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The Ugly and the Beautiful

Mar 13, 2014 -- 3:01pm

Part 1 - Craft Beer Turns Ugly

At Cigar City Brewing Company in Florida, what was supposed to be a great celebration for a great beer, turned into a huge disaster. Even the owner of the brewery said it “sucked” and he would never do this again. Over the years, more and more anticipation would build over the release of their Hunahpu Imperial Stout, which had become the traditional celebration at the end of Tampa Bay Beer Week. This set out to be a huge windfall for the brewery and a great way to connect with their fans. They sold tickets which got you into the event, and then you got the right to purchase some bottles of this highly rated beer. The day of the event, they discovered early on that people were sold counterfeit tickets but instead of turning them away, they let them in. As the crowd grew throughout the day, they started hopping fences, cutting in line and Cigar City had to shut their doors because they couldn’t manage the crowds and they ran out of the prized beer. People with legitimate tickets were shut out and there were angry drunk people banging on the shuttered door of the brewery and breaking their sampling glasses in the parking lot. Police were called in to make sure it didn’t go any further. Loyal, now former, fans of the brewer were calling on boycotting the brewery and the backlash is continuing in social media.

Now, there are plenty of well run special beer release events that are executed every year without any trouble. Bourbon County Stout, Dark Lord Day, Kate the Great and Pliney the Younger are just a few that get lots of press every year, have huge turnouts, and are considered good for craft beer. These are events where people spend time, standing in line, waiting hours and hours, sometimes in the cold, rain and snow, for the privilege to sip, savor or purchase what is most often a once a year release. This can lead to a great camaraderie amongst the beer lovers willing to put the time and effort into it. But as was evident in Tampa, human nature creeps in. Simple fans can turn into the equivalent of ticket scalpers or scammers when they see a potential to turn a quick buck. It’s not unusual to see special beer releases posted at a huge markup on-line (illegally that is) or even have an increased trade value amongst beer traders. The perception of value drives this. Is it crazy to think that there could be scammers refilling empty bottles of Westvleteren 12 with some other beer, capping it, and selling it on-line or duping someone in a trade? Can this happen? Sure. Happens in the wine world. Will it happen? It’s likely. This can be the ugly side of beer enthusiasm.

Cigar City tried to make the best of the situation and offered free beer at their brewery the day after the cancelled event. Some took as an insult considering loyal followers had driven miles and miles or flown in just for the event on that day. They also said that they would brew more Hunahpu. This they hoped, would help them satisfy some of the consumers that joined their special release club and missed out the first time at the failed event. But that just makes you think, why didn’t they just brew more in the first place? Breweries have the right to make or not make, any beer, any time, for whatever reason. Most breweries (pending some special ingredient or cost prohibition) could also make any of their special releases year round if they chose to. Is it okay for a brewer to use the leverage of scarcity to create interest and get people talking about their brand? I believe so. Sometimes creating that demand is the cheapest and best form of advertising for a brewery with no real marketing budget.

We are in a golden age of beer where any style could be brewed just about anywhere with the right ingredients and equipment. Beer can be duplicated to the point of no one being able to tell the difference between a beer made on the west coast and one on the east coast. So what is it we are seeking as beer lovers or fans of a brewery? Is it quality? Is it something local and unique? Is smaller better? I’ll explore this more next time.

-John Gestautas, Keg Keeper
Certified Cicerone®
Master Brewers Association of America Beer Steward

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