Rare Beer Hysteria Gone Awry

pliny-the-younger
I assume many people already saw this, and the brouhaha seems to have died down, if not gone away. But the issue remains, lingering like a wound that won’t heal. The specific incident in question began a few days ago when a restaurant in Sacramento, Kupros Bistro, got a keg of Russian River’s highly sought after Pliny the Younger (PtY), and announced on Facebook (now taken down) that they would be offering it to the public for a whopping $45 for a 12 oz. pour, though to be fair that price also included “a burger, and a buck off any other tap beer for the remainder of the event,” as reported by RanSACkedmedia.com, whose byline is “True-life stories of Modern life in California’s Capitol City.” Many people complained, not surprisingly, and Russian River Brewing was inundated with e-mails, some of which even blamed them.

What many people don’t realize — and really why should they? — is that the laws are very specific about how beer is distributed and sold. It’s a highly regulated product. Most people just buy the beer they want, without a moment’s thought about how the system works, how the pricing is set, or what the law says about it. In California, by law, everybody is supposed to pay the same price for the same beer. Whenever prices change, a “posting” must be filed in advance with the California ABC in Sacramento, and it’s done on a county by county basis, meaning a separate “posting” must be done for every county where the beer’s price is raised or lowered. I’ve been to the ABC offices. When I visited, there was a shelf for each county, with the postings heaped chronologically on each one, usually in folders, which I think may have been for each month. I think I heard they’ve finally started to digitize the information but as recently as the late 1990s they were still all analog and the only way to review them was to go to the office and start opening folders. The point is that, despite the occasional shenanigans, the price that every bar pays for a keg in a given county is the same. Neither the brewery or the distributor can start charging more in order to gouge a customer or make more money as a beer becomes more scarce, not without changing the price for everybody by posting the new price.

It’s the retailer, the business that sells the beer directly to the customer, that has more flexibility in their pricing. They can, in theory, charge whatever price they believe they can get for what they’re selling, whatever they believe the market will bear. The manufacturer (in this case the brewer) usually recommends a price point — you often hear it expressed in other industries as the MSRP or “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price,” but they’re usually not bound to take the suggestions. At Christmas there’s usually a hot toy item that becomes artificially scarce and it will cost you a lot more to get the latest Wii game, Tickle-Me-Elmo or Cabbage Patch Doll. Most people just accept that it’s part of living in a capitalist society.

But beer is usually handled somewhat differently, in part because it’s so highly regulated, and in part because until recently there haven’t been many beers that could command an excessively high price. We’re in somewhat uncharted waters. It’s only been maybe the last ten or so years that we’ve seen a proliferation of cult beers — Three Floyds Dark Lord, Portsmouth’s Kate the Great, The Bruery’s Black Tuesday and, of course, Pliny the Younger. So here’s what happened with the PtY flap in Sacramento. Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River’s brewmaster and co-owner, contacted his distributor in Sacramento, DBI Beverage, and asked them to pay Kupros a visit. Again, ranSACkedmedia.com followed up on the story, reprinting an e-mail from one of Russian River Brewing’s fans who received a reply from someone at the brewery. I feel a little funny re-printing what was obviously intended to be a private e-mail, but since it’s already been posted there, it’s already out in the public.

Thanks for the email, but, please do not jump to conclusions here, it is Kupros that is the bad guy here. DBI Sacramento is already on this as I have received a couple emails before yours, they are heading to the account right not (or they may already be there) telling them that DBI and Russian River are very upset and DBI is dealing with.

We sell beer at a posted price (ABC law) to our Sacramento distributor, DBI Beverage. That means every keg we sold them was the same price. Then, DBI legally has to post their keg price with the ABC, this means they sell a keg of PTY to all accounts for the same price. With that said, it is the account Kupros that is ripping people off, not DBI and not Russian River.

Anyway, I really appreciate you emailing us, and please know that we are pissed off beyond belief and I can say for sure that Kupros will never get RRBC beer again.

