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Breweries Improve Their Release Strategies

February 03, 2018

By Andrew Craig, February 03, 2018

Waiting in line is not fun.

So, if you were to ask someone ten years ago whether they'd want to wait in a line of a hundred-people-deep for hours at daybreak on a weekend morning, they'd probably laugh at you. For a sect of beer drinkers today, though, it's the norm.

"It used to be, you could buy a brewery's beers whenever," says Basil Lee of Finback Brewery. "They'd have a release once or twice a year for that crazy imperial stout, or whatever. Breweries built festivals and events around it. Now it's come to a point where it's a normal way of buying beer."

Sure, there's often a kind of tailgate community within the lines, with people sharing folding chairs, coolers and beer-filled handcarts while chatting and waiting for their turn to stock up on whatever's for sale that day. But for the casual drinker, having to brave a multi-hour wait for the chance to buy cans of beer isn't exactly a good time.

The trend has grown hand-in-hand with the popularity of hazy, juicy, low-bitterness New England IPAs, and as Joshua Bernstein reports in The New York Times, demand at some of these breweries is so stratospheric that the most devoted drinkers stake out their spot in line the day prior to a release. The beers are great, to be sure, but the hours-long waits are difficult to justify. Thankfully, brewers are now taking steps to mitigate the lines—either making the long waits more enjoyable, or experimenting with other release strategies altogether.

Peter Bissell

Peter Bissell of Bissell Brothers Brewing Company says that he saw lines form for his beers as soon as the brewery began releasing cans in early 2014, just a few months after opening for business.

"We proudly opened with 10 cases," he says of their first day of can sales. On a standard day now, they'll sell through 600 cases–with a limit of 12 cans per person–in two hours. "Back in those days, it was still validating," he says. "People really like what you're brewing, and that's incredible. But then it's time to get to work stepping up to that. You have a choice – you can ignore it and just think, 'I can't believe people are lining up like this,' or you can make it better. There's a responsibility that comes with it."

But how do you mitigate the reality of skyrocketing demand when you have a limited production and sales capacity? Other than physical expansion–which many successful breweries have done, but is slow and costly and often still doesn't fully meet demand–there are a few ways that breweries have found to ease the experience.

At Bissell, the brewery works tirelessly to make every possible adjustment to their on-site operation. When staff realized that customers ordering merchandise and draft pours were slowing down can sales, they created a separate, speedier can-only line and devoted an extra hour in the morning to can-only sales. They communicate remaining availability throughout a release day to keep customers informed. They set up two mobile point of sale systems in their loading dock on days when especially high-demand beers are released. And they announce their release schedule, saying which beers will be available on which days, months ahead of time so that customers can make plans to purchase their favorites well in advance. They even offer juice boxes and toys to parents who are waiting in line with children.

"We're proud of what we're doing," Bissell says. "But we're never satisfied."

We think beer should be in abundance, not scarcity.”

Other breweries, like Monkish Brewing Co. and Other Half Brewing, will occasionally announce surprise mid-week beer releases, giving locals an opportunity to stop by the brewery on their way home from work to purchase cans without facing as sizable a line. Food trucks are common, giving dogged line-waiters a chance to have a good meal during their visit. And while a several hour wait just to buy a few cans of beer may sound absurd, the camaraderie among beer release crowds is easy to see.

"People see and know each other, and it's part of the experience for them," Lee says. "And, not to say it's a behavior that should be condoned, but people share beers when they're waiting in line, or bring beers to share with us, and it becomes a bit of a community hangout."

That said, even the most smoothly-run, community-oriented line is still a line–and there are many people who have no interest in waiting in one. Thankfully for them, breweries have been experimenting in recent years with other methods of releases.

At Threes Brewing in Brooklyn, co-founder and managing partner Joshua Stylman remembers that the first time they announced a release of cans, they had a line by 2 p.m., three hours before their 5 p.m. opening time. And because Threes is not just a brewery but a full bar with food service and events, Stylman says that "our general manager looked at us and said, 'Guys, really? Is this going to screw up my service every weekend now?' We thought about it and said no, it doesn't have to."

