What would you do for a beer? Anticipate researched release dates, purchase expensive tickets ahead of time, travel across state lines, wait in unnervingly long lines, set up trades, bid on eBay, pay for shipping, anxiously await (hopefully undamaged) bottles in the mail?
Most of us would scoff at this notion and head to the closest convenience/liquor store. Boom. Done. Beer in hand. But then there are the select few that go to great lengths for that special blend of malted barley, hops, water, and yeast.
Mind you, these beers obviously aren’t your typical fizzy, yellow light beer. They are rare releases, seen by few, and procured by fewer. Often they are then aged for months or years and opened only on the specialist of occasions. Like an aged Scotch, a vintage wine, or rare champagne, these beers are not for everyday consumption.
So what kinds of beers are they? Typically Imperial/Double Stouts, Barley Wines, Sour/Wild Ales, Belgian Strong Ales (usually referred to as “Quads”), and Double/Imperial India Pale Ales (DIPA’s). These beers traditionally have the biggest, boldest flavors, whether from using a massive amount of malted barley and/or hops or “untraditional” yeast strains. Also, it is common for some of these beers to be barrel-aged. Read more about that here.
Not to pigeon-hole fellow craft beer lovers, but the craft beer community as a whole waters at the mouth for these beers, especially when they are released seasonally or annually (or even less frequently or only once, period!). They will trade, pay outlandish prices, and travel across the country just for a few ounces of specialized beer.
And the scary thing is that brewery owners know this. They know that if they are competent enough to make an amazing beer that people will seek out, they hold a golden ticket. They can limit the production of the brew, charge whatever they want, and make it a brewery-only release – that is, the beer is sold only at the brewery, whether in bottles or draught-only. Some may call shenanigans. Others call it basic, supply-and-demand business tactics.
Consider this. Portsmouth Brewery, out of Portsmouth, NH, annually brews a 12% ABV Russian Imperial Stout called “Kate the Great.” Every year, the release draws beer advocates from all over the country who camp out to get a taste of the beer. In fact, N.H. Gov. John Lynch declared March 7 as “Kate the Great Day.” This year, instead of releasing to the general public, Portsmouth Brewery went with a lottery style drawing, allowing luck and fate to decide who got to try the beer. They sold 10,000 scratch tickets, which sold out in less than two days; out of these 10,000, there were only 900 winning tickets. Anyone holding a winning ticket was able to enter the release at the brewery to purchase the beer. Sound shrewd? Maybe. But, proceeds of $20,000 went to local charities.
Unfortunately, some people take matters into their own hands with such special releases. These rare beers are often spotted on eBay or other sites sold at outlandish prices, or they are held as “trade bait,” using the rarity of the beer as ammunition in order to acquire other beers. Of course, there’s nothing morally wrong going on here, as trades and sales are agreed upon by the consumer; however, such matters can leave a sour taste in the mouths of people who are unable to afford the upcharge of these “middle men.” Thus increasing the hype of said beers.
In fact, this is one of the reasons that Russian River Brewing Co. out of Santa Rosa, CA has made their annually-released DIPA, “Pliny the Younger,” a draught-only-no-growler release. This means that not only do they not bottle the beer, but they no longer sell growlers (1/2 gallon glass jugs to go). So the beer can only be consumed at the brewery. This way, nobody can sell the beer outside of the brewery, and no one will end up with a sub-par, oxidized, or under-carbonated version of the beer. While this strategy does maintain the integrity and freshness of the annual release, it also increases the rarity, difficulty of attainment, and resulting hype of the beer.
So, is hype of a beer a good thing? Ultimately, that’s up to the individual consumer; after all, nobody is forcing anyone to go to the extreme lengths of acquiring “hyped” beers. There are often times plenty of reasonably good, if not great, beers within easy enough reach available to the beer connoisseur. But to some, hype is half the fun. Road trips, meeting new people at releases, and sampling other great beers from breweries during their rare releases all make the experience entertaining and worthwhile. So…to each his own.