Wednesday 7 April 2010

Blockbuster Beers

Last week The Beer Nut wrote that Beer Doesn’t Matter and went on to decry the cult status of certain rare beers and how they are treated in the beer world. A lot of people agreed with what he posted. Not me.

Beer needs some rock stars, it needs some headline acts and it needs them to create some loud noise about what is happening in the beer world so that news can go beyond and into the non-beer world. The majority of beer drinkers don’t know what an IPA is, what a porter tastes like, why a hefeweisen is cloudy and that some beer is intentionally sour; this entire craft industry is unknown to most drinkers. Why can’t we amp up the volume a couple of times a year and put on a show?

How many beers truly have Blockbuster status? Beers which are brewed once a year and released with a bang... half a dozen? Less? Dark Lord, Pliny the Younger... HopSlam? Kate the Great? They encourage people to talk, to get out of the house and down to the bar, to drink a beer where it was made. If there was a major release every-other week then it’d get boring quickly, but having so few a year means that each still gets to shine. It’s great that a couple of beers have their own day; beer deserves occasions like this. These beers become heroes, they are photographed, talked about, adored, they achieve cult status and A-lister priority. They are Blockbuster Beers.

GBBF and GABF grab the headlines like Glastonbury and they open their doors to thousands of beer drinkers. The majority of people who go to this just like a good beer and don’t chase around looking for certain breweries and names. But what if they knew about certain breweries? What if they’ve heard about one which makes interesting beers and gets on the news? Maybe they’ll look out for something by that brewery, maybe they’ll try something different, maybe they’ll start on a journey into liking craft beer.

Dark Lord Day isn’t just about standing in line to pick up two bottles of wax-sealed imperial stout. They put on other beers, rare beers, one-offs, everyday beers; they have a BBQ, there are live bands; they celebrate their brewery. Pliny the Younger exploded this year and next year you can bet that Russian River will be more prepared. You can also bet that they’ll have more people in line than last year. Westvleteren could be added to this list of rare specials, but it’s brewed year round; it’s just difficult to get hold of. To be honest, the Westvleterens are no more difficult to get than hundreds of other beers, this one is just more famous and you have to go to a little more effort to get it. They are cult beers and that’s a good thing - they certainly aren’t the only cult beers, they are just the ones which beer fans make the most noise about.

The Beer Nut writes that dedicating a day to a rare beer is “another weapon in the marketing arsenal designed to shift units for the highest margins possible: guaranteed no wastage and a product which, once the event is established, will be promoted entirely by the punters themselves. For free. It's not big and it's not clever.” I think it’s damn clever. Punk marketing and new media promotion is far more effective than any other marketing to get the people in to buy these beers, especially in niche interest groups. If I had a business and I knew that I had a product good enough to only sell it once a year and on that day I’d be able to sell out of my entire stock and make money and improve my reputation, while also selling more of my other products in the process, then I’d do it.

The beers sold as one-off super-specials are not everyday beers and they aren’t for everyday drinking. The majority of beer drinkers won’t care that this is happening, but to an interested minority this is a big deal. It is too frat boy my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours to a certain segment of a small niche group and you’ll always get a few who are just there for bragging rights on the BeerAdvocate forums, but for a beer to command a day where everyone is talking about it, where people travel across the world to get it, where there is a build up to it; that’s special. You get the same sort of thing with technology, films, books and music, so why shouldn’t beer have it too?

There is a major bad-side of this and that’s the buying to sell on ebay to make a fistful of fast dollars. That’s uncool. Pliny the Younger sold out in hours because some selfish drinkers queued up, bought four growlers and then left to sell the beer on the internet and ship to the highest bidder. Selling beer on ebay is a scourge of this side of the beer scene. To do this and to bump the prices up so considerably is against the spirit of the beer community. But, sadly, if there’s a market then there will always be the opportune flogger trying to make a few bucks.

