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Once a corner store, now a beer emporium

At Ales Unlimited, 80 percent of the inventory is devoted to limited-production beer.

SPIRITS | Chris Barnett

Ales Unlimited, the neighborhood store on the corner of Webster and Jackson, stocks more than 900 beers and ales on its shelves and in its coolers. And owners Steve and Betty Smith don’t cater to the couch potato crowd or the party-throwers who buy six-packs of a mass-manufactured bland brand for backyard bacchanalia.

The couple would much rather sell a single 12-ounce bottle of Rigor Mortis ABT, inspired by beer made by Belgian Trappist monks and brewed only once a year. Steve will recommend that you slowly savor, not quaff, this barely bitter beer that is intensely malty with a complex sweetness of chocolate, caramel, red fruit and spice. The cost is $6.95 for a beer scoring 99 percent from ratebeer.com. His counsel is on the house.

Ales Unlimited is more than a Never Never Land for passionate lovers of rare ales and craft beers. While 80 percent of the inventory is devoted to limited-production domestic and foreign brews, much of the store is filled with unusual wines you won’t find in most other liquor stores. And some of the stock is the more popular premium spirits and one-of-a-kind American bourbons, ryes, gins and Scotch whiskies in unique sizes. Example: The alehouse sells a half-pint and a “tenth” — 375 ml — of Grey Goose vodka for someone who might want a short shot before the cocktail hour.

And here’s something that could take the edge off a tough day or make an unforgettable gift: a fifth of Death’s Door gin made from wild juniper berries, coriander and fennel, priced at $39.95. At 94 proof, garnished with a poisoned olive, a chilled martini could find its way into the next James Bond script as the perfect final cocktail for his next archenemy’s last supper.

“A customer walks in here and wants something unique, rare or very difficult to find,” Steve Smith says.

That pretty much describes the stock of the shop itself. But only recently has it had any personality. From what Smith has unearthed from city records, the 900-square-foot retail space was built in 1900 as part of a structure that includes a Victorian home and four flats. All are still standing; the Smiths live in one of the flats.

Photograph of Ales Unlimited co-owner Betty Smith by Erik Anderson

He contends the space is the oldest existing corner store in the area and says it opened as the Pacific Heights Market around 1920. A sepia-tinted photo displayed inside the front door shows two stout women standing in front of canned goods and behind bushel barrels piled high with fruit.

When the Smiths bought the space three years ago, Steve says it was in a shabby state, a “visual thorn in everyone’s side in the neighborhood.” And back then, the new entrepreneurs had no real retailing experience.

“We had lived in Dublin for 12 years where I was setting up call centers for Gateway Computers,” he says. “Then I was importing wheels and suspension systems from Europe to the U.S. for Mercedes, Audi and BMW and building and modifying show cars.”

He adds: “One day we asked ourselves what we could do that was different, and started looking around to buy a little store.”

Originally, Betty Smith thought the Webster and Jackson location would make a good neighborhood coffee shop, but Steve disagreed. “Why would we want to go up against Starbucks and all the other coffee shops down on Fillmore?” he asked. Another idea was rejuvenating and upgrading the grocery store, stocking it with more imported foods and delicacies that would appeal to the appetites of sophisticated neighbors. Smith liked the thought of catering to a well-traveled clientele but was wary. “When we lived in Europe, corner markets were always going down the drain,” he says. And having Mollie Stone’s, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s not far away wasn’t exactly comforting.

“But when you have a great neighborhood, you listen to your neighbors and they had been so neglected for so long, we decided to keep it as a grocery store and upgrade the quality of everything,” Smith says. Striking up conversations with customers, the Smiths asked for suggestions of what they would like to see on the shelves.

Photograph of Ales Unlimited by Erik Anderson

“I can tell you they weren’t asking for Budweiser,” he says. “They wanted Belgian beers and, of course, German beers — maybe because the German Consulate is just up the street.”

Globetrotting neighbors would come home and ask the grocers if they could find a delightful drink they had in Heidelberg or Hawaii. It dawned on them that most of the requests were libational, especially small-batch ales and beers rather than canned, frozen, packaged foods. Then the light bulb — make it a klieg light — went on.

“We realized then it was all or nothing and focused on nothing but specialty brands — and only the rarest of the rare ales, beers, wines and liquors,” he says. The only foods that survived the cut were items that could be speared on a toothpick or floated in a cocktail.

The Smiths transformed 2398 Webster into an ale emporium, with its 15-foot ceiling, two new gleaming chrome and glass coolers and handsome wooden shelves. The store is festooned with discreet neon signs for different ales that would make any collector salivate. Aisles are narrow but easily navigated. And Steve and Betty are on the job seven days a week, skillfully answering questions on ale and food and wine pairings and pointing out which whiskies would make a velvety smooth Manhattan.

Ales Unlimited’s customers are also good sources for tips on what to quaff.

“I started out drinking Coors Light in college,” says Dave Mickle, a recent visitor to the shop. His palate these days is quite discriminating and he said the best ale in the store for the money is Grimbergen Double Ale, brewed in Belgium and sold here for $2.99.

Photograph of Ales Unlimited by Erik Anderson

For those thirsty for a stout, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout brewed by North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg is $2.49. Or for something hoppy and malty, try St. Feuillien Triple at $299 for a nine liter bottle. But check first to make sure it’s on the shelf; another customer drives in regularly from Sacramento to stock up.

Christine Gardner, who walked in purposefully one recent afternoon, raves about the wine selection. “This is the only place in town where I’ve found a wine I really love to drink,” she says. Her discovery? The Stuhlmuller Vineyards estate chardonnay from Alexander Valley, $22.95.

Too bad the Smiths can’t squeeze in a couple of stools and section off a mini tasting area. As it happens, they have the same idea. And so do a couple hundred neighbors who’ve recently signed a petition lobbying for just that. Stay tuned.