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?