Making Snowflakes: An Exploration into Rarity, Beer Quality and Industry Authenticity

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We find ourselves in a unique time as beer lovers. Everything and anything is available to us. Whatever we want, whenever we want it.

With a record number of breweries nationwide, more than 5,000 businesses are creating a vast array of styles and flavor experiences, often nearby where we live. According to the Brewers Association, roughly three-quarters of drinking-age adults in the U.S. live within 10 miles of a brewery.

The flip side of this freedom of choice is the natural competition that comes with it. Keeping an IPA on tap is important to satiate American drinkers’ love for all things lupulin, but today’s brewery faces challenges presented by all the other entrants into the industry, roughly two a day. Finding a niche, or, at least, creating one, is a pivotal part of the business, whether it’s as a brewery as a whole or simply providing novel experiences every time someone walks through taproom doors.

Increasingly, the process of creating something “rare” is playing a larger role for brewers. This could be a celebrated one-off beer with limited quantities or a dedicated tap on-location that serves creations never to leave the premises. As businesses grow, evolve and consider how best to position themselves, the use of rarity in all its varieties has potential to impact breweries, industry tastemakers and drinkers.

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Your Handy Guide to Explain Why Millennials Are So Important to Beer

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Lazy. Entitled. Selfish.

You could create an entire thesaurus with adjectives people love to use to describe Millennials, those selfie-taking, skinny-jean wearing, stay-at-home narcissists ruining society. What good do they do anyway?

“The pendulum will swing back,” I constantly hear from people trying to describe why their favorite thing will be a younger generation’s favorite thing because that’s how we make America great again.

Think pieces and hot takes by adults over 40 about how Millennials are ruining everything are a dime a dozen, bound together by a common denominator of nostalgia for “the good old days,” whatever they were, and a general lack of compelling data. Or, at least, selectively cherry picked data that helps to emphasize a particular point about how Millennials are wrong about something and whenever they grow and mature they’ll see the true path.

But lets for a second assume that all these businesses and marketing agencies touting the importance of courting a generation with trillion dollar buying power have some merit. What are we to do when those adorable curmudgeons come along? Let’s hit some talking points!

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Can You Hear a Good Beer?

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The beer world has many ways to identify drinking “experts,” from BJCP or Cicerone certifications to some guy in Denmark who tastes thousands of beers a year. But the best part is no matter what your official qualifications may be, we all have some level of knowledge when it comes to tasting beer, even if our interest is solely left at that.

Last week offered a great conversation, as always, on the Beervana podcast, when Jeff Alworth and Patrick Emerson discussed the idea and process of how to taste beer. Through a blind taste test, the pair broke down how sight, smell and taste can impart characteristics of beer and how it can lead our own interpretation of the liquid.

But are those senses all we need to fully judge a beer?

In the 1930s, marketing pioneer Louis Cheskin coined the phrase “sensation transference” as a way to describe the phenomena of when a consumer has a unique reaction to a product based on an interpretation with their senses. For example, the more yellow the color of a 7UP package, the more lemon-like the soda may taste.

Naturally, sight and smell are powerful forces driving this idea, but in truth, all our senses play a part, even hearing. Think of the snap of a crisp potato chip or apple and how that plays into our perception of quality and freshness. Sound, just like other senses, has the ability to not only alter our preferences, but change a tasting experience altogether.

So if and when sound comes into play, is it impacting our perception of a beer or simply playing to our inherent biases?

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Rare Beer Club: The Power of Scarcity and What It Wields Over Us

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The collection of people waiting was past 100. Many had camped out overnight.

A reporter and cameraman surveyed the crowd. Inside the building, they approached a table of sleepy eyed friends, looking quiet in contemplation. Or maybe they were just zoned out from sleep deprivation.

“How long did you guys stand in line?” the reporter asked the table of eight.

“About 11 hours,” they all answered in unison, not blinking.

But a moment later, boy did they look happy to have been some of the first into Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Younger release.