That was on March 1, the next day, the event was cancelled, and in an effort to repair their reputation, Kupros announced the following on their Facebook page:

For some of our customers who feel taken advantage of: we wanted to make clear what we were offering you: Kupros was offering something special for those who wanted to make a special night out of enjoying their pint of Russian River Brewing Company Pliny. We were offing a pint WITH YOUR choice of 4 different burgers, happy hour all day and a raffle for free another pint of Pliny at the end of it. It was NOT $45 for a pint. It was NOT $45 for a burger and a small glass. It was a package deal that was mis-communicated on Facebook. For those who called in to confirm and purchase tickets, we thank you! We also thank our loyal patrons who understand that Kupros is not about capitalizing on others, but rather — about community and the special feeling we all get when we can make a night out feel amazing by enjoy a rare taste of beer! In the end, we are sorry for the inconvenience of the lack of clear communication!

Now I don’t know anyone from Kupros, and I certainly don’t mean to keep the wound open, but that sounds like damage control, pure and simple. Let’s say the beer should have been priced at $5 for a 12 oz. glass, is the rest of that “package deal” worth $40? Removing the beer, for $40 you would get a burger (and not just any burger, but you even got to choose from among four different kinds of burgers), happy hour pricing all day long, and the chance to win another glass of Pliny the Younger. That’s the package. And in the story, it’s revealed that the burger that’s part of the package is normally priced at $14, so that would mean your raffle ticket for the second glass of PtY and the right to buy additional draft beer at happy hour prices would cost you $26. As RanSACked also notes, “no mention of the raffle prize for one lucky patron to get a second glass of Pliny the Younger” was made in prior announcements of the event.

Apparently, most people weren’t buying that explanation either, and on March 2, Kupros posted the following on their Facebook page:

“Sorry Sacramento! We made a mistake. Due to the confusion, we will have Pliny the younger on tap for $1 (6 oz. pour) on a first come first serve basis this Sun. (3-4-12) Doors will open to the public at 6 pm. So that more people can try this exclusive beer, there will be a limit of one serving per customer. See you here!”

I think RanSACked said it best, keeping up with their coverage of the local story, when they expressed what I imagine most people thought of that:

“Due to the confusion”? Or was it due to the overwhelming internet backlash? Do you feel this mea culpa is adequate? Are you willing to move on from this SNAFU and patronize the bistro for a chance to taste the ultra-rare Pliny the Younger?

And lending credence to the damage control theory, one commenter noted that Kupros had deleted his sarcastic comment from their Facebook page.

I assume, and hope, this is an isolated incidence. But it is indicative of what can happen when the market changes and there is an unbalanced supply and demand situation. Overall, I think it’s great that breweries make small, special batches of beer. It keeps their creative juices flowing and provides something fun, interesting and hopefully tasty for craft beer’s biggest fans. It’s usually great press and even creates fun events for people to attend. And who doesn’t want to try an ultra-rare, hard-to-get, or one-of-a-kind beer?

While there are people who complain that it’s gone too far, the beer’s are rarely worth all the attention paid them, or that the effort to get one is just too much, I feel confident that almost every one of those same people would happily accept trying the beer if it was handed to them. They just don’t want to make the effort. And that’s fine, nobody’s making them. What I guess I don’t understand is why so many people feel compelled to insult the brewery for creating an exciting beer that many other people are willing to take the time and effort to acquire and to insult the people who are willing to make more of an effort than they are? It usually comes across as sour hops to me.

But as more and more beer lovers are finding craft beer every day, this is a problem that’s only going to continue to grow. When popular breweries make a small batch of beer, chances are there are more people willing to buy some of it than there is beer to go around. Whenever I get a chance to try one of the “cult” or rare beers, I feel fortunate and lucky to have had the opportunity to try that beer, but there are plenty of such beers I’ve never tried and perhaps never will. And for me, that’s just fine. There’s plenty of great beer out there, and I’m not going to waste my time fretting over what I didn’t drink. If someone else gets to try a beer I didn’t, I say “good for them,” and hope they’ll please tell me how it was and what it tasted like.

