By Michael Agnew
I’m standing in line at Surly’s Darkness Day drinking beer and chatting with friends when a guy approaches carrying an open growler and a dry-erase board. On the board are lists of bottles he has to trade and those that he’s seeking in return. “Anything rare from Surly” is emphasized. The haggling begins, but he seems reluctant to actually part with any of the bottles he’s bartering. Like a businessman negotiating a million-dollar deal, he’s driving ever harder bargains for his precious goods. Want a taste of whatever is in his open growler (which turns out to be a horrible hefeweizen from Three Floyds), what can you offer in exchange? Fail to ante up something worthy and you won’t get a sip.
Sign Guy’s behavior is weird to me and in a way disturbing. Indeed, the very fact that I was standing in a line more than 1,200 deep at Darkness Day is actually kind of weird—Sign Guy may be weirder than most, but his hard-ball bargaining and eagerness to score only the rarest of the rare are indicative of a bigger trend that to me is antithetical to what beer is all about.
Sign Guy is a Beer Chaser—or Beer Ticker as the Brits say—a particular breed of beer nerd for whom getting that hard-to-find rarity or next special release is what it’s all about; the more limited the run, the more precious the beer. Beer chasers fit a range of profiles, from dabblers who pick up the occasional limited-release bomber to hard-core hoarders with hundreds of bottles in the cellar.
Beer chasers are shaping the market. Gone are the days when it was enough just to make good beer. Now brewers have to constantly innovate to garner attention. Fail to do so and they become passé, regardless of how good their standard line-up may be. Old-school brewers whose reputations have been built on solid examples of classic styles find themselves pushed to produce boutique beers or risk irrelevance. New brewers entering the market have special releases built into their plans. Some even do away with year-round beers all together, opting instead for an ever-evolving list of one-offs, insuring that every beer they make becomes a sought-after treasure.
This is an odd way to run a business. Folks I have asked tell me that this phenomenon barely exists in the wine world. There are those who tick off the varietals they have tried—Riesling, merlot, Tempranillo, etc.—but very few wine drinkers are clamoring for that spiced-up, bourbon-barrel-aged, single-hillside cabernet. Imagine if ladder manufacturers had to constantly re-invent their product to make sales. Ask almost any brewer what they like to drink and they will tell you German lagers, pale ales, or some other balanced and sessionable beer. But the beer nerds want the special brews, and so they make them.
This situation isn’t altogether bad for the brewers. Special releases sell at a premium. These days, brewers know that
unless the beer is truly horrific, they can mark them up, hype them, and sell pretty much every drop. At the Craft Brewer’s Conference a couple of years ago, Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo related that sales of Pliny the Younger, a rarer and stronger version of the brewery’s already cultish Pliny the Elder, had bought them several new tanks; that from a beer that sold out the entire run in a mere 10-hours.
But it’s a duel-edged sword. Cilurzo made that statement at a panel called “Building Hype for your Special Releases.” The hype came back to bite him just a few months earlier when he was forced to issue a public apology following a disastrous Pliny the Younger release in 2010. Hundreds responded to the hype, stood in line for hours, and then didn’t get the beer. Beer chasers can be a surly lot. When the beer ran out, the more obsessed among them got ugly. Having had their desires denied, a few became abusive to helpless bar staff. Conflicts arose between those who went without and those who were sitting on three or four growlers of the stuff. Beer chasers can also be an opportunistic bunch. Within hours many of those fought-over growlers appeared on eBay at ridiculous mark-ups; another bit of weird behavior in my opinion, although I’m not sure whose behavior is stranger, the seller or the buyer.
In a way this beer-chaser-special-release phenomenon is like a snake eating its own tail. Beer geek demand puts pressure on brewers to make special beers. Breweries hype them to increase demand. The hype creates more ravenous chasers. Heightened demand means more pressure on brewers to produce.
Mind you, I like these beers as much as the next person… okay, maybe not. But I still have to ask, are they really worth the hype and the Herculean effort sometimes needed to attain them? Are they that much better than any brewery’s standard beers? “Better” is a difficult term. Sure, a double-barrel, Belgo-imperial stout with brett and berries is fuller-flavored, but is it “better” than a well-made Vienna lager? Often times not. Sometimes brewers overreach in their effort to create something unique, resulting in beers with muddy, muddled flavors that just don’t work. As one-offs these beers don’t benefit from the tweaking that occurs with standard-issue beers that are made over and over again. What you get is what you get. But the rarity and extremity of that bigger, badder stout makes beer chasers go to extraordinary lengths to get it, while leaving the lager on the shelf.
Most often the beers are good, but still somehow disappoint. Part of that is the hype. With so much build-up the real thing can’t possibly live up to its reputation. It is just beer after all. As one Bay Area blogger wrote after that disastrous Pliny release, “A few of my friends were able to snag a glass; they really enjoyed it, but also expressed some befuddlement about the frenzy surrounding it.”
What really disturbs me though about someone like Sign Guy is the attitude toward beer that this behavior promotes. To me, beer is about sharing; sharing both the beer itself and the camaraderie that surrounds it. It’s a social drink that’s best consumed in good company in support of good times and conversation. Even when beer is at the center of a gathering, all of the beer-nerdly oohing and aahing or sniping and grousing is still really more about the connection than it is about the beer. And although I will cop to having an accidental cellar of some hundred bottles in my basement, I still firmly believe in the saying “A beer not consumed is a beer wasted.”
The ticker mentality is the opposite of this. It makes beer an object of desire, a thing to be possessed instead of shared. I once read a story about a guy that had a cellar in an abandoned gold mine. In that cavern he kept over 2,500 bottles. With great pride he would take people down to show it off. That’s not about sharing, it’s about hoarding. Beer is treated like trophies in a case. For some there are even bragging rights involved. “I have such and such rare bottle and you don’t.” “I’ve tasted so and so rare beer and you haven’t.” This attitude was evident at Darkness Day in Sign Guy’s bartering. “What I have is better than what you have.” Declaring the superiority of the beer one owns doesn’t promote connection. It creates a wedge.
I wrote above that Darkness Day is itself weird. It is a beautiful expression of the beer chaser phenomenon; standing in line overnight in the hopes of snagging a few bottles of the rare elixir, many of which will show up on eBay by the end of the day. But it’s a “beautiful” expression because what happens in that line runs contrary to the ticker mindset. Through the course of the event bottles are opened and shared. A kind of temporary, beer-centered community is formed. The Burning Man of beer?
When kept in proper perspective, perhaps it is possible for tickerdom to coexist with the relaxed sociability of beer. If we can just get people like Sign Guy to chill.