Of course, the annual, one-time sale of the imperial IPA isn’t the only occasion for beer lovers to get in a tizzy, whether it’s waiting overnight for Foothills Brewing’s Sexual Chocolate imperial stout or rioting for Hunaphu’s imperial stout at Cigar City Brewing. As the beer world continues to get bigger, it’s clear that people are willing to pay in time, money and sanity for the chance of being a part of something small.

“Scarcity has this effect of making people perceive products as more valuable simply for the fact that they’re scarce,” business psychologist Nir Eyal told NPR in 2014, when, naturally, the network was covering the hype of Pliny the Elder, the sister beer of Pliny the Younger.

Crazed reactions over scarce items is nothing new, especially in an increasingly locally-focused industry that prides itself on regionalism, if not literal hometown favoritism. But whether you’re a local hoping for a legendary bottle of beer or an out-of-towner traveling hundreds of miles for your chance at fermented immortality, the power of scarcity is real, it is psychological and it is physiological.

When it comes to our internal cost-benefit analysis of these situations, does the perceived benefit trump logic? Can scarcity marketing rule our minds as well as our pint glasses?

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Sam Adams and the Power of IPA

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Supermarkets and grocery stores are brimming with beer options these days, making every trip to coolers more time consuming for drinkers trying to sort through all the choices. According to estimates from Nielsen, there are nearly 6,700 craft brands now available in major stores, with about 850 of those just showing up in 2015.

And, of course, plenty of those new bottles and cans are IPAs. A third of 2015’s new brands will be India pale ale, if trends hold from earlier this year.

It seems many breweries – or perhaps just drinkers – tether success to the creation of a hopped-up ale. Beer rating boards are flooded with them and people are always searching for the next Pliny the Elder.

When taking the temperature of the beer industry, it always feels like we start with IPA, then consider where to move from there, but it’s with good reason. There’s no denying the power it has on the marketplace. Which, in the three months since I last asked “Are We Watching the Next Stage of Sam Adams?” the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”

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The Rising Price of Beer and Why We Pay (Or Not)

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Nothing is good as it used to be.

People come and go. Things change. Time lurches on. Our memories are cherished, some more so with the lasting glow of nostalgia.

CNN recently reported numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, highlighting rising cost of alcohol since 2003. Across the board, beer, wine and spirit prices have gone up, but the increases with beer in particular might not be so bad.

From way back in 2003, the $5 standard we enjoyed for a pint out has risen for many to $7, a natural jump in price roughly in line with inflation. Nothing is good as it used to be, except when it is.

For now, at least.

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This Beer Used 77 Hop Varieties, But Not for the Reason You May Think

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There’s something rugged and romantic about the Wild West.

Beyond the dusty plains and horseback rides under the gleaming sun, there’s an ideal of self sufficiency, born from the created reality of Manifest Destiny. It wasn’t necessarily about going it alone, but recognizing the opportunity to make something of oneself in the midst of everyone else doing the same.

To seize a moment when odds were stacked against you.

Kind of like business.

“We were all standing around one day, lamenting hops,” said Lonerider Brewing Company CEO Sumit Vohra, recalling a conversation that led to the creation of a potentially record-setting beer. “I’m saying to my team, ‘I can’t believe we’ve got to a point where we can’t find hops.”

Of course, that’s not entirely true. Vohra and his brewery staff could certainly find hops to use for their Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen, Sweet Josie Brown Ale, Peacemaker Pale Ale and even their IPA, Addie’s Revenge. It was just the fact things were getting a little harder.

“Our brewers have to predict our production levels two years down the road to contract hops now,” Zohra said. “That’s the business reality of it.”

Which led to a decision that may have been part parody of the situation or part marking inspiration, but really just an excuse to play.

It was a fitting chance to explore the outlaw theme of Lonerider.

It was an opportunity to create a traditional, American beer, utterly untraditional in its conception.

