Beer Hype: A Double-Edged Sword

You’ve heard the names ad nauseum in the craft beer world. Darkness, Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, etc, etc, etc. These are beers crafted in (necessarily) small batches from very well-respected breweries. They have dates on the calendar dedicated to their releases. They are the subjects of post after post (after post, after post) on beer-related internet fora. They can command sums 10 times their purchase price on eBay. And that’s all awesome. It’s great to see that type of interest in craft beer.

But these beers are also sources of alienation, consternation and anger. People who wait in line for hours for them are nonetheless precluded from purchasing them. People who wake up early and hit “refresh” constantly on a website to obtain release day tickets are shut out by those with faster internet connections. Those less fortunate inevitably take to the internet to call out the brewery or bar that wasn’t able to get them the beer they so desperately desired. It’s a bad situation for all involved.

There is no beer that exemplifies this dichotomy of experience better than Pliny the Younger. The Triple IPA produced by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA seems to have a life of its own. Those who are able to obtain it feel as though the clouds have parted, bathing them in the light of the divine. Those who are unable, well, let’s just say they don’t feel that way.

Getting the beer usually involves a long wait in a line outside of a bar that has previously announced the date and time at which the beer will be tapped. This is where the problem starts. In this case, the demand far outstrips the supply. If the bar is lucky, the 5-gallon keg it gets will serve around 55-60 people (and that’s a BIG maybe). When faced with a line of 100+, there is no avoiding the fact that some people are going to walk away disappointed.

But how disappointed ought they be? That depends on a number of factors. The first that ought to be noted is the transparency of the establishment serving the beer. The bar runs the risk of losing some business by telling people that everyone past “Person X” in line won’t get the beer. However, one could argue that a lot more business is lost in pissed off customers if someone waits in line without knowing how much beer there is to go around.

Assuming the bar has told those waiting that there are “x” number of pours available, then the patrons are able to make an informed decision. If people still get angry, it’s because the specter of entitlement has reared its ugly head. Somewhere along the line, a number of beer geeks (a term I generally employ affectionately) decided that they should have access to every beer they desire. When they are shut out, they use any number of disparaging terms for the brewery, bar or proprietor in question. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Either way, objectivity is usually tossed out the window.

And this is the real issue with beer hype. On the one hand, it’s great to see a bunch of interest in craft beer. The mere fact that people would wait for hours to obtain a single beer is testament to the ever-growing popularity of the product. On the other hand, such hype leads to a host of unintended consequences.

For neophytes who are just getting into craft beer, the difficulty of dealing with such releases paints a skewed picture of the industry. Craft beer isn’t about hunting down the rarest of the rare (for most). Rather, it’s about being able to drink flavorful beer produced by someone who really cares about it. It’s about supporting an industry that gives a damn about its customers. But if your experience of the industry begins and ends with waiting in line for Pliny the Younger, you probably won’t be around for long if you aren’t able to obtain any.

For those who are already full-fledged enthusiasts, the view also becomes skewed. Sure, Pliny the Younger is a wonderful beer. It is clearly world class, and probably the best in its “style.” However, there are a ton of other beers that are probably as good, or at least close, that can be readily obtained. No lines. No disappointment. No reason to be pissed off. Also, there’s something to be said for discovering the next awesome beer rather than braving the masses to drink one that everyone already knows is good. This part of the chase gets lost in the hype.

There is no elegant solution for this issue. The brewers literally can’t make enough of their most hyped beers. If they are higher in alcohol or sour (and they usually are), they just take too long to make. In order to produce more, the brewery would have to sacrifice its financial wellbeing and also its core brands in the process. Understandably, they’d rather a lot of people enjoy beer they can readily produce than appease a few more myopic rare beer chasers.

So it comes down to this. If you go chasing a beer like Pliny the Younger, know what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll wait in a long line. You may not get the beer. But look on the bright side. You’ll be at a beer bar. There will be other awesome stuff to drink. And you’ll be around a lot of like-minded individuals. If you don’t chase after it, you can take solace in the huge world of incredible beer that is otherwise currently available. The explosion of craft beer in America has made it possible for most to obtain a world-class beer merely by stepping down to the local bottle shop. So go take that trip and revel in how lucky you are to live in a world where it’s ridiculously easy to find great beer.

19 responses to “Beer Hype: A Double-Edged Sword

  1. Fantastic post, Mr. Davis. I could not have said it any better if I had tried.

    Okay, maybe there are a few things I want to say… since we all know I love standing on my little soapbox.

    The rare beer craze has had a negative backlash in my life. The crazy hype, the arrogance of the brewers, the arrogance of the beer snobs, and the overall “have vs. the have-not” mentality has really discouraged me from seeking these beers. I am from the “camp” where I believe beer should not be pretentious and intimidating, that it should be approachable and easy to find. Whereas some of these beers are really extraordinary when I do finally get to taste them, the inaccessibility and rarity of the beers actually turns me off and, unless I have a friend or find a way to taste it, I don’t actively seek them out.

