What Does the Future of Rare Beer Look Like?

June 12, 2020

By Aaron Goldfarb, June 12, 2020

Checking my Apple calendar I see that on Saturday, May 16th I did… nothing. And neither did most people, with the bulk of the United States still quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic. May 16th in Munster, Indiana was supposed to be the annual beer event known as Dark Lord Day. Held every spring since 2004, it’s the only day and place each year that beer fans can procure bottles of 3 Floyds Brewing’s Dark Lord, a Russian imperial stout, along with its even more limited variants like Marshmallow Handjee, a bourbon barrel-aged and vanilla bean-conditioned version that sells for upwards of $500 on the secondary market. Alas, these bottles were never released to the public this year. In fact, they’ve still yet to be brewed.

“We are incredibly sad that we couldn’t party with everyone on Dark Lord Day,” says 3 Floyds’ event coordinator Taylor Peterson, “but we are hoping we can come back with a bigger and better event when it is safe to do so.”

Yes, the pandemic has put somewhat of a pause on rare beer for the interim. You wouldn’t think it, but even if retail beer sales are up these days, rare beer releases are in flux, as they are very much driven by non-social distancing. Coveted stouts like Marshmallow Handjee and Cigar City’s Double Barrel Aged Hunahpu’s are specifically released at festivals attended by thousands of hot, sweaty, and avaricious beer geeks. And, for the last half-decade or so, the specific way that brand new IPAs have been injected into the marketplace has been through #linelife—fans and profiteers alike tightly queueing up in front of cult breweries like Monkish, Great Notion, and Hudson Valley Brewery, waiting for the opportunity to score cases.

“This release felt different, no doubt about it,” says Sarah Hedlund, the creative director at Toppling Goliath Brewing Co., referring to their Assassin, an imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels, that, unlike Dark Lord, they were able to release in an atypical manner.

Beginning in mid-April, would-be customers had to fill out a SurveyGizmo form (and pay a potential $255) in the hopes of being allowed to purchase a single bottle of 2020 Assassin along with several other bottles of Assassin variants. A lottery system was used to draw around 1,000 winners by April 16—they then had the entire month of May to set up a curbside pickup time. Toppling Goliath scheduled around 25 cars per day, and people were allowed to “proxy” for their friends, meaning some cars were picking up a dozen box sets at once, all loaded into their open trunk with no need for the customers to ever interact with an employee. It’s not exactly the raucous Assassin Days of years past, when 4,000 beer fans descended on the brewery and injected one million dollars into the local Decorah economy.

“Bottle release days are usually full of cheers, laughs, lots of energy and people having fun with their friends,” says Hedlund. “But keeping everyone safe so that we can all be together again in the future to enjoy events together was more important.”

Tree House Brewing

It’s a slightly different story for breweries best known for their limited releases of IPAs. While stouts can certainly age and improve in the bottle—Cigar City doesn’t have much to fear about letting bottles of Hunahpu’s sit around their warehouse for a few extra months—IPAs are meant to be enjoyed as fresh as possible, adding another degree of difficulty for breweries like Other Half, Tree House, and other hazy purveyors. In fact, many of these breweries’ sales strategies seem entirely built around weekly hyped releases of new cans which attract hundreds of haze bros.  

“If this was in October I would have swam through [the] virus to get this beer,” wrote one man on Beer Advocate’s message board concerning the release of Other Half’s LaceD in Space Imperial IPA in late April. “Today, not so much.”

The New York brewery is currently offering curbside pickup at both its Brooklyn and Rochester locations, and is legally allowed to ship any of its beer to addresses in New York City and southern Westchester county. It’s also sent it’s coveted cans to bottle shops for pretty much the first time ever. Admittedly, expanded brewing capacities at their two locations had meant that Other Half hadn’t had the hours-long lines it did just a few years ago—then again, a firearms-related kerfuffle happened there as recently as February—but never before has their beer been so accessible to local residents. Thanks to the pandemic, many beer fans who lived to far away or had never been willing to deal with their lines, are finally getting to try the brewery’s beers for the first time in their lives—like Rockland County residents who flooded The Local Tap House of Nyack, which Other Half used as a “drop” point for getting beers upstate.

