Collecting Alcohol in the Age of Instagram

April 13, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, April 13, 2018

In a world where chubby dudes in cargo shorts sprint like it’s the Oklahoma land run in order to land a couple choice pours at Cigar City Hunahpu’s Day, few behaviors of the modern beer geek are capable of grossing me out anymore. Except for one thing—the beer wall. Stand in line at a red hot brewery for a few hours, buy $100s-worth of New England-style IPA cans, then go home and stack them like a beaver building a dam in order to take a pic. There are tens of thousands of these images on Instagram; they’ve become the most archetypal of beer world braggadocio.

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure where this impulse to post haul pics come from,” notes Kenny Gould, co-founder of Hop Culture. “I think beer pics come from a place of love for the industry—they’re just a poor expression of that love.”

It’s funny he says that because, lately, I’ve even begun to wonder if this new breed of beer buyer does actually love beer. For many, it just seems like they love the pure dick-measuring contest of owning tons of it and letting the rest of the world know about it.

The walls usually appear on Saturday afternoons, soon after the beer buyers have gotten home from a long morning partaking #linelife. Sometimes they have had a brag-worthy “share” during the wait to boot and there’s a #killshot. They’ve wheeled their bulging Samsonite back into their apartment, rolled their loaded hand-truck into their garbage, and now have nothing else to do but unpack their bounty and brag further about it. I can’t help but create fanfic in my head, wondering what these guys’ wives think when hubs comes home and begins stacking #freshies like children’s blocks.

“[I’d] Google search:  how to file for divorce,” jokes Traci Morris, if she caught her husband Cory Smith (@bkbeerguy on Instagram) making an NEIPA beer wall in their Brooklyn apartment. Thankfully, he is as baffled by the walls as I am. Maybe the both of us are just growing old and out of touch.

It’s not only NEIPAs of course. I was captivated back in December when I stumbled upon an Instagram user, @mrshacorey, who had posted an image of an astonishing 44 bottles of Hardywood’s Kentucky Christmas Morning he had just purchased. An 11% ABV bourbon barrel-aged coffee-infused gingerbread stout, surely he was not going to drink all those beers, I figured.

As another user commented on his post: “Nice work bro!” which seems to be the thinking amongst today’s beer collector. Buying beer is the “nice work.” Drinking it? Who cares, bro. I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.

Matthew Curtis, Good Beer Hunting

This habit isn’t unique to the beer world. When I’m not playing the part of beer fan, I’m  digging deep into the whiskey world. That’s why I can’t help but compare the current state of show-offy beer collecting to the conspicuous consumerism that has long existed in that world, something I’m surely guilty of myself.

Scotch has been collectible for decades, even seen as a potentially good financial investment amongst the well-heeled. But, for the most part, its largest collectors don’t really exist on social media. Maybe they’re too old, too posh and too “continental” to waste time bragging about bottles amongst digital millennials. Of course, the scotch world’s top collectors are sometimes also buying $250,000 bottles—are a few likes on Instagram really gonna shoot any more dopamine into their noggins?

Bourbon might be a better comparison to beer, as it was hardly a collectable until recently. Aside from gimmicky midcentury decanters (whose contents were mostly ignored), there really wasn’t bourbon even made for collecting until the turn of this last century, when we see products like Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece arrive. Believe it not, the vaunted Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old didn’t even hit the market until 2004, right around the time 3 Floyds was introducing Dark Lord—arguably the beer world’s first “rare,” collectible beer.

Of course, while hot new pastry stouts might go for $30 and a case of NEIPA might run you 100 bucks or so (so long as you’re willing to live that line life), bourbon costs so much more. Certainly when bought on the secondary market where most of the top bottles pretty much have to be nabbed these days. Thus, bourbon collectors inherently have to have more money to dispose of than beer geeks. This allows for some truly jaw-dropping accumulation and truly audacious social media posts.

Look at my full set of Red Hook Rye.

Witness my massive bunker of Pappy and BTAC.

Check out my limited edition Wild Turkey.

Uh, sorry, that last one was me.

“Some posts are sincere and the person is new to the bourbon hobby and doesn’t know any better,” explains Blake Riber who runs the Bourbonr blog and related Facebook group. “Others simply come across as arrogant and a stroke to that person’s ego. Deciphering the two is hard sometimes. I guess people mostly post these pictures because it gets them likes.”

All these bottles will be opened eventually, whether by the collectors or their estate when they die.”

If we’re talking about dick-measuring contests, it almost has become literal in the bourbon world. The #beerwall of bourbon is the “crotch shot”—find a pricy bottle at the liquor store, then immediately take a picture of it in the parking lot, nestled between your legs, the steering wheel of your Mercedes or Lexus visible.

