A few weeks back, a young customer purposefully walked up to Tyler Anderson, the beer buyer at Zipps Liquors, a Minneapolis store known for its exhaustive selection of esoteric beers.

"He wanted to know where we kept our rare beer," Anderson recounted. "And I said, 'Just because it's rare doesn't mean it's better than anything else.'"

While wine connoisseurs have been around since Dom Perignon invented bubbly, they've got nothing on today's legion of beer geeks. For one, the brew crew is proud to wear the title.

"'Geek' is actually probably exactly the right word for a lot of us," said Gera Exire LaTour, who spends much of her spare time brewing at home, judging brewing contests and, of course, drinking obscure beers.

As their numbers have risen, so have the objects of their desire. More than 120 craft breweries opened nationwide last year, bringing the total to 1,716, according to the Brewers Association. There are now more U.S. breweries than at any time since the 1880s.

That raises a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Are there more craft beers because there are more beer geeks, or more beer geeks because there are more craft beers?

"There are certainly more people enjoying craft beer than there were five years ago," said Jason Alvey, owner of the boutique-beer shop Four Firkins in St. Louis Park. "And the beers are coming here because the market has exploded."

That explains why someone stopping at a local pub -- not necessarily a brew pub -- might hear debates about esters, wort and top-fermenting yeast.

"Anytime you get a gathering of beer geeks, there's a lot of hops talk," said Mark van Wie of the Muddy Pig, a St. Paul beer mecca that will add an Edina outlet this summer. "And there are bound to be long conversations about how this year's version of a beer compares to last year's -- like they can remember."

Still, purveyors pooh-pooh enthusiasts at their own peril.

"[With] the current culture of beer geekery, the knowledge base is just enormous," Anderson said. "They know the distributors and importers, where they source their malt and hops. For something so simple and so beautiful, it's amazing how technical and deep you can get."

It's a good week to be a beer geek in the Twin Cities, with the arrival of beers from the beloved Stone Brewing Co., including brews called Sublimely Self-Righteous and Ruination IPA. It's "probably the biggest craft-beer release we've ever seen," Anderson said. "People have wanted to get that here forever."

But in a sense, every week is good, at least when it comes to finding and sampling new beers. Four Firkins turns over about half its brands every week, Alvey said, meaning the 650 to 800 beers available this week will be markedly different from last week's inventory.

It's a far cry from the mid-1980s, when the Summit Brewing Co. and the brew pub Sherlock's Home opened up shop. They basically stood alone for a decade, until Van Wie and Sean O'Byrne launched the Great Waters brew pub in downtown St. Paul and a few unfamiliar beers started hitting retail shelves.

A spike in home brewing accompanied the gradual growth of craft breweries.

"They're the consumers who really did help get this where it is because of their desire to learn," said Corey Shovein, a sales manager at Woodbury distributor Hohensteins.

LaTour has been among those creating concoctions.

"I'm known for my eclectic use of ingredients, lots of herbs, rosemary, tarragon, beer with beets and allspice," she said. "I did a mead with celery, and a cream ale with cucumbers and dill that finished first at the State Fair."

The numbers tell the story. Home-brewing equipment and supply sales rose by 16 percent in 2009, according to the American Homebrewers Association. Sales of craft beer grew 10.3 percent in 2009 and 12 percent last year, even though overall beer sales fell slightly both years.

And the Internet is ablaze with reviews, postings and swaps of beers that are available only in limited areas.

"A lot of craft beer drinkers are sitting at home and looking out their window to see if their package has arrived from California," Shovein said. "And once they open it, they snap a picture and send it to friends to share their delicious beverage or simply state, 'Look what I'm drinking and you're not.'"

In what Bryant-Lake Bowl beverage manager Laura Preston calls "the beer world's own little culture," breweries such as Brooklyn Center-based Surly and Stone have developed cultish followings.

"People plan their vacations around what breweries they would like to see," Shovein said. "They fly in from all over the nation for Darkness Day at Surly or Three Floyds events in Indiana. The lines are staggering. It's like a tailgating party at a Judas Priest concert."

Retail outlets such as Four Firkins and St. Paul's Ale Jail now carry only craft beers, as do bars such as St. Paul's Happy Gnome and the Muddy Pig. With one exception: "We have Miller Lite on tap," Van Wie said, "for the people who don't really like beer."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643