    Don’t get me wrong, I used to be one of those geeks on the hunt for rare beers — but then I just got tired of the game. Too much money, too much arrogance — and for what? Nothing really worth writing home about.

    And then there are the rare beers that I personally don’t like. The ones I taste and think to myself, oh man… why would anyone stand on line for 4 hours in the snow and pay up the nose for this beer?

    Me, I’d take a locally brewed sessionable Death and Taxes any day over something over-hyped :) Just saying…

    Cheers,

    Ash

    PS: Love you! And miss your face!

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  3. You both have great points. Last year I was lucky enough to try PtY twice. Was it great, yes but was it life changing…dumb question. Do to prior commitments and work, I may miss out on PtY this year. I will be bummed… for a minute, but there is so much cool stuff to try that it’s just not worth getting caught up in the hype.

  4. Many said, “beer geeks” fall victim to hype. I see it all the time, and I’m not going to try to change their ways. PtY is a good beer, but not worth the wait, personally, (I actually love their rarer sours…but admittedly wouldn’t wait in a line that doesn’t move in the cold for them) so I don’t much care that I’m probably not going to get to try it this year.

    What DOES aggravate me is that those who feel the need to camp out for a smidge of it congest the bars from normal patrons; turning a usually low-key, fun, unpretentious beer joint into the main floor of the NY stock exchange…or the mosh pit of a Justin Beiber concert (do Justin Beiber concerts have mosh pits?).

    This aggravates me for 2 reasons: 1) it makes it difficult for regular patrons to enjoy a cozy beer without being bulldozed by a group of too-eager beer snobs, and 2) WHERE WERE THESE PEOPLE BEFORE THIS BEER GOT TAPPED.

    I love craft beer and I have a deep respect for a lot that Russian River (in particular, their sours) does…but at this point, I probably consider myself in the camp of beer drinkers that puts the bar that makes these beers available than simply the name of a beer that everyone on Beer Advocate would shoot their grandmother in the foot in order to get their meaty little paws on.

    I’m more bitter than PtY. And you can only get me at the brewery.

  5. It’s sad to see people get mad over PtY. Friends getting mad at friends, people storming out without having a single beer. The ugly side of the hype-machine. Undermines the mission statement of the craft beer culture: meet good people, drink good beer, have a good time.

  6. I don’t have the time at the moment to read the previous comments but I just wanted to say good post… and I believe that there needs to be an adjustment with most peoples expectations, and the transparency of the bars distributing…

    in regard to my search of epic beer… I have succeeded more than I have failed, and when I have failed, normally there is a shrug of the shoulders and then consumption of other beer. One time I was annoyed and moderately miffed though… but it wasn’t about me not getting the beer, it was about the environment and the process which I believed was just set up to fail from the beginning… So again it wasn’t that I was miffed about not getting the beer, it was just that I was miffed with what was (in my opinion) a bad process. But then again maybe my expectations of less experienced establishments should be lowered… well, I guess, since then it has been…

    Anyways Monday is when I am going to go get PyT, and I will be arriving around 8am and waiting in line for about two hours… is this beer worth a 2 hour wait? Actually I believe no beer is worth a two hour wait… (don’t take that as a hint that I don’t love quality brews) …but what is worth the 2 hour wait is all the B.S.ing I will get to do with the people I see at all of these events… the environment and comradery are way to much fun…

  7. PtY is great! I got some last year (thanks to Jacob aka vacax). But, I got to try it and I will leave it to those that haven’t had it yet this year. Nothing against RR or Vinnie, but I’m not about to wait in line for beer anymore. If I can order online, great. If I do end up waiting in line, it better be for a party. =) Prost!

  8. The thing that bums me out is remembering the old days going into Hamilton’s for Pliny the Younger. Sitting at a table on the weekend, having two, and leaving. Going to Live Wire and there were Pliny the Younger and Partridge in a Pear Tree both on tap, plentiful and in a nice environment. I’d say there’s no way to do that any more, but this year, I rolled into Toronado a couple hours after they tapped it on a Thursday afternoon, sat at the bar, had my glass, and went my way. If you’re smart about it, I think you can get the best of both worlds, still to this day.

    For whatever it’s worth, the best RR beer I’ve had on tap this year was Compunction, and again, we sat at a table for lunch in an all but empty O’Brien’s Pub and drank it while being able to hear each other’s comments on the beer we were enjoying. The focus should always be on the flavor, and the company with which the beer is shared. If you new craft beer enthusiasts find yourself straying from those two aspects, I strongly encourage you to re-think why you’re tracking down the liquid in your glass.

