The Cult of Beer…

Ever wonder what it takes to piss off a monk? Try talking to him about eBay.

For nearly 175 years, the pious monks of Westvleteren in the western Belgian Poperinge hop region have quietly gone about brewing what have become some of the world’s most heralded and sought after beers. Without trying, the monks scored the twin crowns of world’s best beer on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. The monks now found themselves in an enviable situation, with adoring fans across the globe pining for their beers. Problem is the monks don’t make beer to maximize profits, instead producing only enough to support their religious order and charitable goals. As the public clamor for Westvleteren’s beers grew, the monks had to fight off an unauthorized global trade of their beers, including the highly desired Westvleteren 12, with bottles selling for hundreds of dollars on-line.

After years of fighting, the monks have finally given in and agreed to release a small amount of beer for foreign export. Pricing of the specialty two packs is not yet known but expect it won’t be cheap.

In Minneapolis, the Surly Brewing Company is dealing with its own scarcity value issues. Following the release of its popular Darkness Russian Imperial Stout, the brewery’s supply sold through in a near instant. When it hit the market, a local liquor store seized an opportunity to more than double the price of the 750-milliliter bottle to $37. One local Minnesota website likened this to scalping a concert ticket at an exorbitant price. The brewery expressed disappointment at the pricing, while the store’s owner cited capitalism and market demand as a justification for the price.

This pricing situation is hardly unique to Surly and Westvleteren and occurs with frequency across the country. So what is behind this insanity? Are retailers price gouging or just reacting to the fact that market demand far exceeds supply and are pricing accordingly? It seems everyone has a different view.

Now to be sure, the breweries themselves often court this sort of fanatical behavior. Surly hosts the popular Darkness Day at the brewery, a celebration and public release party where hard core beer geeks share hundreds of hard-to-find beers from around the world. The breweries enjoy the free PR they receive from such events, not to mention they often charge a hefty sum for their specialty beers ($18 for a bottle of Darkness at the brewery).

While new to the beer world, issues of scarcity value and pricing are nothing new to the wine industry, where Garagista winemakers produce tiny amounts of wine and charge massive premiums. The irony is that those who study wine economics know something beer drinkers have yet to appreciate: the hype and inflated prices don’t reflect the inherently superior quality of these scarce offerings. Wine scholars have demonstrated in blind tastings that people cannot tell the difference between expensive wines and less costly products and on the whole they actually prefer the characters of the cheaper wines but their views change when consumers know the bottle’s price.

The same principle inevitably applies to the beer world. While Surly Darkness and Westvleteren 12 are solid beers, when sampled in a blind test they are certainly not worth double or quadruple the price of Alesmith Speedway Stout or St. Bernardus Abt 12.

Cultism is giving beer a bad name and is driving a wedge between brewers, beer lovers, and a certain class of scarcity-seeking tickers. One bottle of 2007 Surly Darkness recently sold on eBay for $475. That must make the brewers simultaneously cringe and seethe with jealousy.

The unusual thing is that in contrast to antiques or rare stamps, the scarcity value of beer is artificial in nature as breweries can simply brew more of a particular beer or distribute it more widely. The fanaticism is not driven by marketing or empirical flavor but by the cult itself. But even monks benefit from the hype.

–Article appeared in Issue 59 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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