Everybody in beer retail knows this customer.
They call or rush into the store with the same question: “Have any Heady Topper? What about Sip of Sunshine?” (Names of rare beers obviously changing with the region.)
Your response is, “No, we’re out of that. We got our last shipment a month ago, and not sure when the next one is.”
The person hangs up or walks out.
They only want what’s hardest to find. The “white whale” beer, something that’s tough to track down, like in Captain Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick.
It’s a recent phenomenon in craft beer: customers chasing after big-profile brews that top rankings on beer websites, but rarely remain on shelves because of their small-batch/high-demand status.
Is this good for business? Or the overall beer industry?
“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s good, and also an epic headache at the same time,” says Chris Ciskey, owner of Yankee Wine & Spirits in Newtown, CT. “You can use the demand for these beers to market creatively. But I don’t go a single day without being asked if I have Sip, G-Bot, or Hooker’s No Filter IPA.”
“Sometimes I think people just want to find these beers to brag about it,” he adds. “It’s more about the status than the beer.”
To his marketing point, Ciskey posts on his store’s social media whenever one of these brews comes in. This builds social followers and brings in business. And when people come looking for white whales that aren’t in stock, Ciskey can simply tell them to follow his social accounts.
Some customers hunt down these beers not to drink but to hoard. These are traders who ship brews across the country, swapping regional white whales.
“My concern is that the beer is getting shipped far and warm, and probably getting drank older than the brewery would like,” says Zach Gaddis of Staples Corner Liquors in Crofton, MD. “And I’m worried that while the brewery may be getting fame elsewhere, because of trading it may not be getting known locally.”
And locally, Gaddis believes, is where most breweries are better off focusing.
He also worries that the craze over rare beers — and their fanatical fans who stalk local shops to buy up shipments — is bad for the “normal” customer. “He’ll never get to try that special release, unless a local bar is lucky enough to get a keg of it,” Gaddis says.
While Ciskey understands traders, he’ll also try to steer rarer products towards normal customers. “Someone I recognize who’s in here all the time and says they’ve never had something, I’m going out of my way to get it into their hands,” he says.
Like many stores, Yankee Wine & Spirits limits purchases of these beers — which typically come in 4-packs — to one pack per person. “I don’t hide it. I put them out there,” Ciskey says. “I’ll get multiple cases of them and hold back only a handful for certain people.”
“Lots of places in Connecticut will hide these beers,” he adds. “If you don’t know the guy who works there, then you can’t get it. That can be frustrating for customers.”
Are these beers even worth the fuss?
Most of them are pungent, opaque IPAs, strikingly fruity and bitter. No doubt they pack a flavorful punch.
But that’s not for everyone. And with the hunt for rare beers getting ample attention on social media, some producers may be going overboard in their attempts at such IPAs. “I just think a lot of breweries are . . . making over-hopped, unbalanced beers,” Gaddis comments.
Many of these are top-quality beers worth checking out if possible. Consumers should know, though, that brews of comparable quality — 90-95% as good, if you will — are readily available without running around town or waiting in line. Ciskey points to classics like Flower Power by Ithaca Brewing, Sculpin from Ballast Point, or the IPAs of Lagunitas.
If you cannot locate that elusive white whale, perhaps check if there are other interesting fish in the sea. “I’ve got IPAs in here that are comparable to Sip of Sunshine on a regular basis,” says Ciskey. “Ask your local beer guy. They’ll point you in the right direction.”
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent articles Are Craft Beer Bombers Going Extinct? and How Long Will The IPA Craze Last?