Ale brewed at the base of Japan's Mt. Fuji -- as well as an unusual-to-me bottle of Alsatian pinot noir, and I headed back across the road to my hotel.
It remains illegal for regular Joe residents of Pennsylvania to bring in alcohol purchased in other states. But yes, lots of Pittsburghers shop here, says Mr. Reda, who lives in New Castle, Pa.
"You can understand why I have an appreciation for all the craft beer at great prices," says Mr. Reda, who worked in the wireless business before he and his wife, Sandy, bought the store in the fall of 2008. They've since greatly expanded selection to nearly 800 beer labels, not to mention 1,000-plus wines.
"My goal is to be up around 1,000" beers, he said over the phone later while checking out a Pittsburgh customer, "but I'm trying to be selective, too."
I didn't see tons of beers I haven't seen in Pittsburgh, and certainly not as many wines as a Pennsylvania specialty store, but it was nice to be able to pick from so many individual bottles or six-packs of beer and shop for wine at the same place, and the prices are good.
The ratebeer.com ranking was "a complete surprise," Mr. Reda said, and it was especially pleasing because ratebeer.com raters work independently.
The Redas also opened the adjacent V.E. Tasting Room, where you can sip from a dozen (soon to be 20) craft drafts ("No Crap on Tap") and 14 wines by the glass. You can even have them open a bottle from the store and munch hand-stretched flatbreads from the kitchen. But I couldn't even get in there for a proper look.
I will aim to get over there on April 24 when the store holds The Big Tap In, which Mr. Reda says will be the biggest beer fest between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. It is to feature some 40 regional brewers and as many food tables at the nearby Shepherd Event Center, a former Sam's Club. There'll be a VIP session ($60) from noon to 2 p.m. and a main one ($40) from 2 to 6 p.m., with proceeds benefiting the HandsOn Volunteer Network of the Valley. An event website is to be posted soon.
Bob Batz Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1930.