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Your Beermonger: Supercar Syndrome

By Nick Anderson

Friday - 3/14/2014, 2:30pm  ET

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Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).

Hot off the heels of last week’s fun with Hill Farmstead, here’s this: Cigar City Brewing of Tampa Bay, Fla., held their annual Hunahpu’s Day event this past weekend, celebrating the release of the once-per-year Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (this week’s column is pretty much Christmas for “nom de guerre” – enjoy, sir or ma’am). Much like similar events put on by Three Floyd’s Brewing in Indiana (Dark Lord Day) and Founders in Grand Rapids, Michigan (for the release of KBS/CBS/any other kind of BS), crowds were expected to be big and demand was assumed to well outstrip supply — as it does pretty much every year.

This is fine in and of itself; these special release parties have become little beer festivals unto themselves, with many making the trek with no other desire but to share some good beers and good times with fellow beer geeks. Check out articles here and here to get some of the story of what went down, but suffice it to say this year’s Hunahpu’s Day was a disaster. Loyal, ticket-paying customers got screwed out of beer they’d paid good money for, Cigar City is now out some $175,000, and once again beer fans get to argue about who is at fault and who should’ve done what.

For his part, Cigar City owner Joey Redner says this will be the last Hunahpu’s Day event, as the beer will go into distribution next year and drive saps like me crazy when we can’t get enough to meet the demand. In reality, it’s probably the best way to handle items like these today; there are just too many people clamoring for beers that aren’t (or can’t be) produced in quantities that will make everyone happy.

Pay attention now, because I’m going to pull back the curtain on this business for a quick moment. Beyond the business interests of distributors and tax revenue figures and anything else anyone wants to argue, there is one  reason that the three-tier system of producer, distributor, and seller is never going to be done away with in this country: because then we, as an industry, when faced with the realities of limited production on beers or wines that everyone wants, would have to point the finger and actually blame someone. And no one wants to do that.

As it is, when I run out of HopSlam in 45 minutes I can say “that’s all the distributor allocated to me”, and if you take the time to call said distributor they can say “well, Bell’s only sent so much, and we have to reward all of our customers who support them over the year”, and then you can sit down with Larry Bell and he’ll say something like:

”This year we made 12 percent more than last year so we’re making 5,500 barrels of Double IPA. How many other brewers are making that kind of Double IPA in that volume? There’s really quite a bit of it. Also, I like having it once a year because the whole idea of that style is to have it fresh. People know when it’s HopSlam season. When you see it, you buy it, you drink it fresh and then it’s done.” (This is a good interview, by the way. Read the rest here.)

The beautiful part is, everyone in that scenario is right, is being truthful, and is only reacting to the current state of the business. What’s been bothering me lately — and yes, even I can tell something’s been bothering me lately — is my inability to put my finger on what it is that is making the craft beer market so contentious when it comes to special releases like Hunahpu’s Stout or HopSlam or the like. Of course, it took some wandering into other interests and sub-cultures for me to get an idea of what’s really happening.

I thought about my time as a teenage comic book reader in the 1990s (I am merely a mid-30s comic book reader now, of course). The first generation of comics collectors began auctioning off their milestone issues and suddenly, comic books became a commodity. People started lining up at shops to buy multiple copies of books they knew nothing about and would never read, convinced they’d be worth thousands someday.

Of course, the publishers responded by catering to this new market: every conceivable variant cover was rolled out, and superstar artists were spun off with popular characters into their own series — complete with a BLOCKBUSTER FIRST ISSUE. Look up Jim Lee’s X-Men series and the five covers its No. 1 issue were printed with to get an idea—then look up the sales figures; it was obscene. Of course, by the end of the decade the market collapsed under the absurdity of its own niche-dom, and only the success of Marvel’s characters on film would begin to bring it back.

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