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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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9 thoughts on “The Cult of Beer…

  1. I think that on of the factors in the united states is that some beer cost more to produce. Also, some ingredients, even in today’s years round availability of produce, simply can not be gotten at all times.

    I do like the mental image of an “Angry Monk”.

  2. This does remind me of ticket scalping. It just a matter of time before there’s a StubHub like online beer store that just sells secondary market rare beers for lots of $$$.

    I am more surprised that people are willing to pay the price.

  3. I just thought of something. How does beer trading fit into this. I would not want the GOV to step in and try to regulate beer sales on EBAY, but why not have brewers try and convince their fans to trade instead of purchase. That way value flows both ways. ( See what I did there, Flows)

  4. For me, look no further than the mass hysteria and groupthink generated by the beer ticker and fanboy websites. Brewers’ one-off and seasonal releases are over-hyped, desirability is hothoused by trading ‘ISO/FT’ fora and businesses like eBay collude with greedy collectors to operate a madly distorted secondary market. A store getting in on the act is a first, though. I’ll bet the same tickers and traders who’d happily sell the beer at multiples of retail online will be in the queue to complain about scalping.

    Don’t know about a beer ‘cult’, but it’s the Dark Side. It must drive some brewers mad…

    1. It has cultish aspects to it — witness your own use of “groupthink”, which most definitely applies to this phenomenon. If these people I’ve never met say that beer is the best, well, I must possess it! I want in on this small circle of people who own this beer, for only then will I be considered good at beer!

      Fortunately, those of us who merely enjoy drinking good beer, with sane forays into the rare-tick beers — i.e., just buying it at a normal price if it shows up where we happen to be — are in the majority, and while the phenomenon may last a while longer, it’s not necessarily sustainable. Eventually nearly all drinkers of good beer pass out of the Pokemon phase and settle into enjoying beer for the sake of itself.

  5. I may sound like a complete prat, but the inability to get these beers has pushed me to brew some damn fine, quality stuff. As a result I don’t feel much drive to get involved in the pandemonium.

  6. I realize it is a small consolation to Surly, but surely they can at least prevent the retailer that charged double from getting any Darkness next year? And arn\’t their fairly strict rules in place that dictate what a licensed retailer can sell such products for?

  7. This is a pretty strong statement:

    “Cultism is giving beer a bad name and is driving a wedge between brewers, beer lovers, and a certain class of scarcity-seeking tickers.”

    Do you have any evidence? I’d say that aside from a few angry brewers, the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Those beers remain enormously popular, craft brewing is growing like crazy even during a recession, and beer geeks love specialty releases. Everything I see seems to suggest that “cultism” is a boon to the market.

  8. I’m sorry, but I can’t get too riled up about this whole issue. For me, it always comes back to the basic question: who does the beer belong to? Once the brewer, be they monk or layperson, sells their beer for what they consider to be a fair price, they no longer have any standing in the matter. Unless they have a contract with the buyer that requires otherwise, they have no right to complain if the new owner chooses to triple the price, cut it in half, or give the beer away for free. It’s his beer now, not theirs.

    If the brewers are unhappy that the retailer is reaping too much of the mark-up on their beers, he can raise his wholesale price next time round. If we drinkers think the beer is ridiculously over-priced, we don’t have to buy it.

    And if fools with more money than sense want to spend said money chasing after the latest “hot beer” on eBay or elsewhere, why should we worry about it? By doing so, aren’t we really saying “I wish that guy wasn’t willing or able to spend more money than me so I could get that beer cheaper?” What does that say about us?

    Cultish behavior has always seemed pretty stupid to me, which is why I’m an atheist. But so long as the “devout” leave me alone, I’m content to let them go to hell in their own way.

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