If there’s a hazy IPA mecca, though, it is probably Massachusetts’ Tree House Brewing, which typically has lines snaking through its 70-acre property Wednesday through Saturday (there’s even a Facebook group with some 42,000 members specifically to waiting times). It’s literally the only place on planet earth to buy their beers like Haze, Green, and Julius But, on March 13, co-founder Nate Lanier wrote an open letter about “how we will be changing our approach to service in light of the ongoing pandemic” and by March 16 they had shut down retail sales completely. 

“Tree House has always prided itself on being a steadfast business that is open no matter what, and always has fresh beer like clockwork,” said Lanier, while admitting they had no choice but to shut down for the foreseeable future no matter how much it hurt. “The pain of having a cooler full of the most excellent beer we have ever made and a production team that is singing as it has never sung before.”

Thankfully, by the end of the month they had reopened for what they call “on the fly” pickups—even brewing a special On the Fly IPA that, of course, quickly became sought-after on the online trading market. At 9:30 a.m. the inventory for the day is populated online; any orders (minimum one case) must be picked-up day-of by driving by for a completely contactless pickup. Yes, it lacks the romanticism of trekking through the winding roads up the rolling hills of the Tree House property, buying some beers, then relaxing in their wooden gazebo with a pint… but it’s the only option these days.

Russian River Brewing Company

Meanwhile, out on the west coast, Russian River made shockwaves in the beer world in late May when they started allowing California residents to order bottles of Pliny the Elder, Blind Pig, and cans of their new Pliny for President, shipped overnight to their residence. These beers aren’t “rare” in the Marshmallow Handjee sense—which is limited to around just 400 bottles per year—but for the last decade Russian River’s west coast IPAs have been extremely allocated, mostly only available around the Bay Area in limited supply. Live in, say, Bakersfield or Mendocino, and there’s a decent chance you’ve never tried them. Until now.

“It might sound ridiculous, but it’s the honest truth: When I moved from the Bay Area down to Southern California, my primary consideration was finding a neighborhood with a bar that had Pliny on draft,” says Brad Japhe, a Los Angeles area resident who first wrote about the Russian River shipping story for Forbes, which went viral. “All this is to say, when you stray far beyond Sonoma County, it’s slim pickings when it comes to Pliny. So being able to get it (somewhat painlessly) delivered to your door is a big fucking deal.”

It’s thus no surprise that the first batch of online bottles and cans sold out in under two hours. Russian River immediately decided to brew a double batch of Pliny for President for their second online sale. They likewise claim they are currently looking into direct shipping to out of state customers in the future—a tantalizing prospect for many Americans who have never been able to access their beers.

Yes, if there’s anything “good” about the pandemic and this interminable quarantine, it seems to be that it’s stripped the barriers to entry for rare beer. Breweries just want their beers—rare or not—out the door in as efficient and safe of way as possible. If shipping Triple Broccoli to Yonkers or Pliny to Chino causes them to lose their longtime luster of limitedness, so what, it’s helping these breweries make money and still employ people during these tough times. 

Still, the pandemic might change the future of rare beer because it also seems to be changing what people are actually wanting to drink these days. Many brewers I’ve talked to across the country are now adjusting their production toward more light and sessionable beers—Czech-style pilsners, dry-hopped lagers, pale ales. This is the new reality of the market—people no longer want to hoard fridge- and cellars-full of limited released IPAs and boozy imperial stouts, they want stuff they can actually drink en masse. They’re tightening their purse strings and don’t want some $250 bourbon barrel-aged pastry stout, they want to spend more time drinking an economically-priced old friend. Screw rare beer!

“People are buying a lot more of our flagship beers than they did in the past,” says Hedlund; stuff like Dorothy’s New World Lager and Pseudo Sue Pale Ale. “The thought process is that people are being more cautious about how they spend their money and want to buy products that they know they like instead of taking a chance on a new beer they haven't tried yet.”

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