The sooner we accept the craft beer culture we have built, the sooner we can start to change it for the better.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been releasing the in-depth features we filmed in and around our New England documentary. In such a diverse craft beer scene we talked about a lot of different things, but the one thing that came up everywhere – partly because it fascinates us and partly because of the breweries we featured – was the subject of release queues.
It may feel like they’ve been around for ever, so it’s worth remembering how far they’ve come in such a short time. As little as 20 years ago, breweries were struggling to get anyone at all to come to their taprooms (if they even had one). As a beer lover, you either went to a pub or had a sixer at home. Any information on special events was more likely on a physical poster and or at the bottom of a Beer Advocate thread. Beer news back then was still pretty parochial.
That said, by 2005 there were signs of where the scene was headed. That year was the first Dark Lord Day, 3 Floyd’s barrel-aged imperial coffee stout release party, and also saw the first release of Russian River’s triple IPA, Pliny the Younger. It was the first notable year that scarcity drove people to specific spots around the US in a bid to get hold of something unique.
Reading through forums and watching videos of those first events (yes, I did that) you can see that they all snowballed after those first, low-key triumphs. Local word of mouth played its part in making them rammed the next year, causing small logistical headaches for the breweries who chose to host them, but these events came just moments before digital media began to change the world.
As Facebook forums flooded and Twitter began its daily, deafening dawn chorus, these events started to see more out-of-towners – tourists even – turning up, demanding growler fills and taking selfies. The notion spread to the rest of the world, like Magic Rock’s Unhuman Cannonball launches around the UK, in which thousands of beer geeks who hadn’t had any dinner attempted to take down three IPAs that started at 7% and ended at 11% ABV. At some point, the usual commercial rules of supply and demand got thrown out because as the price went up, so did the demand – insatiable, privileged demand catered to by a spec of supply that disappeared into a buoyant a grey market.
Breweries couldn’t keep up with volume, so they doubled down on the experience. They made the events more exciting and more exclusive, they introduced tickets and raffles, secret releases and endless barrel variants. Dark Lord Day now costs $180 to go in, and I’ve heard stories of people queuing and Monkish on days where they weren’t even opening, just in case something happened. Queuing for these special beers became normalised, and slowly queuing for normal releases did too. Suddenly we were back in communist Russia, queueing for our rations of liquid bread.
Do you even queue bro?
And so Brad and I found ourselves at 11am on a breezy Saturday in March, questioning our judgement at the back of a two hour queue at Treehouse Brewery. We’d been to Foam, Alchemist and Bissell Brothers by that point – all of whom make NEIPAs as good as Tree House on their day – and while a small amount of queuing happened to them all at peak times, we wouldn’t have waited two hours at any of them. Why is it that we don’t queue for quality? Instead we queue in search of scarcity. Tree House make delicious beer, but by buying these beers over easier-to-attain and equally good versions from other breweries, we are making a statement. To be precise, it’s a fashion statement.
If you take one thing away from this blog, it’s that you should follow Don’t Drink Beer. This glorious social media phenomenon is a furious, hilarious account of the craft beer world delivered by someone very much caught up in it but with the ability to look at it fresh. In one of his latest posts he states that “only luxury streetwear is a more frivolous culture” than craft beer. And the comparison is bang on.
Just like beer, streetwear is supposed to be for the masses – sure, it’s every day and functional but that’s not to say it can’t be elevated sometimes. Beer is the same – it’s a very affordable and enjoyable pass time, but really good beer can be worth championing and savouring. Beer can be both that warm, comfortable hoodie and those killer high-tops.
But the thing is, certain streetwear has become fashionable. Now, people are queuing for Supreme without knowing where it is made or by whom; without caring that the quality of the clothing. And they aren’t even buying the high fashion, interesting clothing. They just want that tee or that beanie with the logo on it, like a beer geek wants that tree house on the can. The fact that something of similar quality is available elsewhere, cheaper and quicker, doesn’t even figure in the discussion at this point. And when that white tee loses its sheen, when they have got their instagram-liking bang for their buck, fashion will have changed and a new trendy brand will be in the moment.
So the logical conclusion here has to be that even if the queues are here to stay, we now operate in a cyclical fashion-based industry. Styles will go in and out of fashion and the crowds will go where the trade winds take them, based on the whims and the wishes of brewers, writers and social influencers. The sooner we accept this – all of us – the better. Is the NEIPA here to stay? Yes. Will it always be the “it” beer? No. Are pastry stouts the end of craft beer? No. Will they be part of portfolios for ever? Yes. Fashion is fleeting, styles are forever.
When the queues get too big, those who don’t mind will go elsewhere, and those who do will still have a lovely time. But to avoid this cyclical nature breaking some breweries, let’s just remember that there is more to be gained by going elsewhere, discovering something new and having a truly unique experience than there is by standing in line with everyone else for that instagram or Untappd opportunity.