The thing with these Blockbuster Beers is that they create positive hype. The day itself is there to bring drinkers together, to socialise, to share beers, and to do this while waiting in line to buy a few beers. It’s not a pursuit for everyone. To most, the idea of waiting more than two minutes to get served is just incomprehensible, but to others the thought of spending a day to get the beer is part of the allure. Not everyone will want to stand in line to be one of the few people to get this on its release. Look at the latest Harry Potter book release where readers waited in line for hours (maybe days) to get it at midnight: some want to do this; some are happy to wait until the next day (or week or month); some just don’t care about reading it at all. Does it do a disservice to books? Far from it. Instead it creates hype and excitement and it makes the news for positive (if a little extreme, but this type of extreme is good) reasons.

“It's hard to know who to blame most: the breweries who pull the strings, or the marionettes who perpetuate the whole sad spectacle. The bottom line, I think, is that you'd be able to buy these ultra-rare special editions in any corner shop for a reasonable price if punters weren't willing to queue up and sell a kidney for them” says The Beer Nut. If you could buy Pliny the Younger in every corner shop then would it matter? If you could buy a favourite beer of yours every time you walked into that shop, then would you? Certain beers should be rare, they should be coveted and it should be difficult to find them or they just become as normal as all the ales lined up in the supermarkets that you overlook each week. Hunting beers down is the choice of the individual drinker; if someone cares enough then they’ll try and find it, if they don’t then they’ll drink what they’ve got and be happy. The fact that I won’t get to drink the majority of Blockbuster Beers doesn’t worry me because I can’t track down one-thousandth of the beers available in the world, but if I do get a chance to try them then I will.

A few breweries in the UK have once-yearly releases but they just slip out into the market with barely a whistle blown or a bell rung. Make something of it, create some noise, get people excited to drink it – it can be a great promotional tool for a beer, the brewery and the industry. Fuller’s could open their brewery to visitors on the day they release the Vintage each year (it’s not Blockbuster, but it’s Cult). They could arrange tours, tastings of previous Vintages, meet the brewers and they could have a few specially brewed beers on. The day would be about seeing the brewery, socialising, getting to try different beers, introducing new people to the brewery while also giving existing fans a little extra. They’d likely make a killing in the shop too.

I think the beer world needs some Blockbusters and it needs a few special days dedicated to a few special beers.What’s so wrong about that?


  1. "When everyone is special, then no-one is"

    Same applies to everything, if a beer is only made at one certain time of the year and released only one time then provided the beer itself can live up to the hype around it I have no problem with it at all. Beers that are monthly specials are the same, I have complained about beers I like only being available once a year but in the end it is that specialness which makes it special.

    I dislike people who buy only to ebay but the only way to stop a majority of it is to limit what people buy and that's not fair real beer fans either.

  2. I agree with you Mark and I will be attempting something later this year.

  3. The beer blogosphere needs rock stars too, Dredgie, and you da guy!

  4. I think your'e right Mark, if the profile of beer is to be properly raised it needs to be done on several levels - and a little media hype surrounding the release of a few special new beers won't do any harm at all. As you rightly point out, these beers aren't for everyone, but the simple existence of the hype surrounding them could, in itself, help raise beer's profile in the public consciousness (particularly those members of the chattering classes who dominate the mass media, and who we need to get on board if craft ales are to make the breakthrough we would all like to see).

  5. Thanks for the detailed rebuttal, Mark.

    I like the rock star analogy. What kind of rock star never makes records and only plays one outdoor gig a year? It's a fairly dickish sort of artistic integrity, IMO. I don't think the same applies to technology, film, books and music: if I didn't want to queue for Harry Potter I could go the next day and buy it at my leisure -- I don't think we're talking about the same thing here.

    I'm not against specials or seasonals; I'm against the extreme limiting of their release with the express intention of making them largely unobtainable; and I'm against the acceptance and support of the practice by drinkers.

    I don't think Blockbuster Beers do create positive hype. I think the community of people who give a toss about beer is too small for it to count as "hype" anywhere outside the rarefied atmosphere of the beer geek community -- no-one's going to swap their Bud for a bottle of Old Rasputin because they heard about Dark Lord Day, are they?