“I think the crotch shot was an evolution of bourbon hunting,” says Riber. “I don't know who started it. I’m sure it was in one of the early Facebook groups. Some guy scored a bottle of bourbon. Ran to his car. There’s no time to get home and take a picture when it’s the praise of internet bourbon friends you thirst. In his excitement he put the bottle between his legs and posted it. After that it just became trend.”

Of course, the crotch shot surely also evolved because, unlike beer geeks for the most part, bourbon guys are naturally also luxury car guys. They’re also golfers and cigar guys and #watchporn enthusiasts—anything they can conspicuously spend money on and then show it off to strangers on the internet (all the better if all these expenditures can subtly appear in one single Instagram post).

Sometimes it’s not even subtle—posting receipts has even become a standard of late. Gauche? No way. Can you believe I only paid $500 for this?! Only!

“I really had no interest in IG until my wife made an account for me,” Corey Chandler tells me. As I was stalking @mrshacorey’s posts—jealous, yes, jealous, over his great whiskey collection—a funny thing happened. I became friends of a sort with him. “I thought it was a waste of time, but started to enjoy the comments and feedback. It was encouraging to instantly join a community as obsessed as I was, and to have some validation for the ridiculous amount of time and money I spent hunting [beer and] whiskey.”

So maybe I was unfair to judge all these conspicuous consumers so quickly. Sure, Chandler was seeking validation for his efforts in life—who isn’t?—but he was buying so much beer and whiskey because he actually loved it. Chandler claims to drink nearly one Kentucky Christmas Morning per week, so those 44 bottles will almost last him until next year’s release. Maybe these other folks I’d mocked were just like him and, like Gould says, expressing their love poorly. Chandler, for one, doesn’t think this rampant conspicuous consumerism is a negative to be scorned.

“There are different ways to acquire these [rare] bottles and for the most part each requires a ton of work,” explains Chandler, whether that’s being a loyal customer and making connections, a person who spends hours haunting liquor stores around town, or simply working hard at a job to have money to buy these pricy bottles outright. “I don’t think any of these are bad for the industry. In fact, I think it’s good! The industry is booming and it’s because of all of these people that acquire [bottles] any way they can.”

Chandler tells me that rare bottle hunting, whether for beer, bourbon or now even rum, has pretty much become a second full-time job for him. Though, at least, the fruit of his work is in drinking these remarkable scores like, say, two of the mere 710 bottles of Old Rip Van Winkle 25 he somehow accumulated.

Matthew Curtis, Good Beer Hunting

Conversely, there are also people that, yes, are merely buying rare bottles as investments. And, not even monetary investments like in the scotch world, but investments in their social media standing. Yes, I’m telling you dudes are out there buying, say, Russell’s Reserve 1998 or Four Roses Al Young only to brag about them online and bask in the iPhone glow of cascading likes.

“I have people that ask me to hunt down bottles for them so they can display it, never to be opened,” Chandler admits. “Their loss!”

For his part, Riber has tried to combat this particular type of conspicuous consumerism. He recently instituted a rule in his Bourbonr Facebook group that members could only show off their #bourbonporn if they had actually opened the bottle in question.

“The point of [my] group is to expand bourbon discussion and debate,” Riber explains. “We lose some cool posts about older bottles and people trying to date a dusty Old Grand-Dad they found in their grandma’s basement. Overall, I think it’s been positive. It was getting to a point where 50% of the posts were ‘Look at this score!!!’ I can only take so much of that. Now, I encourage people to open those scores and share tasting notes.”

Chandler isn’t as concerned with people actually drinking their rare scores. In fact, he thinks there’s really no need to worry about the buyers that don’t even plan to ever drink their rarities.

“All these bottles will be opened eventually, whether by the collectors or their estate when they die. Doesn’t bother me that they are collecting dust until then!” he notes. “I get that people get upset when they see these rare bottles hoarded by ‘collectors,’ but my response would be if you want them, go get them! Do your research, sleep in front of stores, travel multiple states and trade for the white whales you want. Don’t get upset at those that have what you want, ask them how you can get it too.”

Gould has an even better idea—just start ignoring things. Quit caring. Quit paying attention to the #beerwalls and “crotch shots” on Instagram. Make the conspicuous go completely unnoticed. Maybe then the posters will even change their ways.

“I think it’s human nature to try and gain validation for our interests,” claims Gould. “But has anyone ever tried to make you look at pictures of their baby? Beer haul pictures are kinda like that, in that people might pretend to care, but they really don’t.”

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