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Keyport cave offers hundreds of craft brews

Nick Casper stocks craft beer on the shelves of the Keyport Liquor's new Craft Beer Cave on Wednesday. The space holds more than 400 different craft beers from throughout the nation, including 14 Wisconsin brews and beers from Lake Superior Brewing Co. in Duluth. (Maria Lockwood)

Nick Casper will be the first to admit he has a craft beer obsession. So the manager of Keyport Liquor lobbied for a "Craft Beer Cave," which open two weeks ago at the store. If public response is any indicator, Casper isn't the only enthusiast in town.

"Our craft beer is going through the roof," he said.

To be labeled a craft beer, the brewer has to have an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less, according to the Brewers Association, a nationwide organization. That leads to a dizzying variety of brews.

"You can always find something different," Casper said.

It's not all dark beer. Some brews are pale; others are flavored with berries, hints of coffee, bourbon or cinnamon. Craft beer can come in traditional cans, bottled six-packs or tall wine-like bottles.

The appeal of craft beers lie in great taste and originality, said Dan Bart, production manager for Lake Superior Brewing Company in Duluth. The microbrewery, for example, produces four year-round beers and six different seasonal brews.

"Once you try craft beer, I don't think you'll want to go back to domestic beer," Bart said.

For Jack Herer of Superior, craft beer is something to be enjoyed, not slammed. While shopping at Keyport Wednesday, he said it was nice to see such a wide selection available. The "Craft Beer Cave" consists of eight cooler doors and a walk-in space loaded with more than 400 different beers, from Oscar Blues' "Old Chub" and Victory's "Storm King" to the Duluth-born taste of Lake Superior Brewing.

Not only does Keyport have a huge selection, it's easy to browse.

"You walk into a room with over 300 six-pack varieties all around you," Bart said. "The toughest part of the job is making a decision."

The stock is ever-changing and the liquor store welcomes requests for new brews to carry, Casper said.

It is a big space to devote to one niche of the liquor business, but it's a growing slice of the pie, according to Keyport owner Mark Casper. Craft brewing has risen over the past 15 years from one percent of the overall beer market to almost six percent in 2011, according to the Brewers Association, and craft beer sales for the first half of 2012 were up by 14 percent.

"It seems to have broad market appeal," Mark Casper said. Customers to the cave include men and women, people of retirement age and college students. New faces have shown up at the liquor store, drawn to the craft beer section. Often, Nick Casper will hear them say: "It's about time."

People are looking for craft beer, he said, so Keyport strives to be the destination for it.

Keyport Liquor, 1900 Belknap St., is open from 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

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