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.
Later on I found a great, easy way to lose a few hours browsing this section of Ferrari’s website. I was reading about some of my favorites, and found myself in the section about the GTO (the ‘288’, not the 250 GTO or 599 GTO; though I spent some time reading about those, too). The GTO was originally planned as a 200-car “homologation run” to satisfy its production requirements for Group B racing. When regulations changed and Ferrari’s racing plans went belly up, it suddenly had what were essentially 200 race cars-for-the-road to sell and no race car to show for its efforts.
Then a funny thing happened: after showing at the 1984 Geneva Auto Show, people were so excited by the prospect of owning a street-legal Ferrari racer that the 200-car run sold out, and eventually was extended to a total of 272 cars. Ferrari’s site about the GTO then says something very interesting:
“The GTO was the real starting point for the ‘Supercar Syndrome’, showing that there was a market for a low volume production, extreme performance sports car, at almost any cost!”
Our Dark Lord bottles, HopSlams, Hunahpus, and so many—too many more—are all products of Supercar Syndrome, which only grows worse year after year as new people come into craft beer with the idea that the rarest beer is the best beer; that to drink anything less is to be less, and such a fate must be avoided at all costs.
What initially sent me down this path, however, was a video I recently saw of a lecture/discussion session with Rich Hilleman, chief creative officer at the video game production company Electronic Arts (EA). The talk is fascinating (and this recap gives you a lot of the important points if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing), but there was something Hilleman said about the nature of the video game business that jumped out at me — because it reminded me of how I often talk about what we do in the business I’m in. Here’s the quote from Hilleman:
“We do not build a product that has a tangible value… If we got up tomorrow and there were no video games, I would be upset, but the truth is that the world would keep spinning. And that means that we’re fundamentally about things that are wanted not needed. We’re not in the asparagus business; we’re in the ice cream business. When that’s true, it means that your customer’s expectations in the future are not something you can measure today because they’re in motion.”
Or, put another way:
“We do not (sell) a product that has a tangible value…If we got up tomorrow and there were no (craft beer), I would be upset, but the truth is that the world would keep spinning. And that means that we’re fundamentally about things that are wanted not needed. We’re not in the asparagus business; we’re in the ice cream business. When that’s true, it means that your customer’s expectations in the future are not something you can measure today because they’re in motion.”
The comic book publishers didn’t run off millions upon millions of copies of issues every month in the ‘90s because they thought it would be fun; they did it because they knew they could sell them. It didn’t matter that everyone thought they’d be able to retire off of their laser-etched/holographic/artist- (not writer) signed copy of “I Have Too Many Pouches On My Uniform” No. 1 — the publishers were responding to the wants of the consumer in the moment. Likewise, the important thing to take away from Ferrari’s experience with its GTO is, in the builder’s own words:
“Through the remainder of the eighties there was a knock on effect to the more mundane (in elitist terms) models. New models were introduced by various manufacturers to capture a slice of the action, and soon virtually the whole classic and sports car market was caught up in a whirlwind of spiraling prices, that eventually had nowhere to go but down. When they did, it was suddenly and with a bang, leaving many speculators with assets of massively negative collateral.”
Supercar Syndrome didn’t infect the automakers, who then drove their customers screaming into ultra high-end automotive dream toys that they’d never be able to recoup their investment in. It was the customers who developed Supercar Syndrome, and began a push toward faster, more insane, more ostentatiously expensive and exclusive models that hasn’t abated even today.
So yes, I think I’ve finally figured out what’s been bothering me in craft beer lately. Do you want to know why breweries will eventually quit trying to put on events like Hunahpu’s Day anymore, or why special releases will continue to sell out quicker and quicker every year even when the brewery is going out of their way to produce more?
The problem is us. We’re not getting any fewer in number, and we’re not getting any better. Some brewers will handle the demands of the market better than others; some will flourish while others will fail. We won’t change.
We are why we can’t have nice things.
Quick Tasting Note of the Week: Got to try The Tradition by DC Brau this week. Made for MLS’s DC United, The Tradition is a 5.0 percent ABV Golden Ale and shows just how good the gang at DC Brau can be when they put their focus toward making a refreshing, balanced Ale that everyone can enjoy. We’re waiting for Virginia to approve The Tradition for sale, but as soon as someone bothers to grab the “ok” stamp, we’ll be good to go. I dare say The Tradition may just replace Oberon as my go-to beer for the summer — it’s really that good. Hopefully we’ll be seeing it soon.
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