Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Bars & Spirits

The problem with beer that has a specialty release

Now that we're coming down from the high of another great Tampa Bay Beer Week, I hope you'll forgive a little griping. That's right, it's time for a rant about the secondary market.

I'll spare you the predictable outrage and hand-wringing over where the line is drawn in the ethics of beer trading, muling and reselling. Recent studies have shown that venting frustrations is actually more likely to keep people angrier, longer; instead I'd like to look at the bigger picture.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about:

There is a sizable subculture within the beer community that's obsessed with obtaining rare bottles and specialty releases, either for trading or for pure profit. Did you see those 5 a.m. lines at Cycle Brewing last week? Those were people trying to pick up coveted bottles of Cycle's famous barrel-aged brews, which were typically limited to just a few bottles per person.

Did you notice the suspiciously aloof tourists and homeless folks buying $30 bottles of the stuff? Those were "mules"— stand-ins used to purchase more than the allowed limit. These people were just walking down the sidewalk before being accosted by enterprising beer nerds who had no qualms about making certain that anyone who hoped to purchase bottles later in the day would be left out. Some of those bottles were instantly put up for purchase online for $160-plus.

The two sides of the argument generally go like this:

The secondary market is not a problem: The value of a beer is determined by the market, so if people will pay large sums of money for a beer, then that's what it's worth. Once a beer is purchased, it's the property of the purchaser, and they are fully within their right to do whatever they want with it, including trading it for other beers or flipping it for a profit.

The secondary market is a problem: By going to great lengths to amass as many bottles of a limited release as possible, traders and resellers make it all but impossible for ordinary beer folks to enjoy these beers. These are the people who support the breweries week in, week out — not some guy in Michigan who paid $160 for 22 ounces of a brewery-only release.

Who's right? The truth is that it doesn't actually matter. Sure, it's easy to call the shameless profiteers jerks (they kind of are), but if that's what they want to do with their time, then that's their choice. Breweries generally do their best to limit this kind of behavior (in the case of Cycle, people returning to the lines after a costume change were still turned away), but the fact is that it's not going away any time soon. It's a debate with no resolution, and we could better spend our time looking at the root causes.

I'm talking about the mass hysteria that occurs when word gets out about a beer being rare and of a high quality. The craze to get a taste of it at all costs, whether that means shamelessly shutting out less-dedicated locals, paying absurd prices or sleeping on a sidewalk before the sun comes up to get your hands on a single bomber of beer.

It's the fear of missing out on something that someone told you was really great — something that will give you 10 percent more enjoyment for 1000 perfect more effort. Hype is by far a bigger driver in the secondary market than the contents of a bottle, and that's the real issue that we should be debating.

Beers like the Cycle weekday releases are very good. Actually, they're unquestionably great — some of the best barrel-aged beers in the world. If you can get a bottle or share one with some friends, you absolutely should not hesitate to do so. If you can't get a bottle, then blame it on the resellers and their hordes of mules, if you must.

But if we want to be constructive, we can instead try distancing ourselves from the hype and hysteria that comes with limited bottle releases. We should apply a touch of objectivity to our beer pursuits, focusing more on our personal preferences than getting hold of beers that we're told are must-haves.

If we can put a little bit of work into this effort, we'll likely find that there a heck of a lot of phenomenal beers out there. And there's a huge upside, too. Since there's nearly always an inverse correlation between scarcity and hype, you should be able to find some real knockouts out there without even having to wait in a predawn line. Imagine that.

[email protected]; @WordsWithJG

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