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In search of craft beer’s most wanted

Rare bottles aren’t a new phenomenon, but here’s what is: breweries pushing back against the shady secondary market for their buzziest releases. Play by the rules, though, and you might still get your hands on a white whale—just in time to toast the holidays.
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Imagine a time when Pliny the Younger—now one of the most coveted “triple” IPAs in the world—sat on tap at Russian River’s brewpub for two months. That was 12 years ago, before hardcore beer fans began whispering to each other on rating websites: “This is one of the best beers in the world.” These days, owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo arrive at their brewery in Santa Rosa, California, on regular Saturdays—no special beer tapping—to find a line halfway down the block. And during the two weeks each year when the brewery serves Pliny the Younger (for on- premise enjoyment only, no bottles or growlers), expect to see the truly dedicated drinkers camped out overnight in anticipation.

“You see the frustration in the customers’ faces when they can’t get into the pub and they’ve been to five stores and can’t find your beer,” Natalie says. “We get calls from the angry retailers because 25 people come in a day asking for a beer they don’t have. Believe me, we’re brewing at 100 percent capacity. We’ve wrung out every towel, figured out every efficiency.”

The discomfort in her voice is audible. That turns to something fiercer, though, when she talks about the individuals and liquor store owners who buy Russian River beers as consumers at the brewpub, then resell them at jacked-up prices.

“We’ll get a call from a fan who goes to the store and the retailer is charging $20 for a bottle of Pliny the Elder,” Cilurzo says. (Elder is the bottled, double IPA cousin of Younger.) “We check with our wholesalers to see if that’s one of their accounts; if not, we turn them in to the [Alcoholic Beverage Control]. If we find our beer in states where we don’t distribute, that’s very illegal, and it becomes a federal issue. Unfortunately, we know too much about this.”

Cilurzo and other brewery owners who craft these beers occasionally find themselves in this odd, secondary role of beer cop. That’s even more true when it comes to beer releases that only happen once a year, like Cigar City Brewing’s Hunahpu’s Day, Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Day and The Lost Abbey’s Veritas release. These events—and they are events—sell out well in advance, and have become unique spectacles. Hunahpu’s Day ended early (and abruptly) in 2014 after counterfeit tickets left thousands of attendees empty-handed, but stricter ticket policies and a steeper $200 price tag kept crowds manageable in 2015. At Dark Lord Day this year, only attendees who purchased a special Group Sales ticket had the chance to even buy Dark Lord imperial stout bottles; general admission ticket holders were just there to watch the day unfold and hope to get their hands on a bottle some other way. These events leave thirsty consumers who don’t have a golden ticket to search the secondary market. The day of a release, some brewers take to Facebook and eBay, monitoring the very consumers they sold beer to just a few hours before.

“If I do something special for you, a private event or a special release because you’re a supporter of ours, and you turn it into a way to make a couple hundred bucks, I’m going to find out who you are and not invite you back,” says Cory King, the owner-brewer at Side Project, and the “Director of Oak” at Perennial Artisan Ales, both in St. Louis. King got his first taste of how sought-after his beers are when Perennial released barrel-aged Abraxas, a chocolate, cinnamon and pepper-flecked imperial stout that’s now a big star among beer traders. Demand has been even more intense for his sour Side Project releases (search the Twitter hashtag #bonersforcory for proof ). “It happened to me again this past Friday. I released a beer and before I even got home, some guy had it on Facebook for raffle. That’s the new thing: they sell tickets and raffle the beer off. Meanwhile, the bottle only cost him $30.”

King is quick to fire back at consumers who do this, banning them from sales and calling them out on social media. With a background in the wine world, he’s concerned about Side Project’s beers becoming inaccessible to regular consumers.

“I don’t want people to see my beer as an opportunity for profit,” he says. “The secondary market in wine and whiskey is starting to drive out the people who really enjoy those products. People just buying beer to resell it aren’t real beer people.”

Linsey Hamacher, owner of de Garde Brewing in Tillamook, Oregon, feels similarly about those who upsell de Garde’s exclusively wild fermented beers, which are released in small batches, sometimes as few as 500 bottles. “There are people that I refuse to sell bottles to because their goal is to make money off of our product. It seems when that’s the main initiative, they’ve lost touch with what the brewery’s goals are.”

Deschutes’ founder and CEO Gary Fish has even caught wind of his beers for sale overseas in places like Taiwan, Bangkok, Guam, New Zealand and Saipon, none of which imported Deschutes at the time. When Fish called a distributor in New Zealand to ask where he had received his Deschutes from, the distributor refused to tell him.

Tomme Arthur, co-founder of The Lost Abbey and Port Brewing, both in San Marcos, California, is also concerned about people reselling his limited stuff, but for a different reason: forgery. The Lost Abbey is particular about its ultra-rare releases; many of those are available for on-premise consumption only during an event and never see the inside of a bottle, or, in the case of the fawned-over, geuze-style beer Duck Duck Gooze, are bottled and sold only one day every three years. Not only are these beers nearly impossible to get your hands on, but there are also few people outside of the brewery’s walls who could vouch for their authenticity.

“People are buying fake beer. I know that there are some breweries that have had issues with people [refilling special bottles with] regular beers and faking it,” Arthur says. “We haven’t put measures in place, but we’ve planned for it. There are ways to embed stuff in the ink; high-end wineries have that type of technology. We’ve also looked at how the government deals with money counterfeiting.”

OK, so you’re a consumer who doesn’t want to get burned by a fake bottle or screwed by a $100-plus asking price. How can you get these lust-worthy beers? Resist the urge to call the brewery. Brewers cite laws prohibiting direct-to-consumer shipping, plus a simple lack of inventory, as reasons they can’t just make your beer wish list come true. Instead, get to the trading boards.

“I love people who trade beer,” says King. “Trading is what has helped Side Project sell every last drop of every beer we’ve ever made. Trading is the way I personally had my first Russian River and my first Hill Farmstead beers.”

Nearly every brewer will echo that enthusiasm for even, honest consumer trading: You send me a bottle of something I want, I’ll send you something you want. Ideally, everyone wins. But even when it comes to peer-to-peer, moneyless trading, there can be pitfalls.

“The downside is that not every beer is for everyone, so if somebody is trading five Cantillon bottles for one bottle of de Garde and they don’t like that bottle, that’s horrible for my business,” says Hamacher. “We don’t want anyone to have a negative experience because of an overinflated trade.”

Proper handling and storage are also issues in trades, especially when it comes to delicate, fresh IPAs whose hop flavors can fade after just a few hours in the sun or in the heat of a delivery truck. It’s a concern, brewers say, but mostly, they’d prefer fans to get beers through even trade rather than the black or grey market.

“I certainly don’t want to outlaw the opportunity to ship beer to another consumer; that seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” says Fish. “Anywhere where it’s legal, we think trading should be continued or enhanced.”

Trading is just about the only way Natalie Cilurzo suggests you find that bottle of Pliny the Elder, outside of booking your plane ticket to California. She’s not saying this callously, either; demand has far outpaced what Russian River ever expected.

“Scarcity creates demand. I learned about that in college, and now I’m living it,” she says. “It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem, right?”

 

Author
Kate Bernot is DRAFT’s beer editor. Reach her at kate.bernot[at]draftmag.com.

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