But I Want It

Miles Liebtag, March 20, 2014

A sad story, but a true one: just because you want something and have the money for it does not mean you are entitled to it. I know it's hard for us as modern American consumers to fathom, but sometimes your buying power outstrips your access, or the availability of whatever it is you want to buy.

And ever is it thus with beer! The availability of a particular beer in a particular market is subject to a complex set of relationships that starts at the brewery and ends with the consumer, typically with a fair number of brokers, distributors, importers and retailers in between. If you're ever denied a rare product at your local bottle shop, you may ask yourself, "Why? Why not? Why me?" Decent bet that there's a complicated and ultimately boring answer to that question.

Perhaps in that situation, though, your response isn't "Why?", but rather, "FUCK YOU." As it was for so many in Tampa weekend before last, when Cigar City's annual Hunahpu Day bottle release/festival imploded in a paroxsym of rage and buttsweat. The video you've probably already seen by now shows a few panicked CC employees waving the crowd back with the assistance of the local constabulary. Once the garage doors come down and separate the ravening mob from the $1-an-ounce liquid, teeth are bared and fists are raised, literally, as a bearded ginger leads the gawking rabble in a rousing chant of "CIGAR CITY SUCKS." The cops come back out and administer an annoyed scolding; the crowd settles down long enough to presumably take out their phones and start duly registering their outrage on social media. 

So what happened? Long story short is, CC ran out of the coveted bottles after just a few hours, due in part to an influx of people who got in with fake tickets or (allegedly) squeezed through a hole in a nearby fence. Regardless of how it happened, the video described above shows a lot of people coming to the realization that they won't get to spend money on something they want, something that they paid for the privilege to purchase. Many people came from states away with the intention of spending mucho dollars.

Much of the initial reaction to the debacle online was vituperative and directed at Cigar City for their poor event planning and management; evidently being a “fan” or “supporter” of a brewery to the extent that you’re willing to wait in line for hours to spend hundreds of dollars on their product does not mean you’re willing to cut them any slack when it comes to crowd management. Poor Joey Redner. Not only does he have the financial and PR fallout to deal with, but he spent an amount of time being confronted by grown adults who were literally weeping because they could not buy three bottles of beer. 

Perhaps this is all a result of a failure to set reasonable expectations. Not a failure on the part of America’s craft breweries, but a failure of the whole machinery of 21st century American consumer capitalism to prepare us for the indignity of deprivation. Sheer dollars so rarely fail to overcome scarcity in consumable goods these days. Perhaps you’ve seen race-baiting news outlets like Fox News play footage of urban youth trampling one another at a limited sneaker release and thought, “Absurd!” Maybe you would also follow around a delivery truck if you thought there was some Founders KBS on there. The impulse is the same, and we won’t even talk about your Dark Lord bottles. 

I’ve railed against hoarding before, and while I think that hoarders probably contributed significantly to the unpleasantness in Tampa, entitlement is a much more common trait. After Redner announced (sensibly) that this madness was over and that Hunahpu would hereafter be sent to market through his regular distribution channels, I saw some resigned but ultimately good-natured disappointment registered in this reddit thread. One commenter suggested that now consumers would be forced to “make friends with the beer store employees” in order to get their hands on Hunahpu, presumably because said employees would feel less inclined to relinquish the precious liquid to loudmouthed cherry pickers who demand instead of ask. So maybe some good will come out of all this after all. 

Feelings of grand entitlement are by no means limited to consumers. Alex Fossi recently wrote about a bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. that caused a stir by serving unauthorized (though not illegal) cans of Heady Topper and growlers of some Hill Farmstead beers, all driven down from Vermont by parties unknown. An obscure bit of D.C. liquor law allows retailers to purchase and resell any products for which there is not a current local distribution channel. Shaun Hill, proprietor of VT’s Hill Farmstead and a notorious stickler after the serving quality of his beers, was rightfully displeased, as Fossi notes. The idea of serving beer from a week-old growler is horrifying to me; I wouldn’t serve that to my friends, let alone at my business. 

Though Fossi ultimately concludes that “it’s not worth taking away a brewery’s ability to control the supply of their beer,” the general tone of the piece echoes what I saw as the generally positive attitude toward this peculiar loophole in the D.C. law. If a local retailer undertakes to bring in a highly prized beer, even over the protests of its producers, that’s a net positive for the local consumer, right? Not exactly. Fossi writes:

'Consumers, on the other hand, seem to be strongly in favor of the status quo. It's easy to see why. If our options were "have access to craft beer from anywhere in the country" and "not have access to craft beer from anywhere in the country", I daresay most of us would pick door #1. Retailers, for the most part, seem to agree--they can draw consumers with the promise of rare beers, and the only downside is that the restaurant next door can do the same.'

The idea that you should be able to get any beer you want from anywhere in the country at any time runs counter to the very idea of what craft beer is. Some beers, including those from the Alchemist or Hill Farmstead, are special by virtue of only being available at certain times, and at certain places, and under certain conditions. To argue that Heady Topper should be widely and easily available to you just by virtue of the overwhelming demand for it is to argue against the very ethos of these breweries—after all, the scarcity of Heady Topper is a direct result of the brewery’s refusal to increase production at the expense of quality. Would you rather be able to enjoy something really incredible every once in a great while, or just have something good that’s readily available? 

I’ll close by making the argument that the much-maligned middle tier in our idiosyncratic American system of alcohol distribution is actually a net good for you, the craft consumer. Of course I would—I work for a wholesaler. But whether you like it or not, the three tier system is here to stay; and believe it or not, many distributors (especially craft-centric distributors) directly contribute to your ability to enjoy limited and esoteric beers from far-flung areas of the country and the world. It may seem that the bar in Adams Morgan was thwarting some draconian and needlessly restrictive system of regulations by bringing in those beers, or that Joey Redner is being mean-spirited and withholding to hardcore fans by sending Hunahpu to distribution. But the patrons of that bar now have an impression of both the Alchemist and Hill Farmstead that the brewers had zero control over, whereas the patrons of Florida bottle shops will now have a chance to purchase (at a fair price!) something truly remarkable. 

Thanks to instagram user jjustinaa for the header image.