    Pete Brown uses the wonderful descriptor "the most sociable drink in the world", and I don't think you can attach that epithet if you're cool with exclusivity in beer. The extreme, deliberate rarities are fundamentally anti-social beer.

    I like your suggestion for Fuller's, but please don't suggest that they'd be doing anyone a service by pulling Vintage from the shelves of my local supermarket.

  6. I agree with some of the above. I don't have a problem with "special beers" as long as they are truly special and not just something that in the end is pretty much about the same I can get all year round and quite easily, not to mention a lot cheaper.

    Moreover, when that special beer doesn't have a concept behind it (season, anniversary, etc), it becomes a marketing gimmick. To a certain extent, and this applies also to many an "extreme beer", I see it a little like those "super cars" brands seem to come out with every year, you know, the ones that can go from 0 to 100 in two seconds and all that bollocks. Hardly anyone is going to buy them, and the manufacturers know it very well, and they also know that those cars will have all the petrolheads salivating and might even be mentioned in the mainstream media. It's not so much about the product itself, but the promotion of the brand.

    Oh! Yeah. And I also have an issue with those geeks that think themselves superior beings because they were able to drink THAT special beer of a very limited release.

    And to finish with this. I don't think there will ever be a brewer becoming a "rock star" in the eyes of the average consumer.

  7. It's a finely poised argument this, but there is something too American in the principle of this for me to come down entirely on Mark's side.(His repeated Americanisms didn't endear either). Is extreme geekery too American for us understated Brits? I would probably say so, but at the same time I find the nub of Mark's argument as stated rather persuasive in commercial and media terms at least:

    "If I had a business and I knew that I had a product good enough to only sell it once a year and on that day I’d be able to sell out of my entire stock and make money and improve my reputation, while also selling more of my other products in the process, then I’d do it."

    Who could argue with that? Well clearly it doesn't cover the points BN makes, though I'd like to think that it would be done better here and in such a way as to promote beer in an inclusive and non exploitative way. There is something rather rotten in the way it is done presently it seems.

    I like what John says too, so on balance I'm with Mark - but UK English please! (-;

  8. Beer Nut, as a homebrewer/beer enthusiast who moved to London from San Diego not that long ago, I really think you've got the wrong impression of this sort of event. First you rather flippantly imply that making big show beer is easy. Many of these US craft brewers would make more beer if they could, but these large specials involve huge upfront costs and frequently long term storage. It's actually rather hard to make lots of big interesting beer. To release it at is a risk to the brewer until it sells well. And if you don't want all the fuss, all these brewers make beers (many!) that are easily attainable.

    And how can you think that these beers don't create positive hype? The US craft market is growing (in terms of sales and number of breweries) to the point where last year the number of brewers has nearly recovered from prohibition. This sort of marketing (if you like to think of it that way) works. A large healthy market will almost certainly have an exclusive section.

    Lastly, if Fuller's has enough of the Vintage to sell at at Tesco after a release party, why would it get pulled? Shockingly enough, both are possible, as long as there's supply. This happens at Stone in San Diego all the time (people really come to these events for the party, and the first taste).

    Sorry this comment got a bit ranty, but frankly Big beer parties (along with style diversity) are one of the great things I miss about the US beer scene. More beer in more ways from more brewers should be something everyone wants.

  9. Ben, compared to wine, whiskey and mead big show beer is easy.

    More beer in more ways from more brewers is what I'm all about. Tiny amounts of beer from some breweries for a handful of people is the opposite of that.

  10. Doesn't it boil down to whether the rarity is a genuine market phenomenon of demand outstripping supply or whether certain producers are rigging the market by artificially creating scarcity where none need exist?

    If the former, then it matters not whether you are for or against it, that is life.

    If the latter, it would take a strange even perverse support of the interests of producers when they fail to meet the interests of consumers and run contrary to it, to be all for it?

    As for whether hype in and of itself creates demand, and therefore as you say raises the profile of craft beer I ask whether anyone is familiar with Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay?

