It appears success has killed one of the most successful events of Tampa Bay Beer Week, and also cost Cigar City Brewing owner Joey Redner close to $200,000.
More than 6,000 people showed up Saturday for the fifth annual Hunahpu's Day Release Party at the Tampa brewery — but nearly half of them appeared to have counterfeit tickets. Many people waited hours in line and turned ugly when some of them didn't get the beer they were promised.
YouTube videos show attendees yelling at organizers as Cigar City shut the doors on distribution, leaving many empty handed after hours of waiting. A visibly shaken Joey Redner was flanked by police officers as the crowd took up anti-Cigar City chants.
"This whole thing makes me physically ill," Redner said on Monday. "I got into this business because I'm passionate about craft beer. It's a culture that's 99 percent jerk free, but I may have to revisit that percentage. I'm not doing (Hunahpu's Day) with a bottle-release component ever again."
In addition to killing next year's release party, Redner made other moves in Saturday's aftermath to make things right with customers. He is reimbursing all 3,500 holders of legitimate tickets their $50, for a total of $175,000. And on Sunday he opened the tasting room for free, giving away $9,000 worth of craft beer.
To understand the Hunahpu's hullabaloo, you need to know that Cigar City Brewing is at the epicenter of Florida's craft brewing revolution. Hunahpu's is Cigar City's most celebrated beer, offered in a limited release one day a year only at the brewery. Last year's bottling scored a perfect 100 on RateBeer.com, a leading beer aficionado site. A single bottle has been resold for as much as $250.
"It's attained cult status. But it's not directly correlated with the quality of the beer," says Joe Tucker, executive director of RateBeer.com. "There are several of these limited-release parties around the country. Beer has gotten to a point where these kinds of beers are making little cultural footprints. It's worth making a trip and waiting in line — this is a way you show your support and inclusion in a culture."
So what went wrong at this year's event?
Last year nearly 9,000 people showed up for the admission-free release party, so as a means of limiting the number this year, Redner sold 3,500 scannable tickets, which sold out in two hours in January. Tickets began showing up on Craigslist soon after — some apparently counterfeit — and at least one person was selling tickets at $10 each in the long line that formed Saturday between Spruce and Cypress streets.
Redner says that as early as 11 a.m. on the day of the event, he was aware of the counterfeit tickets, "but when somebody is standing in front of you in tears adamant that they didn't counterfeit it and they've traveled from far away? We made the decision to let them in."
Attendees got a wristband to taste beer and a second, silver wristband to buy a limit of three 22-ounce bottles of Hunahpu's for $20 each. That's when things got out of hand. According to Gerard Walen, a beer blogger in Crystal River and author of the upcoming book Florida Breweries, in previous years Cigar City has set up multiple selling points.
"If ticket sales had worked it would have been a very smooth event. They were operating under the assumption there would be 3,500 guests and 500 or so volunteers and brewers. Had there been that number, the set-up would have worked fine."
Attendee Jeanna Malines, a brewer and writer for American Craft Beer, says the clog at the entrance and ticket scanning problems were severe, and that no amount of roped lines or planning would have made the selling workable for the number of people who showed up. By 3 p.m, she says, the Hunahpu's bottles were sold out.
"The whole situation was very chaotic. It was a sea of humanity, with pushing and shoving. (Cigar City) did the best they could," she said. Malines sees what happened as "growing pains" in a young industry that is still catching up to big beer states like California.
Walen hopes the craft beer community will recognize the real villains as the profiteers and criminals responsible for the counterfeit tickets, as well as those who attend events like Hunahpu's Day to buy coveted beer to resell at a premium.
"There are a lot of people out there looking at beer as a commodity and not something you're buying for your own personal consumption."
He hopes doing away with the event's bottle-release component will take away the incentive for the unscrupulous to turn a profit, but he doesn't plan on legal action against the counterfeiters.
"I don't want to invest any more time in this."
Staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report. Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.