What Matters More: The Quest for New Beer, or the Beer?
Sure, you love beer.
When you head to the bar for happy hour with friends, you carefully consider the draft, can, and bottle lists. You often order something you’ve never tasted, just to see what it’s like. You might have gotten into the habit of filling a growler at a brewery every weekend, or stopping by the neighborhood bottle shop two or three times during the week. Perhaps you’re comfortable with spending $10 on a special beer every now and again.
But have you left work at 2 p.m. or woken up at dawn to wait in a line that stretches around the block outside a brewery or a bar so a staff member could assign you a number like you were standing at a deli? Did you wait in a four-deep throng or an interminable queue for a four-ounce pour of some rare beer that either hails from a vast distance or is available in such a miniscule quantity that it’ll be gone within half an hour?
Of course you haven’t. You’re not a whale hunter.
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Over the past two decades, craft beer production in the United States has grown from a smallish regionalized venture into a $14.3 billion international behemoth. More Americans are discovering and cultivating a love of beer, and there are plenty of people who are willing to sell it to them.
This boom in both supply and demand has had some tangible benefits, especially in the District. Even a decade and a half ago, D.C. nightlife guides described now-ubiquitous brewers like Samuel Adams as generic “Boston microbrew.” Few, if any, beer devotees would have assumed then that finding a rare bottle could one day be as easy as picking which circle—Dupont or Logan—you’d like to drink your Cantillon Fou’ Foune in.
The creation and discovery of the best possible products is a natural development within any market of consumables. So beer culture has always attracted its own set of obsessives. An unquenchable thirst for the rare isn’t a new phenomenon—after all, people have been wandering western Europe in search of decades-old bottles of gueuze for years.
But the burgeoning concept that, to be a drinker of true renown, one must constantly need to be searching out, acquiring, and consuming the rarest possible beers—or hanging on to them for years inside a cellar—starts to poke holes in a well-held ideal: the consumption of beer as a communal activity, rather than a competition. And as social media, especially in network-obsessed D.C., has been absorbed into the cultural bloodstream like so much alcohol, consumers’ tracking, bragging, and hoarding has never had the potential to be more influential on beer culture—sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much.
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“The lengths beer hunters go to land coveted releases surfaced in 2008, when a RateBeer.com user from Missouri admitted that he hired people—prostitutes, as legend has it—through Craigslist to stand in line for Captain Lawrence Cuvee de Castleton at the New York brewery. The same user admitted to hiring “mules” for Portsmouth Kate the Great and limited releases at The Lost Abbey and AleSmith in California.”
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There aren’t any hookers hanging outside of the District’s breweries on humid summer Saturdays—at least, not any that are there to do anything but drink and talk beer.
At DC Brau’s headquarters along Bladensburg Road NE, most people arrive to fill their growlers with the brewery’s flagship ales. But plenty more come in search of the brewery’s On The Wings of Armageddon—a dank, resiny imperial India pale ale that’s sought after among those both inside and outside the District.
OTWOA—nicknamed by drinkers in a city full of acronyms—is arguably D.C.’s first homegrown whale. It’s played a big role in our fair town’s transition into one that is cultivating nationally recognized breweries. It meets most of the whale criteria: a general consensus that it is world-class beer, cans of which are only available in limited supplies and drive a ravenous pursuit.
One of those pursuers, Donnie Hatcher, is just like any guy you might strike up a conversation with at a bar—albeit one who, by his count, has recorded drinking more than 2,180 different beers, reviewed 1,025 of them, and consumed more than 640 local creations. Hatcher, 30, is one of a new drinking breed: American beer connoisseurs who drink what they can, when they can, then take to the Internet and social media en masse to review and share their experiences.
“Nothing too crazy,” Hatcher, who lives and works in Northern Virginia, says when I ask him if he’s ever gone out of his way to obtain a super-limited offering. “I’ve driven to local breweries like DC Brau and Hardywood with manageable lines for certain releases.”
He’s not alone.
“We still get 10 calls a day asking about whether we’ll have Wings this weekend,” says Brau co-founder and CEO Brandon Skall. The fulfillment of those requests usually has to wait; the reaction, Skall explains, varies from “benevolent understanding” to, well, not.
“Saying people are cursing at us might be an overexaggeration,” Skall says, “but there are people who are extremely bothered.”
Which might sound odd to you, but it doesn’t, necessarily, to me.
“I don’t even know who I am anymore,” were the words of legendary American beermonger Daniel Lanigan earlier this year, addressing the gradual phenomenon of world-class beer’s newfound, and seemingly universal, availability.