    It would suggest the possibility that indeed there is endless scope and many examples throughout history for people to be caught up in a speculative frenzy for any given commodity from Dutch tulip bulbs to tradable equities, especially if a secondary market exists for these rare beers. People will buy them not to drink, but to sell. How this is good for consumers of the commodity I await your reply. In a market following Greater Fool Theory,, neither the bull nor bear run would yield treasure for the beer enthusiast in the longer term. The bull driving up prices and the bear harming producers.

    Examples where this has resulted in a greater appreciation of the commodity traded by a greater number of people are fewer and far between. Few of your new market entrants may be interested in the deep roast chocolate notes of the pong in question.

  11. Beer needs no rock stars. People who want to sell beer for reasons other than the beer need to be associated with rock-star-ness. There is an odd notion that people are not having the beer they want. We got to a major release of a good and interesting special release beer every-other week long ago. Now we apparently need non-beer factors like alleged celebrity to make special... specialer. I need no heroes. I need no (yawn) overly hopped imperial stout. I need good beer at a good price.

  12. I'm deeply suspicious of ultra-premium beers. If you've had to queue for hours and pay through the nose for a beer sure you're not going to say it was 'OK' or 'good', you're going to rave about how great it is.
    It is nice to try new beers but I'm not convinced something rare and pricey is going to be that much better than something common and reasonably priced.

  13. I know what you mean Ed, Carling Premier was really no better than regular Carling.

  14. I thought this one might provoke a mixed response!!

    Meer, I agree with everything you say!

    Stu, I'll be there! I'll camp out the night before if need be.

    JC, I think you put that nicely with "the hype surrounding them could, in itself, help raise beer's profile in the public consciousness". That's why I like these one-off events. You kind of need a big show every now and again in everything.

    Beer Nut, nice reply. Hope you don't mind me replying to your blog with one f my own. I understand your response, so maybe the book, technology, etc is a little different, but I think you understand the point that if people want to be involved then they will be. And a rock star that doesn't release any albums and only plays one show a year? People will queue for days to see that and it'll be a HUGE event!

    I think these beers are deliberately limited but as Ben says, they take a lot of effort, money and time to put together. Limiting them to once a year is their choice. If it's always around then it does lose something of it's appeal, don't you think?

    It's unlikely someone will swap Bud for Old Rasputin if they've heard about Dark Lord, but they might see a bottle from 3 Floyds in the supermarket and they might buy it. They might even like it and buy another.

    Rare beers are anti-social? I disagree. They are almost more social as they are beers you buy and then want to share. Beer is the most sociable drink in the world because you drink it casually with friends. Beer Days Out are social events.

    And the Fuller's suggestion is more of something for the to use to help positively promote themselves and beer. They make enough that it can still be available in the supermarket and it's good that a cult beer like this can be bought in certain places - it's almost a bridge between everyday and super-premium.

    PF, nice points. If a beer is brewed purely for publicity then I don't support it like those brewed and held up because they truly are great beers. As for rock stars... there are certain muscians that I would class as a rock star in my eyes. There are others that I could walk past in the street and not even double-take. A person's definition of a rock star is based on their own taste, I think. From this, I think there are beer rock stars, or at least beer celebrities and these are the brewers and the people behind breweries - Sam Calagione, Garrett Oliver, Greg Koch, Mikkel... Those who care will see these guys as rock stars!

    Tandleman, apologies for the Americanisms! It's more of an American thing so my mind is thinking America when I write! I do think that extreme geekery like this is too much for us Brits, yes, hence the dialed down suggestion for Fuller's. Other breweries could do something like this - Marble, for example, could have a special on cask-only in the Marble Arch, plus some rare bottles, etc. The British way of doing it would be a lot less brash, I imagine.

    Ben, nice note on Stone. They know how to spin this kind of thing while also getting the beer out there. And big beer parties are great!

    Cooking Lager, interesting ideas... My mind is ticking trying to work it all out!

    Alan, you might need good beer at a good price but I like great beer at exhorbitant prices ;) Every drinker is different, some care for this and others don't. I think it's nice to have the choice.

    Ed, I agree with this. But these beers do seem to stand up to the hype when they are tasted away from the event, even if the hype then affects he mind some more... I've written a post about hype before and it's mind-altering capabilities!!

