Some places manage to seamlessly project expert levels of grit and warmth. Like that alley behind your grandmother’s house, between the garage and the fields, where the paved surface is warmed by equal parts sun and traffic. Stand on one side and you are firmly planted in town, which might as well be the city if you’re at that age where grandma’s house still has a mystique. Stand on the other side and it is all the meadow breezes you can handle; you stare at the sun so you can sneeze and reset.
On this particular Sunday though, there was no sun. Partly because it was 5AM on a February morning and partly because of the freezing rain that lasted most of the day. And it was on this particularly cold and wet Sunday morning that I was waiting in line in the parking lot of Susquehanna Brewing Company in Pittston, Pennsylvania, for the latest can release by Søle Artisan Ales. 120 other people froze around me, and more cars pulling in every minute.
Our hopes and dreams were collectively focused on Good Good 2.0, a 9.0% alcohol DIPA double dry hopped with Mosaic and Citra. We also want Naked Yoga, a robust porter for lovers, conditioned on Dutch cocoa, vanilla bean, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper.
But as I would quickly learn, it’s more than that. Beyond the beer we were all about to get, it’s also about the beer that everyone brought with them. Even further, it's about the conversations, ideas, and opinions that get exchanged when strangers or close friends share a beer.
In the interest of full disclosure: I did not bring a single beer and that was okay. I was still warmly welcomed under the pop-up canopy of fellow Søle enthusiast Rob, who I had just “met” the night before in the comments under Søle’s most recent Facebook post. It was from that dry vantage point that I was able to experience the canned beer grey market shanty town that has become synonymous with Søle can releases.
At first, I thought the cans were out and on display because the temperatures were near freezing and who needs a cooler in those conditions. But no, the cans represented what was available; people would slow their pace as they walked by with their coolers in tow, making sure they got a good look at each can. If they saw something they liked they would stop and let it be known what they had to offer. And this scene played out over and over again up and down the line.
People were not here simply waiting in line, they were actively engaged in unadulterated free market fundamentalism.
Part of what allows this to happen in such an open air manner is that the line for a Søle release forms on the private property of Susquehanna Brewing Company. The other part is that the owners of Susquehanna Brewing and Joe Percoco Fay, head brewer and president of Søle Artisan Ales, allow it to happen under the premise that people will be act responsibly.
Any time you get over 500 people together, human beings in the same place, there’s going to be some f’d up shit.”
Joe started the Søle can releases at Susquehanna just over a year ago, with a Northeast-style IPA called Juicebox. Around a hundred people showed up. Søle celebrated the anniversary of that first release by brewing a reimagined DIPA version of Juicebox, called Buicejox 2.0, and over 600 people lined up for that one.
“Any time you get over 500 people together, human beings in the same place, there’s going to be some f’d up shit,” Fay said of the last four or five releases that started to draw substantially larger crowds. “For four hundred people drinking at the same time, it’s really kind of mellow for what is actually going on.”
Like free markets and many other things, it only take a few bad apples to spoil the bunch; and at the Buicejox release, things got out of hand. Alleged line-cutting led to a possible fight. More than one person was so intoxicated by the time the doors opened that they couldn’t stand. Too many people decided not clean up after themselves. Not to mention that afterwards, Joe started to receive death threats through social media and voicemail over Søle Artisan Ales’ upcoming move to their own space in Easton, Pennsylvania.
And while the matter of the death threats was resolved quickly, it’s clear that people feel quite strongly about the beer Søle is brewing and the unique community that has taken shape around each release. It bears mentioning that this model, the idea of people lining up for can releases, wasn’t the original plan. In fact, Joe didn’t even think it was an option:
“I started to do what the other gypsy brewers did, which was make a lot of beer and then put it in a lot of different places, have little overhead, make a little bit of money on each case. We started off that way and everyone was like yeah the beer’s awesome, put it everywhere, we want more, more, more. And then that beer's getting dust on it. We had 2000 cases of our first two beers, which was way too much for a new company.”
“The other thing was,” Joe said, “we didn’t think we could do releases at Susquehanna, but then they were cool with it. So I was like let’s do it.”
What they found was that the can releases allowed them to brew the beers they really wanted to brew. “If the customer’s willing to pay 100 bucks a case, we can … just make the best beer we can and so that’s what we ended up doing.”