But it seems to me that many people feel that they’re somehow entitled to that rare beer, and if they don’t get it, then it’s just not fair. People who missed the lottery for some of these beers seem to feel they’ve been cheated somehow. People in other parts of the country seem to think it’s unfair that locals have the advantage. When a beer sells out before they’ve had a chance to try it, they take it personally, as if the brewery ran out of it on purpose just to ruin their day. I’ve even heard people complain to beer festival organizers that because they didn’t get to drink one of 100 or more beers available at an event, that they should be entitled to get their money back, as if a beer festival ticket guarantees a taste of every beer served there. This attitude seems to cause all manner of bad behavior.

If I’ve learned anything in my half-century on planet beer, it’s that people are funny creatures. They definitely want what they can’t get, and so there will always be a market to satisfy such demands, which is why we’re seeing a grey market emerging for cult beers. I saw a tweet recently that someone was filling two water bottles with Kate the Great and was looking to sell or trade one of them. I toured Three Floyds after CBC in Chicago a few years ago and discovered that a few days before someone from a tour group had stolen two bottles of that year’s Dark Lord and put one of them up for sale on eBay.

Many rare bottles now show up on eBay, and eBay seems to look the other way even though it’s supposed to be against their own policy to allow alcohol sales. They get around it by just selling the “collectible” bottle. Uh, huh. I even understand that an industry representative contacted them to try and put a stop to such beer sales and was rudely told they’d have to sue eBay to stop it. In many conversations I’ve had with brewers, they hate seeing their beers sold like that on eBay. But as long as there are people willing to pay high prices for rare beer, people’s greed will keep such a market alive. I’d love to believe we’ve moved past the “greed is good” days of the 1980s, but sadly there’s no evidence I can point to that doesn’t make me think as a society we’re even more controlled by money than ever. And so in order to have such rare, cult beers we’re going to have to suffer the consequences that such scarcity brings.

The good news is, of course, that what that also means is that the demand for such beer suggests all manner of wonderful things to come for craft beer’s future. If we all just learn to play together a little nicer, and not be so consumed by the desire for money, I think I’d drink a little easier. I’d hate to see rare beer become like coin or stamp collecting where it’s all about what it’s worth, and not its intrinsic beauty. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, there was a big weekly flea market — Renninger’s — where people would come to on the weekends from all over the northeast. As a teenager, I remember feeling disgusted watching some yuppie from New York talking to a book seller about the leather binding of an old book while the seller tried to tell him the story its pages contained. The yuppie could not have cared less about the story; all he cared about was the value and the condition of the binding and how it would look in his house.

Beer is made to be enjoyed. It’s not meant to languish in a cellar. Yes, some beers can, and should, be aged for a period of time, but in the end their purpose is to be opened and, ideally, shared with friends. That’s true whether or not they’re rare or common. I believe that rare and “cult” beers are ultimately good for the beer industry, but only as long as they’re kept in perspective and it’s the beer inside them that’s most important. When it becomes about money, and greed, and grey markets, and eBay, and crime then we’ve lost what made them worthwhile and created the demand for them in the first place. When that happens, then I’ll really need a drink. I just may not be able to afford one.

Comments

  1. says

    I wish I had paid more attention in Economics class but I think the only way to dim the demand and the Gollum like fascination with these uber-special beers is ironically for there to be more of a supply of them. If there were two or three other beers from other breweries in limited release at the same time as PtY that have close to the same cachet as PtY then the laser hot focus won’t just be on one beer.

    Until then, I expect to read about some PtY indignity again next spring while I am drinking a great beer(s) that I didn’t have to wait in line for or win in a raffle.

  2. says

    Very good article. I think the problems we are seeing with the rare beers, and how they are being pimped on ebay, is related to the wine snobbery attitude that is slowly creeping into craft beer.