  15. I'm not sure I understand what the problem is here. When I was a kid, I spent years looking around for a copy of PiL's "Metal Box" in a metal box. Sure I could have gone to the mall any day and spent $11 for "Second Edition", which is the US edition of exactly the same album, and called it a day. But where would the fun have been in that? Likewise, Dark Lord is probably no better than something like Founder's RIS. I can find Founder's in about eight places within ten minutes of my home year round. Still, I'll probably drive to Indiana someday, Golden Ticket in hand, for Dark Lord Day (actually, it's less than an hour's drive from my home, I probably should...). Besides the obvious fact that it's fun to get together with a bunch of friends and fellow fanatics and enjoy some great beer, there's something to be said for the thrill of the hunt.

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  17. Nothing much to think about Dredge. I offer the following simplified piece of economics, using the more realistic market of Brandy, than craft beer, as such a market actually exists.

    Imagine a bottle of Cognac bottled at the time of Napoleon and once owned by Napoleon and contained in his cellar. Such a prized bottle has scarcity. Genuine scarcity, not artificially produced as such a bottle cannot be created without the use of a time machine.

    Now imagine I like necking brandy and I’m the richest brandy necker in the world, and I’m willing to pay £1million big ones to buy and neck it, and no one else is willing to pay so much to taste it., because once it’s gone its only an empty bottle. The fundamental value of that commodity is therefore £1million. That’s the maximum anyone in the world is willing to pay for it. The fundamental value doesn’t alter unless someone arrives wanting to neck it with a bigger wallet, or I change my mind and go buy some Tesco value brandy.

    However I’m not the only market participant, nor does the owner of the bottle know what its value is. There is a market of speculative investment in rare brandy, wine, art, antiquities, and historical curiosity.

    The price of the bottle is the price the seller is willing to sell it for. This is not its value. The seller can name a price or attempt to maximise one through auction. A collector may buy it for £2 million, as an investment. Now he is a fool. What makes him a fool is that he has no idea of the fundamental value. He may believe in the existence of a greater fool, and if one exists he may sell it for £3 million. The bottle may continue to be traded at numerous prices in bull and bear markets with traders making losses and gains in equal measure. The suggestion of Mackay, in his book, was that these speculative movements are based on optimism and pessimism and in and of themselves encourage and discourage speculative market entrants with equal measure. Someone may notice the bottle has changed hands at ever increasing sums, and decide to be the next person to buy it. Much as Meer was suggesting in her comment of people buying what are artificially scarce beers (because the brewer could make more of them, and make them more widely available) simply to eBay them.

    However the existence of the speculative frenzy of interest in the rarity of the commodity does not assist me, the brandy necker. Nor does optimism or pessimism determine whether I enter the market. For am in the market with the million quid, throughout. I have to wait until the bubble in speculative rare brandy investments burst, when the bull dies and the bear roars, when its price falls below fundamental value, then I can neck the grog.

    I am willing to be corrected but I believe the beer nut sees himself as a beer necker, and whilst he may accept other market participants that are also beer neckers, (though dislikes what he correctly sees as irrational frenzy despite that being the nature of man), he finds the existence of beer speculators particularly unwelcome.

  18. "Every drinker is different, some care for this and others don't. I think it's nice to have the choice."

    I agree, Mark, but I do think there are actually negative implications to all beer drinkers that may not be equally apparent. I think I will explore this in a post this evening my time.

  19. David, get to Dark Lord Day, man!!

    CL, that's the simplified version...!?

    Alan, yes there are negative implications, which The Beer Nut did a great job addressing in his post. Creating super-rare beers, elevating them to their high geek status, making them difficult to obtain, etc, has knock-on negatives but I think there are enough positives overall to balance it out.

    There is a fine balance here between good and bad. I also think it works differently across different drinkers and different countries. There's no one rule and idea for everyone.

    I look forward to reading your piece - I like how one post strikes up another which strikes off another. That's one of the reasons I love reading and writing blogs.

