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MAKING SENSE OF A SEASONAL CRAZE

Summer is over, and that means that all of your favorite breweries are releasing their big, flavorful fall seasonals. Cigar City, for example, has recently put out batches of its well-received Marshal Zhukov's imperial stout and its Good Gourd imperial pumpkin ale.

What could be better than tasty seasonal output like Marhsal Zhukov's and Good Gourd from your local brewery? For one, actually being able to get a bottle.

In recent months, the mania generated by seasonal and limited bottle releases in the bay area has reached somewhat of a fever pitch. Last year, bottles of the aforementioned Cigar City seasonals were readily obtainable at any respectable bottle shop. No wait, no lines, and no nonsense.

This year, retailers can hardly keep either beer in stock, with entire shipments selling out on the day of delivery, all across the bay. Some stores' solution? Bottle limits, restricting each customer to a single bottle, maybe three. The customers' solution? Hiring "mules" - extra customers brought in solely for the purpose of defeating bottle limits. I was recently told about an eager purchaser trying to recruit complete strangers as mules out front of a Total Wine just to stock up on Good Gourd. I've heard of mules for the very limited Cycle Brewing barrel-aged beer releases, but for Good Gourd? Good grief!

So what's it all about? Good Gourd and Marshal Zhukov's are truly fantastic beers, but they've never been anything approaching scarce. Last year, it wasn't uncommon to find dusty bottles from 2012 sitting around. This year? Good luck finding any at all.

The answer is that these beers have become so sought after in the beer-trading community that they're now extremely tough to get for drinkers living in the same city as the brewery making them. When these beers are released, traders do whatever it takes to get the maximum amount, fulfilling trade orders and building their own stock, inadvertently at the expense of casual local drinkers.

I have absolutely no objection to the beer-trading scene. But there's a downside to the notoriety that some breweries achieve largely through trading, and that downside is becoming clearer with every bottle release.

This is not limited to Cigar City beers, either. It seems like nearly every local bottle release gets a little crazy nowadays. The last two Cycle barrel-aged releases sold out in a couple of hours, while Rapp Brewing's barrel-aged imperial stout was cleaned out in less than an hour. If you were planning on stopping by to grab a bottle on your way home from work, you were out of luck.

Rather than place the blame on traders, I wonder if there's a reasonable solution. Restrictions on how many bottles people can purchase is one idea, but that won't stop a resourceful trader from acquiring a case or more of a particular beer.

Perhaps another solution is to allocate a bigger percentage of beer slated for bottle releases to kegs going into local bar distribution. While Marshal Zhukov's and Good Gourd were flying off the shelves, several local taprooms had fresh kegs on draft for days at a time. Cycle sold all of its RareR D.O.S. bottles in two hours, but the beer could be enjoyed on draft for a couple of days following its release. This still presents the problem of having to pay bar prices for a beer that you may have wanted to try at home, but at least the beer would still be obtainable to the average consumer.

Another, perhaps more radical, solution would be for everyone to just stop freaking out about every seasonal or limited bottle release. Buy a bottle or two for yourself, get a couple for your trade partners, and don't feel bad about leaving a couple on the shelf for the next guy. Don't chase delivery trucks, wait in line for beer stores to open on delivery day, or hire random passersby as mules to buy cases of beer that other people want to try, too.

That last option is the one least likely to succeed, but if everyone tried it even a little, a lot more locals would have a chance to enjoy the beers that put our local breweries on the map. - jg@saintbeat.com

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