FRENZY

When a Craft Beer Is Released, Beer Geeks Go Crazy

If you thought the world of craft beer would be more civilized than the frenzied shoppers of Black Friday, think again. The furious mobs descend when a new beer comes out.

02.16.16 5:01 AM ET

This most recent Black Friday saw the annual release of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, a highly touted offering that sends people scrambling to find bottles--and, in turn, acting just as childishly as what’s seen in those viral videos of Wal-Mart customers pursuing discounted televisions.

Unfortunately, the pushing, shoving, line-cutting, and fights are not surprising because, as of late, the rise of limited craft beers has led to a similar rise of beer geeks behaving badly.  

Firestone Walker Brewing did a special release on Black Friday for Parabajava, a highly anticipated coffee version of the California brewery’s acclaimed Parabola imperial stout.

It was sold at only three locations, at none of which one could purchase more than four bottles. But, as Jemma Wilson, Firestone Walker’s marketing specialist tells me, “Never underestimate a beer geek.”

At 10 p.m. that night, Wilson got a text from a fellow employee telling her someone was bragging online about having somehow scored 54 bottles of Parabajava.

Comments on Firestone Walker’s Facebook page derided the man, before turning on the brewery itself for allowing such a great tragedy like this to occur.

Relaxing at home, Wilson opened her computer to find an avalanche of nasty comments and hate emails.

Even worse, she soon learned the man was now trying to re-sell his 54 bottles—something technically illegal—for $80 each (they had retailed for around $20). 

Wilson issued an apology to Firestone Walker’s angry fans, but it was too late. Someone had figured out Mr. 54 Bottles’ home address and posted it online.

Now still-seething beer geeks were making threats toward him and his wife. By the next morning the man had deleted his Facebook account and was threatening legal action against the brewery.

“I think the entitlement that comes with beer geeks is that they’re able to hide behind their computers and spew hate comments as though there are no repercussions,” Wilson tells me. “But many forget we are real people who sit there being verbally abused by complete strangers all the time.”

It’s not just some once-a-year, Black Friday phenomenon. This crude behavior occurs with just about every beer release, something that happens most weekends in some city or another. It would be completely hilarious, if it weren’t so pathetic.

There’s a YouTube video that shows just what this looks like in the flesh. The brief clip open on what sounds like a mob scene.

The camera is pointed toward a nearly empty, somewhat ransacked warehouse where a man in a logo-ed work shirt holds his palms up, trying to calm the angry mob.

Tampa police officers step in to help, but that just stokes the flames. Eventually, the men have no choice but to pull down a steel garage door and block themselves, and the warehouse, from the throbbing masses.

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As the door lowers, men in beards start pounding on it and chanting: “Cigar City sucks! Cigar City sucks!”

A protest? A demonstration? 

Nope, just angry beer geeks.

This was the 2014 release of Cigar City Brewing’s Hunahpu’s, yet another acclaimed imperial stout. And these frothing hoards had simply not gotten to purchase some of it. 

To get into Hunahpu’s Day required a $50 ticket with attendance capped at 3,500. Attendees would be allowed to buy up to three bottles of Hunahpu’s. While sales were going on, ticket-goers could enjoy other beers on tap in the brewery parking lot.

The problem? Some beer geeks created counterfeit tickets.

With no way to know which tickets were real and which weren’t—and with the line to get inside stretching a half-mile long—Cigar City made the impromptu decision to let everyone in the doors. With far more than 3,500 people inside, bottles sold out quickly and many legitimate customers were shut out before getting access to their three guaranteed bottles.

That’s when the YouTube video picks up.

“I am acknowledging defeat. That was the last Hunahpu’s Day,” Joey Redner, Cigar City founder—and that man in the YouTube video with his palms held up—said in a statement the next day. (It returned for a sixth year in 2015, nevertheless.)

Jester King in Texas is another brewery that has had to spend far too much time trying to figure out how to get their coveted beer to customers without the subsequent shenanigans. This acclaimed Hill Country farmhouse brewery has been beset with countless beer geeks behaving badly.

“Limited beer releases do inevitably bring about ugliness and silliness,” Jester King founder Jeffrey Stuffings tells me.

On the silliness level was 2014’s infamous Montmorency vs Balaton Blend 2 release.

So few bottles were produced they were restricted to one per customer. That didn’t stop industrious beer geeks from finding ways to subvert that.

“Our staff recounted stories of patrons going to their cars to change their clothes, as well as putting on hats and sunglasses to disguise themselves,” Stuffings tells. “One guy tried speaking in a fake Irish accent to try and fool us into thinking he was a new customer who had not yet purchased his allocation. When caught, he simply said, ‘A guy’s gotta try.’”