I could relate.
For the better part of a year, I had started to obsessively track the beers I consumed. I even established a set of informal, self-imposed rules—only check into beers that you haven’t checked into before, decouple Twitter and Facebook—to make it easier to get started.
It worked. Before long, my list was indicative of a record of as fine a beer education as anyone could hope for, really: Westvleteren 12. Heady Topper. Pliny the Elder. Dark Lord. Every Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien released between 2006 and 2013. Long-cellared bottles of Bourbon County Brand Stout, Sang Royal, and Lou Pepe.
For someone who clearly remembers sitting at the Brickskeller and ordering beers from different countries just because, it became a fun diversion during lulls in a barside conversation. But I’d be lying if I said that there were times when I went to order a beer because I simply hadn’t had it before—regardless of who made it, what its style was, or why I really wanted to try it.
After all, that encyclopedic record of my consumption in my pocket wasn’t going to fill itself.
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“We all agree that our decision to try adraft-only release of Ephraim is the best thing that we can do for the beer. Rather than criticizing our brewery for this decision, we encourage beer enthusiasts to look within their own community—the community of enthusiasts—stare at the folks that are hoarding beer until it is far beyond optimal, scowl at the people that are disrespectfully and illegally reselling beer on eBay in order to gain a significant profit. The detractors from our decision seem to fail in recognizing the quintessential essence of our brewery.”
—Vermont’s Hill Farmstead 2012 statement about the sale of bottles of its beer on eBay
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If beer drinkers are strapping on their whaling gear, Greg Engert is one of the primary people renting out the boats.
At his collection of Neighborhood Restaurant Group outposts, Engert is in charge of stewarding one of the foremost portfolios of craft beer in the entire country—a program that has been honored by the New York Times and Food & Wine. In the span of a few hours, you can order up some Thornbridge on cask at ChurchKey, grab a Trois Dames draft at The Partisan, and quaff some Bayerischer Bahnhof at Rustico. Later that night, you can pull up a seat and polish off the 25 different house-made beers that are on tap every single day at Bluejacket.
Drink, rinse, repeat.
“It’s what I’ve been trying to do for 10 years,” Engert says. “It’s always been about finding the most flavorful, interesting, best beer. It is my hope to turn people on to something that they haven’t seen, but something that is also unforgettable.”
Engert’s competitors are no slouches, either. From Jace Gonnerman at Meridian Pint, soon-to-open Brookland Pint, and Smoke & Barrel, to Tim Liu at Scion, to Greg Jagsur (and now Sam Fitz) at Pizzeria Paradiso, the District—thanks to its lenient alcohol regulations—remains home to one of the largest beer arms races in the country.
While most American states operate under a system in which the sale of beer goes from brewery to distributor to bar to customer, the District is different. Here, the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration allows any beverage director to sell any beer they can bring into the District, simply by purchasing a $5 import permit and paying applicable taxes. Over time, District’s publicans have made inroads into domestic and foreign rare beer markets that their neighbors haven’t been able to.
D.C. beer bars benefit further when venues like the Verizon Center sell a large volume of beer from larger craft breweries like Goose Island, increasing the District’s claim to rare offerings, Engert says. Every time you order a 312 Pale Ale at a Caps game, you’re actually helping to bring another keg of the brewery’s sought-after Madame Rose to your local beer emporium when it’s released.
But even as the supply of great beer—in D.C. and around the country—increases, a swelling demand for that supply can potentially get messy. In Tampa, Fla., counterfeit tickets, hours-long lines, and crowd control issues at this year’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout release cost Cigar City Brewing owner Joey Redner almost $200,000. After a 2012 Austin festival, thousands of attendees lashed out at organizers who promised more than 550 beers, but delivered “only” 300.
Here in D.C., Adams Morgan bar Bourbon held a beer event in March and sold beers from Hill Farmstead of Vermont. Hill Farmstead brewmaster Shaun Hill reportedly asked Bourbon not to pour the beers before the event; Bourbon’s management refused. Hill was not pleased. After the event, a public ethics debate ensued—spilling over to Twitter on March 4 and 5, where Hill claimed that, thanks to the event, “the flood gates of illegal bootlegging shall open...and unsanctioned beer sales shall spread from sea to shining sea.”
— Hill Farmstead (@HillFarmstead) March 4, 2014
Chances are that this particular spat might not have happened if a brewery like Hill Farmstead—which brews approximately 100 times less beer per year than a major regional brewer like Brooklyn or Kansas City’s Boulevard—wasn’t producing some of the most sought-after whales in the world.