Only a year later, and Søle Artisan Ales reached a point where making sure the customer was safe was more important than making sure the customer was happy. And with all that in mind, and at the behest of Susquehanna Brewing Company, Joe moved the release of Good Good 2.0 to 9AM and announced via social media that if there is one more unpleasant incident they will be forced to shut down the can shares in line.
With change comes resistance, and with social media comes comments. And Joe Percoco Fay reads them. First, there are the standard complaints that could apply to any brewery running a can release. Why not get a better system than just having people wait in line for hours? Why don’t you just brew more beer?
Go to a sushi buffet if you want to do that.”
Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, online tickets sales for beer are illegal. However, once the 28,000 square foot Søle World HQ opens, the line for can releases will take place indoors. That facility is set to open shortly after the smaller and more intimate Søle Bar + Bottle opens this spring in Downtown Easton. The two locations are within walking distance of one another.
So why not just brew more beer? Well, one part of it is the inefficiency of the current canning line. Matty Eck, Søle’s brewing operations manager, spent over 17 hours canning the 350 cases of Good Good 2.0.
The other part has to do with sushi:
“You saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi?” Joe asks. “He makes the best sushi in the world. Sometimes the customer says, ‘you’re so good, why don’t you just make more of it? Why don’t you distribute this in NJ? Why do I have to drive to the brewery?’ So my thing [is] why doesn’t Jiro just open a giant sushi cafeteria and mass produce it. I don’t know, it’s just common sense. Go to a sushi buffet if you want to do that.”
Now what about the more specific comments that Joe reads? The ones that say nasty stuff about a beer he put his heart and soul into, or directly about him? How does it feel to then see some of those same people in line at the next release, smiling and shaking his hand?
“Sometimes my mother has said some really intolerable stuff to me,” Joe said, “but she did raise me so I owe her a lot. These guys, their support [has] always been there. I wish people would speak a little bit more as if they were in front of the person that they’re talking about. Maybe that’s just how people should live a little bit more in general.”
“It certainly does upset me, but also if they’re willing to stand in the rain and pay 108 bucks for a case of beer, I still owe them. I’m not going to … just let them do whatever they want just because they are giving me money, because that would be something different, but if they say ‘I f’ing hate that beer’ on an app that didn’t exist seven years ago on the phone, it’s not hurting me that much.”
“More so than I’m worried about my feelings, I need that $108 because I inadvertently help someone pay their mortgage.”
It feels good to be around someone like that. It feels comfortable.”
Since that first can release, Søle Artisan Ales has grown into a team of four employees supported by a rotating group of volunteers. More people are joining the team soon, and even more once the two new locations open. And so that mortgage Joe is talking about isn’t his own. At only 26 years old, he’s still a renter. For as much as Joe says he owes his customers, regardless of their internet behavior, I get the sense that he feels he owes his employees even more.
It feels good to be around someone like that. It feels comfortable. And even after spending the past four hours out in the freezing rain, it somehow feels warm.
Before we parted ways, I had to ask Joe about something he had said in passing in an earlier conversation. I didn’t want to lead with it because it seemed almost too sensational:
“Do you really think can releases will be dead in two years?”
(In the background of the recording, you can hear someone say “That’s the headline!” I think it’s Matty.)
“I didn’t say that,” Joe laughs, but then “I don’t know if can releases will be dead in two years, but they will definitely be different. So I know that we didn’t see some customers today because they went to a can release on Friday, they went to a can release on Saturday, and then they didn’t go on Sunday because they went Friday and Saturday. I know some people will get divorced over can releases – how much money is spent and time.”
Joe pauses briefly, perhaps to give me space to picture my Wife and Kids. He continues:
“I think what’s going to happen is that there are going to be breweries that don’t share the same mentality. The customers deserve high quality because of the higher price point and because of the increased hassle and there is going to be somebody who’s just looking to cash in. And any time you get some thing and the guys that just want to cash in jump on the bandwagon…”
I think we all have an idea of how that scenario plays out. Or do we? Who will decide what’s next? Will it be the hyper-local breweries like Søle, Tired Hands, Other Half, and Tree House? Or will it be the customers that happily line up outside those same breweries rain or shine?
Maybe we’ll see that the reason completely localized good beer is thriving right now is because it is impervious to any bandwagon or bubble.
At this moment. we can’t be sure. But according to Joe, we should know in the next two years.