    I’ve met quite a few people in my travels that were once self-professed wine snobs and are branching out into craft beer now because of its artisinal qualities. I do think it’s great that more and more people are getting into craft beer, I just wish they’d leave the snobbery with the wine. An equal attitude I’ve seen is coming from craft beer geeks who perceive a slight from the press in its preference for wine, and so take on those same attitudes in defiance (not saying it’s logical).

    I agree with what you say concerning someone who has had a beer you haven’t; congratulate them and ask for their impressions. There are so many great beers in this country being produced by tiny, local breweries who don’t can, bottle, or distribute. For all of those complaining about not being able to taste the flavor of the moment, I encourage them to seek out their local brewery and try what very few have had.

  3. Harry says

    Jay, Good points. But when I read the story, my first thought was, “This is a free country, they can charge what they want, and if you don’t like it, don’t go.” Pliny isn’t some inaliable right or necessity, and this isn’t China with price controls. If anything, a brewer skates on the edge of regs by trying to dictate what a retailer can or cannot charge.

    • says

      Harry, I agree in principle that a bar can charge whatever they want, and I think I said so. I essentially used the incident as a jumping off point to discuss the ramifications of that, and what it means for the industry when there is enough demand for rare beers that such high prices might become more commonplace. I think you’re right that the brewer can’t DICTATE the price, but a brewer with enough demand for their beers can decide who to sell to, giving them some de facto control over how their beer is sold. The other problem when retailers/bars charge whatever they want is that most consumers don’t realize who made the decision to charge that price and blame the brewery. When that happens, it damages the reputation of the brewery and not the bar. I’ve seen that starting to happen here in the Bay Area, where it’s the brewery that ends up with the black mark even though once it leaves their dock, they have little control over what happens to it and how much it’s sold for. To me, that’s a problem, too, and I don’t know how to solve it without China-like price controls, which I would not want to see here either. As I understand it, in California retailers are not permitted to sell alcohol below cost, but there’s currently nothing against charging much higher prices.

  4. Seth says

    great article. totally agreed that its in no way RRBC’s fault that folks have pushed PtY to its cult-like status. They may be encouraging it by keeping it as limited as they do, but meh! they have other beers to brew!

    It’s so interesting how certain things achieve the cult status and others don’t..There are tons of beers in the same category as PtY that are better (in my opinion) but for some reason, that’s the one that gets picked.

    Oh, humanity.

  5. Jennifer says

    I waited in line for PtY for my first time this year, and one of the things that was fun was that everyone in line wanted to talk about craft beer. So it wasn’t like Black Friday at Best Buy or anything horrible like that — I struck up conversations with strangers about beers and breweries and received recommendations. The same thing happened when I sought out Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA.

    The trouble with expectations of breweries creating more of a supply of these elusive beers is that they’re often already at capacity and making other beers — that’s the point of a microbrew or smaller brewery.

  6. says

    Having worked in both wine and beer for twenty years in Seattle – and having written about beer for almost forty – I’m seeing the same dynamic at work in the craft brewing culture as what almost ruined the wine trade in the Northwest: the trendy, “Flavor of the Month” tendency among those whose lifestyle is built around either beverage to anoint one brewery or winery, one beer or bottle of wine, as the current Chosen One and create a demand for it that’s usually solely based on “buzz” and not necessarily the quality of the beverage. I’ll state, right up front, that I find both Plinys the rough equivalent of licking a pine tree and have never really understood the appeal. This sentiment has sent be back to taste and retaste both at least a dozen times, reasoning that, because other people love the things so freakin’ much, there must be something askew about my own tastes. I would be willing to bet my next month’s paychecks that, if Kupros has any beer selection at all beyond three or four craft beer taps, there was something in their kegs that would, in a blind tasting, hold its own – or better – with PtY.

