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Pant-wetting fanboys and the US beer scene

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Last night I got into a bit of a clumsy discussion on Twitter that ended very unsatisfactorily for me. Frankly it was my own fault, and I wanted to clear up my thoughts a little.

In a nutshell, I responded to this article in the NYT by sending the Tweet below to @HillFarmstead.

Tweet Hill Farmstead

I’m rather proud of that tweet since I think it sums up a significant sector, and a very large part of the mentality that holds back the American beer scene. I stand by it and I think that it is actually a pretty accurate assessment of where things stand in US beer ‘culture’. My mistake however was to not make it clear that my criticisms were not necessarily directed at any specific brewery, and not necessarily at Hill Farmstead. I say ‘not necessarily’ since it could be that my criticisms do fit them, but at the same time I do accept the fact that I don’t know them well enough to be able to make that assertion with any certainty.

Having said all of that what I feel is undeniable is this; many breweries, of all sizes, are secretly rubbing their hands with glee at the non-discriminatory habits of the ignorant, craft beer buying public in the US. There is a huge immaturity that grips, and in many ways drives, the market here in America. Punters are continually happy to buy rare (small distribution) beer, regardless of the quality of the product, and are content to pay premium prices for the privilege. As a result, many breweries deliberately influence supply by simply making things ‘one-offs’ and ‘limited’. It’s difficult (probably impossible) to tell where any brewery truthfully stands on this, and of course they would never let on, but my bet is that they all love it, since it drives up demand and hype, and can make the success of their product largely independent of quality – in short, it’s a very convenient truth for them!

All of this applies equally to breweries that are producing great beer and crappy beer – they ALL benefit. Hill Farmstead (and many others like them) is definitely benefiting from this pervading ‘culture’ regardless of the quality of their product. I’m not saying that Hill Farmstead’s beer is not good, I’m saying that to a large degree, that by limiting supply that it actually doesn’t matter! That’s my point, and at its heart it’s a criticism of consumers and not brewers.

Of course, the ones that stand to gain the most in the short to mid term are the players that are producing mediocre beer, since in such an environment they can continue to sell it regardless of whether it is good or not. One would think that the market will eventually correct itself, but for now, the ignorance that infects such a large part of the American craft beer buying public shows no sign of letting up, and even weak brands can continue to do OK, and in some cases, actually thrive.

I have absolutely no reason to doubt the sincerity of Shaun Hill as a brewer, or the sincerity of his motivation, but capping at 150,000 gallons per year forever, is a very convenient marketing tool in the current atmosphere that pervades the American brewing scene. At best, it’s a happy coincidence.

7 Comments

  1. Great post and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve had some rare, once a year releases like 3 Floyds Dark Lord & Avery Mesphistopheles and yeah, they’re really bloody good, but would I make a special effort to get them? No. If I found out they were in a beer shop I could get to, sure, but buying a ticket for an event for God knows how much, then travelling half way across the country just to buy ONE bottle is a ridiculous concept.

    I can see it getting that way over here in the UK too. Last year we saw a few limited releases that sold out within an hour or so of going online, and luckily I managed to get some of them. They were good of course, but I didn’t make any kind of special effort, I just asked friends to grab me a bottle when they got hold of some. The issue is that with more brewers opening tap rooms that are attached to their breweries, exactly the same thing is going to happen over here as it does with Dark Lord Day or Hunahpu’s Day. We’ll all be fighting over getting a rare limited release that’s worth more in hype than it is in enjoyment.

    So yeah, sorry for the rant but it’s really hard not to agree with you. I’d rather drink something that I know is an awesome beer and can get whenever I want than bust my balls paying £20 for a beer that I can only have one time, just for Uber Craft Points or whatever.

  2. I wouldn’t fault breweries for exploiting the stupidity of “beer culture” though. That’s just capitalism. A fool and his money as they say.

    Also gives less obsessed beer people the chance to try lots of beer. Yes some will be mediocre, but variety is the spice of life.

  3. I would say your argument only applies to breweries that have the capacity to actually produce more and intentionally limit supply. Something akin to the one off Bourbon County varieties. Those are used specifically to generate hype and it’s annoying as piss.

    A brewery like Hill Farmstead is small and has no desire to expand that much (though they are in the process of upgrading their facilities). Increasing production takes a lot of capital, is very labor intensive, and is not always the right move for a brewery. A brewery not investing in construction, etc. to meet the demand can be a wise choice. Especially if this is really a bubble.

    • Agreed, but my point (in part) is that I bet that breweries like HF love being in that, convenient, situation, even if not by design!

  4. Fair. But to me “immature” implies that over time (hopefully) maturity will naturally develop. America has less national history that some countries have beer history. They’re still fumbling through that awkward pubescent phase.

  5. I agree that “limited release” (in terms of time or geography) beers create a hype-hook that the community can’t help but bite. Sometimes the hype isn’t worth it and an average beer benefits where it wouldn’t have otherwise. Sometimes the hype is legit, and a good, small brewer gets a chance to gain some financial/market strength.

    I think the bigger issue is that US Craft beer is still nascent. Of course we’re clamoring over the new and exciting; it’s like dating the same boring person for 20 years and then suddenly meeting a young, hot, ambitious person who takes us on a grand adventure. We’re still in that whirlwind romance phase where we either ignore or forgive flaws because we love the person. It’s not permanent, but takes some time to settle into a comfortable, steady relationship.

    I think the craft bubble everyone talks about isn’t economic, but cultural. In a lot of ways, craft might be a fad, and we’ll see a sharp decline in “craft beer bros” over the next few years as the luster of that new romance wears off. When it does, and there are fewer dollars being throw around, drinkers will be more discerning and by default, average beer will go away.

    • Agreed, but what you call ‘nascent’ I call ‘immature’. Both words are appropriate but it remains to be seen if maturity grows out of either.

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