I saw a repost of an article in some publication called Punch(drink.com), on my Facebook feed, this morning, and I have to confess that I missed it when it first appeared…in 2016. That article can be reached by clicking the image.
The basic premise is that rarity, in today’s craft beer culture, has come to equate to greatness and it traces the evolution of this phenomenon. It also, to which I have to object, assumes some degree of credibility for that notion. That, for me, is that part that gets me to jam by walking stick into the ground, fix the author with my best Galdolfian glare, and growl, “You shall not pass!!”
So, again, their headline…
When Did Rarity Start to Equal Greatness in Beer?
It doesn’t, to answer that question simply.
All rarity indicates is demand. Period. Which is not at all the same thing as quality…not in a culture which has gone bat-shit crazy for Pop Tarts, Cheese Whiz, Pet Rocks, aerosol cheese, chicken nuggets, and Twinkies, both au naturel and deep-fried.
All this entered the American beer universe when young wine culture newbies, bored with or unable to afford prestige wines, started to migrate over to craft beer – where a 100 Point beer could be had for under $20, while a 100 Point wine couldn’t be touched for under $100-ish, IF you could find one – and imported their acquisitive lifestyle fetishes. There have always been people within the craft community whose natural inclination is status seeking and collecting as an ego boost but that was a relatively small phenomenon until the Lifestyle Trendies swamped the beer culture.
But in terms of quality, rarity has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with that. The sought-after beers – the current slang term for which is “whales” or for those discontinued or past “vintages”, “ghost whales” – tend not to be total garbage, because nobody would drink those, but mediocre or deadly ordinary or just simply surpassed? (NOTE: I have one tattoo on my entire body, a Native-American Orca icon on my left bicep. And that sucker is itching like crazy, right now. I kid you not.) There are DOZENS of those. Case in point is the Big Kahuna, the first rare beer phenomenon, Pliny the Elder.
Most veteran beer people won’t publicly say a bad word about it, mostly because we all like Vinnie Cilurzo so much and wouldn’t do anything to tamper with his success, but many brewers and writers and especially the nation’s plain-spoken bartenders have told me privately that Pliny is just too much of a good thing. Too bitter, too hoppy, too much about hops and not enough about balance. As one trade person in Denver told me, “You might as well go out to the woods and lick a pine tree.” Pliny was the first balls-out DIPA to generate national buzz and it’s since been exceeded, in quality terms, by several dozen IIPA/DIPAs. But those don’t have the Pliny Mystique, so you can just walk into a beer store and pick up four or five…or even get a pint of one of them on tap.
As with any matter of our cultural tastes, this is all highly subjective. If you like Beer X, and Beer X is hard to get, THEN rarity equals quality…for YOU, not necessarily for anybody else. The point at which those tastes become a problem is when those who chase after rarities carry their enthusiasm and status-seeking into the larger community and expect everyone else to Bow Down or to assist them in the acquisition. This, for me, while actually selling wines and beers for twenty+ years, was a ceaseless irritant. Phone calls about Pliny and Parabola and Hunahpu’s and Bourbon County were virtually daily occurrences, as were the insults and anger when I had to turn down the sad 90% who waited too long. My (unsolicited) advice to all of them was to find another beer, a suggestion that was very rarely treated with anything but more anger and insults. I understood this because this collecting thing is NOT, at all, concerned with quality, only status: “I got Bourbon Country! I got THREE! I Am COOL! And now I can lord it over all my buddies!”
I have never found ONE rare beer that has not been done better, for less $$$, and in more realistic quantities by some other, less mythically-regarded brewery.
What does that mean for anyone else? Not a damned thing. Chase your fave “Must Have” all ya like and THANK YOU for making it even easier me me to get those better beers. It’s not even a shameful thing to set out to collect. Drink what you like. And if anybody gets in your face about it, tell them I said they’re an asshole.
But for the Love of God, shut up about it. It is not a big damned deal to anybody but you and other collectors. The rest of us, who drink beer on its own merits…don’t give a shit.
Words to the wise…