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GREG BETZA for DRAFT

 

Why long lines, Internet snags and elbow-to-elbow launch parties make a good beer better.

By Zach Fowle

It was the best of beer releases; it was the worst of beer releases. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2013, 10,000 beer geeks, prepared to do all they could to secure their share of the first release of Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze in nearly four years, were hammering 10,000 F5 keys with 10,000 itchy trigger fingers, and the servers couldn’t handle it. For more than two hours, all 7,200 bottles of the rarely seen sour ale remained unsold, their prospective buyers stuck in Internet limbo. The only progress on The Lost Abbey’s web pages was the slow, pointless spinning of the loading symbol. And with each spin, nerd-rage grew.

“Annoyance shifting to anger…” a BeerAdvocate.com member half-joked. “If @lostabbey had an ounce of professionalism, they’d reschedule the sale instead of making their fans wait 1.5+ hrs,” tweeted another disgruntled fan. Angry messages continued pouring in even after the issue was resolved and bottles started flying off the virtual shelves. The beer didn’t completely sell out until sometime around 4 p.m., six hours after the link to buy went live. It was a disaster.

For savvy beer hunters, the experience is typical and always aggravating. When The Bruery sold tickets to the release party for its lauded Black Tuesday imperial stout in September 2010, the server crash caused by over-eager fans was so crippling, it knocked out office email, internet and the online store, and the sale had to be pushed to the following day. Despite the convoluted systems Three Floyds Brewing has designed for its annual Dark Lord release day, problems with line-cutting and counterfeit tickets continue. The wait in line just to get inside Russian River’s Santa Rosa brewpub for an opportunity to sip Pliny the Younger each February can be as long as seven hours.

Yet limited brewery-only releases—drafts or bottles that pour just once every year or so—continue to draw more attention and demand. Beer nerds gladly spend half a day watching web pages refresh, drop hundreds of dollars on a few bottles and travel across the country to pick them up. Why?

To find out, I spent half a day watching web pages refresh, dropped $265 on six bottles of Duck Duck Gooze and traveled to The Lost Abbey’s tasting room in San Diego, where I stand before a sign decorated with cartoon duckies. The waterfowl have already led me to a nearby tent, where I present my hard-won order confirmation in exchange for an envelope with a receipt, a sticker and a ticket for a tiny pour of Duck Duck Gooze 2013.

* * *

The first thing to know about any beer release: It’s the geekiest fashion show you’ve ever been to. All around The Lost Abbey, attendees show off their best brewery- or beer bar-branded T-shirt. Cantillon, Avery, Firestone Walker, the Map Room; they’re all here on cotton. The best I see all day, though, are those worn by The Lost Abbey staff, on which the three duckies from the Duck Duck Gooze label lead the way to a mantra that seems to convey their feelings about the negative post-bottle-sale feedback: “Shut the duck up!”

Everyone’s sweating through their tees as the unfiltered California sun lights up The Lost Abbey like an Easy-Bake oven. But everyone is also drinking. In one section of the tasting room, a half-dozen bespectacled and be-bearded beer geeks surround a bottle of Sede Vacante, a 15%-ABV barrel-aged strong ale brewed to celebrate the papal vacancy, purchased for the papal sum of $50. They ponder its color, aroma and flavor, scribbling notes in tiny pads along the way. Another crew has split several bottles from The Lost Abbey’s Ultimate Box Set, a collection of rare brews inspired by classic rock songs. The flavors of these beers—and which ones to try next—are all anyone seems to be talking about.

This focus on tasting beer parallels the scene you’ll find at Dark Lord Day, the annual beer festival/metal concert during which Three Floyds Brewing unleashes its coveted Dark Lord Russian imperial stout. One of the largest single-day beer releases in the country, Dark Lord Day has morphed from a gathering of 50 enthusiasts in 2004 into an 8,000-man festival of malt and metal during which it’s possible to try a hundred beers you’ve never seen before out of bottles brought by fellow attendees. By the end of the day the number of drunken bodies sprawled across the festival grounds nears that of the number of empty bottles. But the goal of the festival—at least for the brewery—remains the same as the objective of The Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze release: profit. According to Tomme Arthur, founder of The Lost Abbey, limited beers usually require more time and money to make, so selling them the same way other beers are sold—through a distributor and on store shelves—is a mistake. By releasing a rare beer right where it’s made, a brewery stands to make more from it while in turn keeping costs down for the consumer.

“Duck Duck went off the dock here for $40,” Arthur says. “If that was going to a distributor, we’d have to sell it to them at $20 to $22 a bottle, and there’s no guarantee that by the time it hit the shelves it wouldn’t be $60. Selling the beer this way allows us to be more successful, allows us to put more money back into the brewery, and allows us to control the price you guys pay.”

Barnaby Struve, vice president and brewer at Three Floyds, agrees that the primary motivation for a single-day release is economic. But, he says, the event also fosters kinship and loyalty that’s especially important to breweries. “Old-world breweries used to be the main gathering place in a town, and each season the people would get together for the release of the winter bock or whatever,” Struve says. “The beer created this sense of community.”

To break up the crowds during the Duck Duck Gooze release, The Lost Abbey assigned the 1,400 people who bought bottles to one of four 3-hour pickup sessions over the course of two days. The staggered pickup times work perfectly: Beer geeks arrive in well-timed waves throughout the day, so crowds remain small. There’s no swarming, no elbowing for a spot closest to the action. Lines to the bottle pickup, the taps—hell, even the bathrooms—move quickly. Try as they might, the same folks who got so angry during the bottle sale can’t hide wide grins as they lug cases of Duck Duck Gooze back to their cars. All in all, it’s a butter-smooth beer release, and Arthur, for his part, saw it coming.

“A little blood, sweat and tears is a good thing,” he said to me a few days before the release. “I think the part I’m really excited about is when we put this beer up and people taste it, they’ll forget about a lot of the bullshit that went into it.”

I don’t think that’s quite it, though. Standing here amid like-minded beer folk, I try to reconcile the joys of drinking a complexly funky, well-made sour ale with the exasperation of trying to acquire it: We have a good time at a release because we were so annoyed during the online sale. We enjoy drinking a beer because we had to wait in line for hours. We chase after bottles because we can’t get them all the time. Many of the top-rated beers in the world are the ones that are the hardest to get your hands on; maybe this is because, secretly, a beer tastes that much better when you’ve gone through the worst of times to get it.  •

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