By Tyler Anderson, Beer Buyer for Zipp’s Liquors, & Mark Joseph, Beer Buyer for The Ale Jail
It’s an interesting time to be working in the beer industry. The two of us, Tyler Anderson, beer buyer for Zipps, and Mark Joseph, beer buyer for The Ale Jail, have worked in the Minnesota beer industry for a collective 21 years and have seen a lot of changes.
In the last two years we have seen a plethora of new Minnesota breweries open their doors, some of the best breweries in the country expanding distribution to Minnesota, and a whole new onslaught of demand for craft brews. Demand isn’t the right word anymore, it’s an explosion. With this explosion comes “limited release beers.” Beers such as Founders KBS (Kentucky Bourbon Stout), Bells Black Note, Deschutes “The Dissident,” and any Goose Island Bourbon County (fill in the blank). As retailers, we’re given the difficult task of how to release these beers to the public as fairly as possible.
Let’s use Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) as an example of how the limited-release beer scene has changed. Only a mere three to five years ago, you could buy BCBS pretty much year round in Minnesota. At Zipp’s, we almost couldn’t give the stuff away. We literally had stacks and stacks of the beer sitting on display on our show floor. People would come in and ask for recommendations, and naturally we would suggest this fantastic barrel aged imperial stout. “Twenty bucks for a four-pack!? You gotta be kidding me, that’s outrageous!” was a common response. These days, we’re lucky to have that beer lying around for an hour. And when we do, we end up having more disappointed customers than happy ones. Why? Because the demand has far exceeded the amount of product available. Therein lies our predicament. As more and more people are drawn to how awesome the craft beer scene is today, more and more liquor stores, bars and restaurants are selling craft beer.
“The demand has far exceeded the amount of product available. Therein lies our predicament.”
So, how do we handle these releases when we are only given a very small allotment to sell, yet most of our customer base wants them? This has been an ongoing conversation between the two of us for the better part of a year. Instead of seeing each other as competitors in the craft scene, we’re working together as an alliance, trying different methods in releasing limited-release beers in an attempt to appease as many people as we can. However, with the sheer amount of demand for limited releases – some of which only have 20 cases hitting the entire state – it has become increasingly difficult to please our consumers.
We would like everyone to know that we are trying to do everything as fair as we can, but it doesn’t seem like it’s possible. In most instances, we don’t get to determine the amount of limited product we get to sell. We are told by our distributors, how much we are allowed to buy. This is important for you, the craft beer buyer/consumer to know. If we could buy entire pallets of these beers, we would!
“Support the brewery’s main-line brands. The more of their main-line beers you purchase directly affects the number of cases of limited releases we get.”
These numbers are usually based on sales figures from year-round products. Want to make sure your local store gets more limited items to sell? Well, then you have to support the brewery’s main-line brands. The more of their main-line beers you purchase directly affects the number of cases of limited releases we get. The same goes for breweries and how they allot the amount of limited releases that go to each state. You want more Bourbon County or Central Waters Bourbon Barrel aged beers? You need to buy more of their year-round beers. Breweries don’t want consumers only purchasing one or two of their beers when they offer plenty of other fine options year round. They said it themselves, “you buy more of our regular beer, and we’ll send you more limited beer.” It’s as simple as that.
Over the past year, both of our stores have been playing around with different methods to release these limited beers. The bottom line is that we want to be fair to everyone. We’ve tried staggering release times, having an AM and a PM release of certain beers. But when we only have 12 bottles of something to sell, it doesn’t make sense to have two 6 bottle releases, because it only lasts a few minutes. People know the release times and show up long before just to wait. There are people who literally take the day off work and chase the delivery trucks around town going from store to store. In addition, regardless of what time we release it, there will ALWAYS be people who are unable to come purchase it.
“We want to be able to please all of our current and future customers. But we can’t. We realize that, and it sucks.”
We could do a reservation list, but we don’t. That’s not how we do business. We’re selling beer, not booking tables in a restaurant. Another method we have explored is not announcing via Twitter and/or Facebook when we put these beers on sale. What does that accomplish? It allows people who frequent our stores to have a good chance at buying a limited beer. What else? It gets the general public mad at us for not telling them that we have this super limited beer in stock. Another option would be to give out raffle tickets based off purchases of a brand’s main six-pack line. The problem with that is that people don’t want to be required to purchase one thing in order to be able to buy another. Although in hindsight, this is the best option for supporting a brewery’s main-line beers. The problem with this, though, is that it still doesn’t guarantee that you will get a bottle of the coveted limited release.
So where does this leave us, the retailers? Between a rock and a hard place. We love selling beer. We aren’t trying to keep special releases out of your hands. We want to be able to please all of our current and future customers. But we can’t. We realize that, and it sucks. But we are trying our hardest! There are some things you can do to have the option of obtaining these super limited beers a little easier. However, with the ever-booming beer scene, rise in demand, new craft drinkers who have never tried these beers, seasoned craft drinkers who want to continue to build their cellars, beer traders, and the whole onslaught of more limited-release beers produced in smaller numbers, it’s going to be really difficult. Why not be nice, get your allotment at one store, and allow other people to buy some? Do you really need 20 bottles of Surly Darkness? Do you need an entire case of Bourbon County Stout? Share the wealth.