So rather than follow the standard formula, Threes instituted a pre-sale system, where customers would receive an email that included details of the next beer release and a link to pre-purchase. Their beer would then be available for pickup during a certain window of time the following week, so customers could come by the brewery to claim their purchase without a wait–and, if they'd like, stick around for a beer and some dinner, too.

"There are a lot of people who appreciate the camaraderie of waiting in line and it's kind of like a tailgate," Stylman says, "but for us, that's just not the brand we're building. We think beer should be in abundance, not scarcity. So from our point of view, it was about how do we create a clean and fast environment which really works in the context of our business."

Etiquette at beer releases can be a delicate thing.”

Finback does something similar, allocating roughly one-third of a given can release to online pre-orders that can be picked up on release day or another time. The reasoning, Lee says, is to give customers flexibility – dedicated drinkers can reserve beer even if they're not available to come to the brewery or spend time waiting in line on the day of a release–while maintaining an air of festivity.

"We still like the idea of having a release, and having a food pop-up, and making an event out of it," Lee says. "It's fun to have so many people at the taproom, eating, hanging out, seeing the brewery."

Similarly, some breweries offer online mail-order sales–no brewery pickup required. Almanac Beer Co. in San Francisco recently experimented with this, though were legally limited to shipping within California. Their offerings, primarily 12-ounce bottles of inventive but pricey sour beers, enjoy relatively strong country-wide distribution and so don't carry any release-day frenzy, but the online experience allowed them to offer rare vintages of beers that aren't readily available in stores.

"We've always loved that Almanac is an available luxury," says Jesse Friedman, the brewery's co-founder. "We don't do super limited stuff; we do large releases and make them available to everyone. The release is cool for building hype, but the online sales are nice for reducing friction and making beer accessible. And that's what we want. "

Despite all these different avenues for online sales and crowd management, getting ahold of beer from certain breweries does often require an unpleasantly long wait in a line. And etiquette at beer releases can be a delicate thing, especially when the aftermarket of beer trading and reselling is concerned. Lee says one issue that frustrates him is negative feedback about releases, especially with large crowds.

"People will say, 'I can't believe Finback was such a shit show today–they should know how to handle crowds by now,'" Basil recounts. The brewery does know, he says, how to handle a crowd, but can't instantly triple their staff or infrastructure for one especially busy release day.

Andrew Craig

With that in mind, cutting your favorite brewery some slack on days when they're facing large crowds is an important piece of being a decorous release-goer. Similarly, Bissell notes that he's happy to help customers with information when he can, but some have over-the-top expectations. "We get emails like, 'I live in New Jersey. If I leave in twenty minutes, will there still be any cans left when I arrive?'" Bissell says. "And it's like, 'dude, I can't look into the future any more than you can.'"

Probably the most noteworthy etiquette concern, though, is when, how, and to what extent customers should trade their highly in-demand beers after purchasing them. Browse craft beer hashtags on Instagram and you'll quickly find enthusiasts posting photos of large hauls of limited-edition beers that they either purchased or traded for as a sort of one-upsmanship among their peers.

"There are a lot of people who buy beer only to trade it. It's just like currency," Lee says, noting that it's somewhat disappointing to see customers buy far more beer than they'll reasonably be able to drink, leaving less for the others still in line. But he also understands the appeal of the system–trading your local in-demand beer for that of another region you wouldn't otherwise have access to–saying that it acts as a new kind of consumer-driven distribution model for his brewery.

Bissell has similar feelings, noting that it's exciting to see beer being covered in such a way and that the aftermarket is "a societal force, one that no individual brewery can control." The hard line for Lee is aftermarket sales, as opposed to trades. "I don't think anyone should be making money off it," he says. "If you buy a ton for the sole purpose of wheeling and dealing and making money, that seems uncool to me. I'd rather you just want different beers to drink, and to trade in order to try other stuff."

But ultimately, Bissell says, the only truly important point to be followed is to have fun and enjoy–and, for those who don't understand the allure of waiting hours for a chance to buy cans of beer, to allow each their own. "People are doing this because they love beer," he says. "Can you really be against that?"

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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