Stuffings also shared with me an amusing photo he snapped during a recent release of Atrial Rubicite, perhaps Jester King’s finest beer.

In the photo, a young man holds the hand of a feeble-looking elderly woman, one we can only assume is his grandma, perhaps even great-grandmother—and who we likewise can assume he’s only brought along in order to help him “mule” extra bottles of another one-per-person beer.

Similarly, a beer fan on Instragram caught another elderly woman hauling away limited cans from Tree House Brewing. He comically dubbed her the “Grandmule.”

On an uglier level, Stuffings tells of customers buying bottles and then immediately setting up black market booths out of their car trunks in his brewery’s parking lot.

He was also aghast to find a man who devised a scheme in which 40 out-of-towners would give him $20, after which he would raffle off his single bottle of Sherry Barrel Atrial Rubicite to one winner, thus netting himself $788 (the beer costs $12). 

“In other words, people apparently paid $20 for a 1-in-40 chance of winning the beer,” Stuffings laments. 

As beers’ perceived secondary market value only soars higher and higher, bad behavior just seems inevitable.

I’ve grown tired of the madness of beer releases. Still, when my local brewery Other Half announced they were releasing a special collaboration IPA they had made with Trillium—a well-regarded Boston brewery—I knew I had to attend.

Others clearly felt likewise.

“We don’t really spend time looking at social media so we were kinda caught off-guard with how crazy that release would be,” Matthew Monahan, a co-founder of Other Half, told me.

While waiting in that snaking line I was approached by a man who handed me a card that read Same Ole Line Dudes, “professional line sitting/management services.”

He was offering to sit in line for me for a small fee. Some people actually took him up on that offer. TaskRabbit also reportedly had several “employees” at the release, acting as line proxies for beer geeks with money but no desire to actually wait in line.

These professional line-sitters raised the queue’s ire once discovered, but as Monahan told me, what could he do? It’s perfectly legal and he was far too busy worrying about getting his beer sold and out the doors in an efficient manner.

Still, those people who paid for line-waiters were onto something. A much-larger crowd than expected showed up and many people, myself included, found themselves waiting upwards of five hours for a mere eight cans of Street Green.

Soon, a devil-may-care attitude overtook the bored crowd, and people starting cracking beers and lighting up joints within the brewery’s residential neighborhood. Eventually the police arrived.

“We now have to notify the local precinct when we do these releases,” Monahan tells me. “They are certainly aware of what goes on.” 

Other Half releases are some of the best-behaved in the business from what I’ve seen. At least I didn’t witness any fights, something that can’t be said for a release that same month courtesy of Hill Farmstead.

Perhaps the best brewery in the world, and set on a bucolic family farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, Hill Farmstead is not exactly the easiest brewery in the country to access.

If any brewery could remain somewhat removed and immune from beer geeks behaving badly, it would surely be this one. But at the release of a farmhouse ale called--I swear--Civil Disobedience, a fight almost erupted when one man was kicked out for trying to mule more bottles than allowed.

Reportedly the man even tried to fight brewery owner Shaun Hill before, yes, the cops had to be called.

Even so, the beer geeks behaving badly coup de grace surely occurred at Iowa’s Toppling Goliath late in 2014.

In this case, one local resident was caught snapping up bottles of the brewery’s sought-after stout Assassin, drinking the limited beer himself, and then refilling empty bottles with something else.

He’d then add his own shoddy wax-dipping job and trade these counterfeits for other highly-coveted offerings.

Not surprisingly, Toppling Goliath founder Clark Lewey doesn’t have much interest in revisiting such a sordid incident, telling me, “Long story short, the beer community, not us, outed the guy and hopefully put an end to his foolishness. Of course, there is nothing we can do as a brewery. Just like any product, once it is sold it is out of our hands and control.”

The fact is, nowadays if you produce great beer in limited quantities, it seems to assure the ugly side of human nature will eventually rear its head. Everyone feels entitled to these beers, it’s the “everyman’s drink,” right?

Jester King has had to resort to marking forearms with invisible ink to prevent people from re-entering the line (fake Irish accents be damned!) and are considering swiping driver’s licenses in the future.

Other places, like Other Half and Hill Farmstead, wait until almost the last minute to publicly announce releases, hoping to limit crowds.

Cory King of Side Project Brewing has a strategy that also seems to work. He under-promises the amount of bottles that will be available, then over-delivers on release days, something that made for a much more positive YouTube video of beer geek behavior.

Unfortunately, releases free of bad behavior are more the exception than the rule. With craft beer only getting hotter and more and more geeks joining the hobby every day, the whole scene is surely only going to get worse.

“I just want to scream ‘IT’S JUST BEER!!!’” Wilson tells me, “but they act like it’s the cure to cancer.”