Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Over-Hyped Craft Beers and the Limits of Experimental Innovation

The beer world is often driven by hype, by praise, by scarcity, by barrel-aged beers that benefit little from barrel-aging, by bottle prices, by Untappd, Ratebeer, and Beeradvocate reviews, by the quest for the next great unknown. To procure high praise, beers in demand are usually quite solid, aside from considerations of limited supply and rampant demand, such that geeks follow geeks (who, in turn, follow geeks) in rewarding the respective breweries with praise and ratings that drive up trade values, quests, and further reviews, while pushing people to broader distances, longer lines, and higher prices in their relentless pursuits.

Yes - as you may have noticed - I am partially claiming that ratings stem from previous ratings. Praise from praise, hype from hype, dollars from sheep. Crowd-sourcing is not without the perils of groupthink. As evidence of this, I have seen early reviews of newly released oddities assign merely moderate ratings on the first few days after release before someone dares proclaim the beer a marvel or a bust. Then, and only then, do most newly hyped beers (not brewed by Shaun Hill) soar to the heights of amplified trade demand and inspire must-have quests (or plummet from the charts).
I am not immune to the must-have quest, but I grow ever more skeptical as my familiarity with styles, breweries, tastes, and beers evolve.

The beers making the cut for my claim here are all solid beers, it should be noted. I would gladly drink any of them, but I find them to exemplify the overrated in the craft beer world.

This post is partially inspired by Will Gordon's Concourse piece on 18 Overrated Beers. While I appreciate his piece, most of those beers aren't hyped by the craft community - though Heady Topper is. And it is here I am inspired to write as he says Heady is "only marginally better than Dogfish Head 90 Minute." Yes, Heady is super-hyped, yet meets the demand at an affordable price, while scarcity and praise are driven by capacity and quality not marketing and manipulation, but Dogfish 90... nearly as good? I appreciate Dogfish Head. They innovate, they experiment, they push the bounds of what beer is, what it can be. They make some solid beers, and even those I am noting here are fine, but...

Dogfish Head 60 and 90 Minute IPAs are perfectly fine and their staple IPA and Double IPA respectively seem to rock many worlds while rating out at 98/99 (ratebeer) or 91/92 (ba) and 100/99 (ratebeer) or 95/97 (ba). Even if they aren't overly hyped or priced due to regular availability (in many States) they can be difficult to procure in Canada. Both strike an ill-balance (in an admittedly imbalanced style) between bitter hops that lack the sorts of citrus, fruity, floral, piney, earthy, or resinous notes that drive hop heads crazy while (90-Minute particularly) coming off more like malt-bombs (label claims to the contrary notwithstanding). I enjoy both of these beers from time to time and always will. It isn't that they aren't solid, but we live in the post-Pliny age where super IPAs and DIPAs abound all around. I need walk no further than around the corner to procure better examples of each style, and have found the same nearly anywhere I visit. They just aren't the be-all-and-end-all of IPAs. I realize these aren't super hard to procure and aren't exemplary of the rarity factor noted below, but people seem to rank Dogfish with Mikkeller, Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Hill Farmstead, Russian River, The Bruery, etc. Those, it is not.

Westvleteren XII was, for many years, called the best beer in the world. Rating out at 100/100 on rb and 100/94 on ba, this relatively rare Trappist Ale is, as I have argued elsewhere, a great product with a great hype machine driven by the need to set-up a phone order in advance, to procure a limited quantity of but one of their three beers (whichever these Belgian monks make available on that given day), with time-limited returns for re-purchase and a signed waiver against re-sale. That said, it can be bought in many places - at exhorbitant markup. In Canada, it goes for anywhere between $30 and $50 a bottle at finer beer establishments. Is it good? Hell yes! But in blind tastings the (equally rare, but less hoops-and-hype) Trappist Achel Extra Bruin, the far less rare and far cheaper Trappist Rochefort 10, and Saint Bernardus Abt 12 often win - at far lower cost. Spending time seeking this beer, only to dump a small fortune if you find it - or luck into it cheaply at the monastery after a trip to the Belgian countryside - when such other similar (and arguably better or at least as solid) products exist best exemplifies the value placed on scarcity in this scene. Ironically, the Saint Sixtus monks who brew Westvleteren beers seem to dislike the hype, yet create much of it inadvertently through policies that seem to inspire beer marketing madness, such as that characterized by the winner below.

Any given Three Floyds Dark Lord variant. As a disclaimer, I have yet to try DL or any of its variants, but I feel confident in asserting that this final entry demonstrates the hype machine par excellence. In order to procure this beer, one must purchase a pricey ticket and scratch card to Dark Lord Day; an event for which demand far outpaces ticket supply so you must luck into tickets to begin with. With tickets, one gets to line up for many hours to get in and then a new line to buy up to four bottles of this beer (which is not unreasonably priced), unless your scratch card allowed you the victory chance to buy a single, determined for you, $50 variant bottle. I have no idea of the odds of getting such a bottle, but know of a group of 12 who attended, with but one scratching this lucky, expensive victory. Now, like the others herein, I am sure Dark Lord is a fine beer, but is it better than, say, Genealogy of Morals? Bourbon County Brand Stout? Peché Mortel? The Abyss? Parabola? Ten Fidy? Breakfast Stout? KBS? Or, as I am trying to get at, any number of stellar imperial stouts (or barrel-aged variants) that are not only much easier to procure, but much cheaper - and virtually assured at the moment one sets out to buy them. Essentially, one buys a raffle ticket for Dark Lord while winning constitutes not only greater expense, but likely greater expense than value in contrast to the market. I get it: people want to buy an experience and I am not even saying I wouldn't do it, but this is marketing genius regardless of the strength of the beer and many fine imperial stouts find their way down my throat without a trip to Munster, IN, a ticket, a lottery, and a small loan.

The success of such beers seems to drive the trend towards marketing the next best rarity, and the growing trend towards one-offs, collaborations, seasonals. I acknowledge that one-offs, seasonals, and scarce trials result partially from the innovation process that has driven craft beer forward and for that I applaud them, but I often find such oddities over-rated, over-priced, over-hyped, and not so much better than that which sits on shelves. If they are accessible, affordable (compared to the value of the return), and either come from trusted brewers or respected praise they are probably worth one's while - even if over-hyped by scarcity - but lets not neglect our locally available gems and keep them regular. It can be costly to produce innovative small batches, but when successes continue in scarcity and derive value from ticket sales, lotteries, and crapshoots, I begrudge the marketing in symmetrical opposition to the scantily-clad women of the macro commercials, and seek the solid I know and love.

Thus, here in Montreal, I am not only able to procure local, masterful, affordable, regularly available beers like Dieu du Ciel's Peché Mortel and Moralité, Le Castor's Yakima, Le Trou du Diable's Saison du Tracteur, anything from Dunham, and more, but I can grab solid one-offs with relative ease comparatively to many that capitalize on the trend of rarity. When these brewers produce a delight - as DDC did with Moralité - they often move it into regular circulation rather than diminish its availability to create a guerilla-marketed sensation. Let's keep rewarding them for that.

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