    Cheers!

  9. Great post and great comments. Out here in the Napa of Beer, its the saaaame thing, all the time. Hype, waits, anger….pathetic. The last major f-up was at the release of Avery’s Margarete. Less then 50 cases, 6 bottles per person limit….SUPER huge promotion and hype via Beer Advocate and their website/Face Book. What did this equate to? Well, sales started at 6pm, line started forming at about 515. If you got in line after 525, you went home angry and beerless.

    When PtY hits Denver, its literally a couple of minutes long affair. The Falling Rock sold the 1st keg in 12 minutes, and the 2nd keg on a different day, in 23 minutes. I mean, 5 gal in 12 minutes! Realize that means they basically opened the keg, tapped it, pulled the tap down and just moved the glasses never releasing the tap lol. RR makes some great beers, but honestly so much of it is over hyped and everything Vinnie does gets surrounded by a cloud of arrogant BS. I won’t seek it out anymore, I’ll drink it when I find/feel like it (SOME of the sours….temptation was so one dimensional I might as well been drinking Petrus Pale at 4$ a bottle if I wanted nothing but oaky acid) but no more searching or pining.

    You guys want a real good suggestion? Go deeper in to beer geekdom….become a home brewer. Not as hard as you think, twice as rewarding as finding the rarest of rare beers even when your brew might suck. If you’re a geek like me, go look in your “cellar”…..I bet there is more then enough to have a whole brew system set up and running ;)

  10. Good article. Personally I think Pliny the Younger is a joke, a novelty item, and inferior to its much, much easier to get parent beer the elder.

  11. I just posted a link to your article about Beer Hype on my fan page. “… TOP SECRET BEER tapping in 5-minutes at THE FACTORY (wink-wink) ha ha ha!!! Great article!!!!” Within 10 minutes we had a phone call asking if we were tapping Pliny!!! They obviously did not get the joke … but the call totally confirmed the existence of beer hype! Well written article my bike, bus and beer friend!!!!

  12. I met a beer fan at Livewire in San Diego last year that drove down from San Francisco just to try Consecration on tap… which didn’t materialize that night. Seeing that guy loose it provided some much needed perspective on how important beer could become, and more importantly should be in a person’s life. Frankly, I don’t ever want to be forced to leave a bar because I can’t handle the disappointment of not getting to try a special beer. If you live in a beer-centric city, which most people who end up reading blogs like this do… what possible excuse could you have for getting so worked up over missing 8 – 10 oz of one beer. No matter how great it is. I really enjoyed the Alpine Beer Co’s policy regarding their Exponential Hoppiness (a triple IPA much like, and potentially better than PTY). To paraphrase their email, “if we see a growler of EH on ebay or another website, no one will get another growler from the brewery ever again.” That policy seems to have worked pretty well. I think other breweries who want to make high-alcohol, powerfully flavored beers that obtain a following should adopt similar practices. It doesn’t hurt their bottom line, it just reigns in the insanity to a manageable degree.

    Last point, “I don’t have time to read the comments, while commenting” has to be the greatest internet-era pretentious lie. Gorgeous.

  13. Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments, they are much appreciated. I’m happy that this post was able to create a dialogue regarding the current state of the craft beer community. If this community is going to experience sustained growth, it will be because of the efforts of the experienced beer drinkers. It is up to them to bring new craft beer drinkers into the fold in a way that encourages the extension of what I believe the core values of the community are: drinking great beer, enjoying camaraderie, feeling a sense of community and having shit ton of fun while doing so.

    I’ll admit it’s neat to drink a super-rare beer that’s also delicious every once in a while. I’m not immune to the hype or desire. But these days I am careful not to get carried away in the frenzy. I strive to remember that I am lucky to be able to drink world-class beer whenever I like, without making a huge effort. So, to those who share my mindset, cheers to you! To those still wholly wrapped up in the hype machine; once you’re done harpooning those wales, I’ll buy you a pint of well-crafted session beer. Cheers!

  14. Well played, “Craft beer isn’t about hunting down the rarest of the rare (for most). Rather, it’s about being able to drink flavorful beer produced by someone who really cares about it. …beer should not be pretentious and intimidating, that it should be approachable and easy to find.”

    As Chuck D once said: “Don’t believe the hype, it’s a sequel…”

    I can say that I”m with you 100%, I’m not bummed I didn’t get any Pliny The Younger because I purposely didn’t want to deal with the crowds and the beer snobs. If wanted that, I’d go to a winery. However, I did brave the rain and the cold and the BART to Beer Revolution in Oaklandish to drink some wares from Moonlight. No lines, no Pliny fights, just great beers from the NorCal nano-brewery.

    Anyway, nice article.