  20. While I can understand the objections to this (I think in the UK, particulary where beer and brewing is concerend) we have always tended to be wary of too much (or even any) pzzazz. Personally I think there's room for a bit of showbiz. Looks like a certain Scottish brewery are already in on the act:

    It had to be them, didn't it?

  21. There is a fine balance here between good and bad. I also think it works differently across different drinkers and different countries. There's no one rule and idea for everyone.

    Couldn't agree more.

    John, I think BrewDog are a very good example of how to do rare special beers well. Should I wish to buy a bottle of Abstrakt or Tactical Nuclear Penguin, I can go to their website and do so. They aren't going to force me to walk to Fraserburgh and dance for them.

  22. There's no one rule and idea for everyone? Well, I don't think the question is without universals. I do think there is a champagne-like price soak going on. I also find it odd how many craft brewers spend so much time in airport departure lounges.

  23. If you have a consumer mentality, then what you look for are the commodities of choice at its lowest price. Pzazz, show business, artificially created scarcity, hype. It is all to your detriment. If you have a producer mentality and wish to be a cheer leader for producers, then sure, you will see the merit. Never make the mistake, Dredge, of thinking CAMRA bods like Mr Clarke represent the best interest of consumers. They represent the narrow interests of what is in effect there trade union, and appear by and large to have become producer cheerleaders. It doesn’t make them bad people, but see them for what they are.
    If, as you say you are, you are just a guy that likes beer, and for some reason spends most of his hard earned on beer (you cannot think of anything better?), then you would obtain better value for your hard earned by taking Beer Nuts consumer approach. Leave industry producer cheer leading and hype to those it benefits, those making a profit. Accept it, because that’s capitalism and we are not communists, and profit is not evil. Only seek to maximise your own gain, in both how you aquire and use the coins of the realm you are granted. If you are savvy, there is no reason why you will not prosper.

  24. "Beer needs some rock stars". No it doesn't.

  25. It's not capitalism v. communism. Isn't it about being a savvy player in the marketplace or being a sucker. If you take into account all the costs and time related to hunting rare beer and accept them all as your hobby, that is fine. But line standing as a hobby has little to do with good beer. Same with that "erroneous celebrity recognition" hobby.

  26. Who said it was Alan? If you are as you say spending time hunting down rare beers in a market, you ought to have a working knowledge of markets, and whether a market is geared to your benefit as a punter or weighted in the interests of producers by a practice of hype and artificial scarcity?

    Behaving as a consumer, and leaving the industry cheer leading to others, you practice your hobby in its most effective manner.

  27. Cookie, you should write an economics blog. What a fabulous exposition of key principles.

  28. I am still leaning towards BeerNut here, maybe it's an Irish thing...

    I like limited releases but the hype surrounding some like Dark Lord are just too much. I love beer! I love drinking it and I even love searching for hard to find beers but to be forced to Queue up for hours on a certain day at a certain place is too much and likewise is paying anything more than what the beer cost when it was released.

    I might "consider" buying a limited release expensive beer as long as I am paying the same as everyone else but if people buy in bulk to sell to the highest bidder then they are no better than ticket touts and we all know what we want to do to those people!

    Now Im off to start boiling my own limited release double IPA which I will be giving to Beernut and anyone else who shows up to our monthly brewer meetings in Dublin :D You should see the Queues for that event....

  29. I wrote up about this recently for my blog. I was sticking up for Struise at the time. Auctions and rare beer releases is becoming an interesting issue on the beer forums.

    I am particularly annoyed that certain people wish to make huge amount of gross profit on this beer when the breweries don't. This I highlighted extensively in my blog.

    Struise are trying to cut down on this in Vleteren by offering a better and more convenient way of achieving beer than the beer being sold on Ebay at overtly inflated prices. Because of the EBay prices and that greed I am adamant a lot of bars in Belgium have decided to increas prices in order to reflect this. It wasn't too long ago before Westvleteren was less than 10 Euros.

  30. A group of 8 party goers with beer had been allowed to finish off their beer at the back of cab from

    So if you want to finish off your beer call these guys! lol