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24-Hour Retrospective: A Conversation on Race and Beer

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Reaction to my post on race and beer

So that took off.

Yesterday’s post looking at the cross-section of race and beer, or rather, the whiteness of the beer community, received lots of attention, views and comments, as just about any discussion on race is apt to do.

While I planned a second post to be the end of it, I feel compelled to share a snippet of the reaction. Most common among the interactions I had were people asking me about the “call to action” of my message or if I just wanted to play PC police.

For those of you who have been regular readers of this blog, you may have surmised the overarching theme of what I do is based around the question of “why?” In this case, I saw a topic of interest that had little discussion and I wanted to ask just that. I had no grand idea in place or urge to force anyone into doing one thing or another.

My end game? There was none, other than the hope of spurring talk among beer lovers, not to turn it into a navel gazing session to wrap our heads around some great philosophical place of beer and society. In some ways, I succeeded in that.

But my post also ended up in one of the more vitriolic places on the Internet: under the title “If You Drink Craft Beer You are a racist.” on Reddit’s CoonTowna place for “crude jokes and racial slurs; links to news stories that highlight black-on-white crime or Confederate pride; and discussions of ‘black people appropriating white culture.'”

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Color of Beer: Addressing Our Whiteness

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When imagining the stereotypical beer drinker, thoughts might float to large, bearded men with rotund bellies or thick-rimmed, bespectacled hipsters carefully quaffing out of snifter glasses.

Rarely does an initial impression end up with women, who account for 25 percent of total beer consumption by volume and about a third for craft beer. Even more so, how often would we consider a black, Hispanic or Asian drinker?

“It doesn’t bother me that much, but after a while, you’re like, ‘how come more people that are like me aren’t doing this?” asked Liz Garibay, historian and beer writer at History on Tap. “It’s never been something I’m overly sensitive to, but you start looking around a room, especially within the beer industry, and it’s something you become aware of.”

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Liz Garibay

Garibay, whose parents both immigrated from Mexico to her current hometown of Chicago, admitted she’s never felt out of place within the beer community because of her background – enjoying good beer and good company isn’t dependent on the race or ethnicity of others. But for any community, having the ability to share multiple perspectives isn’t just pivotal for the sake of diversity, but can be meaningful for education and exposure.

Which is why, as beer companies shift attention to demographics not representative of the large, bearded man or skinny-jeaned hipster, perhaps we should, too. Because, as scholar J. Nikol Beckham points out, “from every casual scanning of a craft brewery’s website to the staff page of Brewers Association, it’s pretty obvious to anyone inclined to notice that craft beer is remarkably white.”

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The Defining Reason to Talk About Sam Adams Not Being ‘Craft’

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If you’re deep in the weeds of today’s industry – or if you read my recent Beer Money series – you’ve no doubt heard about the Fair BEER and Small BREW acts, opposing legislation that have been geared toward presenting tax breaks to the beer industry. The Small BREW Act was created to address only breweries producing less than 6 million barrels of beer a year, while the Fair BEER Act would benefit all brewers, including Big Boys like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken.

Those attempts are now more or less scrapped in lieu of a bill known as the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which is jointly endorsed by the Brewers Association (“small guys”) and Beer Institute (all of beer) who were previously on opposite sides of the spectrum.

This new bill – with bipartisan support from beer trade organizations, just like Congress – does have one hiccup, according to this piece: it might push Boston Beer, maker of Sam Adams, out of the “craft” beer club due to tax relief tied to production limits of 6 million barrels:

…Boston Beer’s production in 2009 was roughly half of its 2014 total. That’s an average of more than 20% growth a year. If that pace continues, Boston Beer will be over the 6 million bar in less than three years and, for tax purposes, would be considered a macro.

But here’s the thing. None of these bills are likely to pass, so we don’t need to worry about definitions and labels – yet.

Because Boston Beer could still lose its “craft” definition, just not for the reason everyone’s talking about.

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