    Best,
    Chris

  15. I think that the brewers get an unfair pass in a lot of these situations. You see brewers that specialize in difficult, high alcohol beers…but this PARTICULAR difficult, high alcohol beer you can’t put out in sufficient volume? I don’t buy it.

    If Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, and PtY were available as regular bottle releases…would there be people chasing them around? selling them on eBay? Building up the hype and promoting the brewer for them? absolutely not. But really, is PtY that much more difficult to make than Consecration? As a homebrewer, I can’t figure out why that could possibly be. The Bruery specializes in weird beers, many of them barrel aged and they have sours. But an Imperial Russian Stout just taxes them so much that it has to become a tiny release?

    C’mon, let’s be realistic.

    When you have some event that everyone buys tickets to, they’re on the blogs talking about it, excitedly posting “I GOT A DARK LORD! OMG GUYS LOOK, BLACK TUESDAY IS MINE!” then you’re getting press. That’s the reason these beers are rare. By design, not by necessity.

    There are situations where I think it’s legit, Alpine’s Exponential Hoppiness for one. But Alpine as a whole is hard to find, and I won’t be waiting an hour in line to find EH if I want it. It’s as limited as their limited capacity makes it, they’re not creating an artificial scarcity. But when it comes to stuff like Younger and Black Tuesday…I find it very hard to believe it’s not artificial. I love beer and the brewers too, but these are business people, and these rare limited release beers stay rare and limited as a business decision.

  16. It is ridiculously easy to find great beer! We should all be really thankful for that. But what gets me really is the arrogance of some of these “rare beer hunters” and I don’t quite understand it. We know better than anyone what craziness drives us to seek out the next beer, however in my personal experience I’ve had some really uninformed customers. I love PtY as much as the next person but there are some truly amazing beers out there that I think we all take for granted. I think much of the hype is fabricated to the point that it makes me a little uneasy. I remember when Brew Masters came out and people were (and are still) waiting in lines just to get a single bottle of 90 min ipa, people who had never had anything more exotic than a Stella were demanding anything with Dogfish Head’s logo on it be brought front and center. Yes, I think it’s wonderful for craft beer in general but I think it also leads to things like selling PtY online in growlers, improperly cellared beers being traded and sold on eBay, and even people getting turned off by Craft Beer altogether for getting into something that maybe their pallet wasn’t ready for. Other than that, I think limited release items and “strange” and “rare” beers are excellent for business and in our economy more power to you.

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  18. Breakpoint Brewery

    Couldn’t agree more with this post. We had Surly Darkness in the Twin Cities when I was up there. It went fast, but it seemed that everyone got there share. Now, though, it’s apparent that we should just be happy to have our craft beer. Dogfish Head just made the tough call to pull out of certain markets because they couldn’t meet the demand with their regular brands. Surly is fighting a political battle in MN to try and build a larger brewery because they’ve had to retract their distribution too because of too much demand.

    Unfortunately, now, all I get to participate in is Oberon day which really isn’t all that special since there’s no likelihood that I’ll miss out on anything. Even if I don’t make it to the bar, I’ll be able to buy it for at least the next 6 months at any bar around town and even most bars when I visit my family out of state.

    It is too bad that there is such a demand on craft beer because it leaves someone missing out, but it is nice to be a part of something like that. A story you can tell your friends that you were person X+1 and missed out on Pliny by 1. At least, we have the craft beer and hopefully it’ll be able to move forward with the demand.

  19. This post was a breath of fresh air, I remember drinking Pliny the Younger @ Toronado in excess a few years ago and now I hear stories like this and kind of laugh.. I am like other posters one who will not wait in a line for beer, sorry there is just too much out there that is amazing and that I have not had the opportunity to taste yet to worry about one of only a hundred bottles that two hundred people are lining up to get.. Luckily, I am friends with some of those people anyways so chances are I will try it eventually anyways and if not so be it! Blind Pig, definitely a kick ass beer and how many times more accessible anyone agree? I’d rather have that or a Death and Taxes, especially since there is not really a chance of me getting it here on the east coast and I can enjoy multiples, without a line, and still get off the bar stool and walk straight!

    It’s not that this sort of hype doesn’t exist in the southeast where I reside either and I will admit I work for a brewery with very sought after beers. The difference with us is that we try to make it as fair as possible for everyone and also do our best to keep people from hoarding. As well when we do a release of a very limited beer we also have many other somewhat limited beers on tap and in bottle that can be purchased in addition to the main release. Maybe this doesn’t count for much but it is important for us to be as fair and accommodating at possible because as you stated for some of these releases to make any more would be counter profitable to the brewery since we are generally struggling to keep up as it is. Generally our fans are understanding of this; however there are the people who are not or who seek to exploit or hype our products at these events and while we don’t agree with it there is nothing we can do about it but stay our course of making all of the people who support our brewery as happy as we possibly can.

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