    What the beer trendies find it difficult to grasp is that, IF they care at all about the art and craft of artisanal brewing, they’re actually damaging the very craft they profess to love. In deifying ales like the Plinys and Dark Lord, etc., they, in effect, relegate a lot of great beers to inferior status, make demand for then go down, and help make breweries struggle, sometimes when their work clearly merits a better outcome. In my work, I CA NNOT fixate on any one or small group of beverages and while I do have favorites, I’m a fan of the CRAFT of brewing, rather than just a particular beer. A rising tide floats all boats and when some avaricious retailer like Kupros creates what is, effectively, a whole new price ceiling on a given, limited production ale, they let a lot of the water out of the bathtub. In wine, this trendiness has helped drive CA wines over the $100 price point and is now driving WA wines past $50, with no consideration to the actual value of the wines – production costs, material costs, whatever mark-up is needed to remain profitable, etc. – creating exactly the same effect: devaluing any winery not so anointed. I know winemakers here in Washington who got discouraged because they couldn’t manage to rack up a 95-point score or generate buzz and just closed the winery. Is this what we want for the craft beer culture?

    Kupros should be boycotted by anyone who cares about craft beer and ANY attempt by a retailer to artificially jack up prices should be met with maximum resistance.

  7. B-Dub says

    According to the Kupro’s Facebook page – RRBC apologized to them… ? This was in response to a comment that called Kupro’s out.

    “Actually Russian River apologized to us for their strident reaction. So please check the facts and enjoy the last day of beer week!”
    March 3 at 3:49pm via mobile

  8. says

    I think this incident and cult beer inflation is a great example of how some people have too much money or that things aren’t as bad as the media likes to paint it out to be (well, other than the giant income gaps here).

    I generally try between 200-300 new beers to me a year — keep in mind I haven’t cleared more than $20K in about three years — for the last three years. I haven’t had any of the cult beers mentioned in this write-up. I would if I came across them. I do have a rule though that I don’t pay more than $20 for a 22 or 750, particularly if it hasn’t gone through a lengthy and complex process of aging and blending like Cantillon (yet it still sells for €7 from the brewery). Although, I rarely go $12 in reality.

    I have had some beer that has been borderline cult or very popular with a certain crowd and was less than impressed. If “it’s pretty good” come out of my mouth after trying a hyped beer — regardless if it’s a great example of a style — and it’s priced above similar beers from other breweries, you can bet I’m not going to bother with that beer, and maybe brewery, again. Now saying that, I do understand handling and age issues, and that you can’t dismiss a brewery by one beer alone. But, with the selection of beer available in many places now, why bother? I’ll eventually make my way around to a beer or brewery that should have a second chance though.

    From my travels I usually get to visit about two dozen breweries a year, and let me tell ya, some of those breweries don’t do any better than the first beer I made in my kitchen. I mean let’s not forget that Bud/Miller/Coors Light still outsells just about everything else combined. Individual standards in the U.S. still aren’t a shining example of discerning consumers by far in any sector of retail. With the breweries that have opened recently and about to, there’s a growing number that didn’t take the time to learn how to brew at a commercial level or just got into it because it’s beer and trying to get in on the boom. Some still think it’s the greatest thing ever. Just because some people have quite a bit of money to throw around doesn’t mean they are smart consumers or even knowledgable in the slightest about what they are buying. A lot of bandwagon jumpers and delusional people out there. Just check out what I found yesterday from an unrelated search: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Three-3-Floyds-Sour-Brown-So-Bro-bottle-420-from-makers-of-Darklord-Zombiedust-/190649448531 He rejected my offer of $20. It’s for a conical though, so that makes it OK right? Ahh, the wonderful world of economics and eBay….

  9. says

    Great story, certainly the most thorough examination of this incident and its meaning.

    Another interesting point is the turnout that Kurpos had when they offered the $1 glass in the evening on a Sunday. VERY little attendance. People leisurely sipped their first glass of PtY and then went back for seconds. It was nothing like the line of people who gathered the next day (Monday) at 2:30pm where dozens were turned away as the keg was emptied in 15 minutes.

    Even at $1 a glass, many of Sacramento’s beer lovers were sufficiently soured on Kupros’ handling of the entire situation to pass. Many locals expressed the same two word phrase when I asked them if they attended the $1 pouring.

    “F*$# Kupros”

    Ouch. I hope that they can recover from this major PR boondoggle.

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