Issues like brewers who passionately argue with neighborhood bars about selling product are proof that the world of beer, especially here in Washington, is getting much smaller. When Engert first started bringing rare beer to the D.C. market, he promoted it through events at his bars and restaurants that drew huge crowds. Now, he says, he’s more likely to drop kegs of beers made by renowned brewers like Belgium’s de la Senne into the regular tap rotation at ChurchKey, right next to mainstays like Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale. (ChurchKey events still do just fine, of course.) For Engert—who, with the brewery’s blessing, sold Hill Farmstead drafts during last year’s Craft Brewers Conference—it’s indicative of a dramatic evolution for drinkers that he believes are “getting more fastidious.”
“Interest in craft beer has spread beyond the [existing] pursuers of the rare and the un-had. It has been outpaced by people who are looking for better beer when they purchase,” Engert says.
DC Brau, which has brewed 70 different beers in the last three years and now distributes as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, recently completed a major expansion that Skall says will allow the brewery to create a single one-off per month while brewing enough of their three flagships so they’ll never worry about running out.
With so many offerings, Skall says he takes monitoring people’s check-ins and reviews of his beer “very seriously”—but not to the point that he’d change a recipe.
Engert’s Bluejacket, which has produced more than 80 different beers since opening last October, takes a more emotionless approach. The brewery’s staff adds each beer they create to RateBeer, BeerAdvocate, and Untappd before release, Engert says, “just so that people are informed.” While the staff doesn’t read reviews of its beer, Engert says the effort is worth it as such sites are “a great first step” toward educating the public about the sheer quantity of beer Bluejacket produces.
Hatcher agrees, and believes that all his recording and checking in helps him bring the art of beer to those who haven’t yet dove in headfirst.
“Being able to share my knowledge with friends, family, and other people to give them suggestions on different beers they might enjoy,” Hatcher explains.
“It’s a great representation of what we’re doing,” Skall says. “It’s good to get people into beer.”
D.C. residents are doing just that.
The District proper now boasts a couple handfuls of breweries making beer at a production scale—and that’s not counting the dozen or so breweries in nearby Maryland and Virginia. And it’s not just Brau that’s growing: 3 Stars also recently completed an expansion that will triple its capacity, while brewers like Atlas are building their audience through a recently passed law that allows breweries to serve pints, not just fill growlers, on-site.
At the same time, brewing has become no less of a statistical venture than something out of The Bill James Baseball Abstract.
Consider a website like Beergraphs, which uses “statistical analysis to investigate the trends, biases, quirks and possibilities hidden within our enjoyment of this great adult soda.” Beergraphs contributors take beer rating data from sources like Untappd and use it to compile analyses like heat maps, as well as populate a leaderboard that ranks breweries and beers by sabermetrics like—and I am not making these up—Beers Above Replacement, SOLID (“a measure of how likely you are to get a great beer from a given brewery”), and Style+ (“a beer’s rating compared to beers in its style”).
Even for the nerdiest of beer nerds, it can seem like overkill. (Anyone want to sign up for a fantasy brewing team?)
But there’s a real desire from the statheads to use data to make a better brewing environment.
“I would have to assume someone on the business side of the brewery would follow the leaderboard, at a minimum,” argues Rich Hefter, a local Beergraphs contributor. “If a brewery is consistently low on the leaderboard, it should signal to the brewer that something has seriously gone wrong. There is too much excellent beer on the market now for subpar beer to survive.”
But can you really conduct legitimate statistical analysis through data based on personal taste?
“I feel like beer ratings will always be subjective, but once a beer reaches a certain amount of reviews, you do start to get a good feel for how the beer rates overall,” Hefter says. “At that point, I do think you can run meaningful analyses on the beer rating data.”
But Skall believes feedback systems that offer the ability for drinkers to rate beers without providing substantive feedback can be unreliable. “If you’re going to give our beer a 2.6 or a 5.0—either way, tell me what you like or don’t like about it,” he says. Such ratings “can be dangerous,” adds Engert, who says that on review and check-in platforms, “certain styles of beer are always going to do well.”
“You walk into a bar, it makes sense you want the best,” Engert says. “I get that, but at the same time, some stuff is great beyond a rating.”
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After logging hundreds of beers, my own process turned burdensome. It sounds overwrought (and, well, somewhat ridiculous) to suggest I was suffering from a beer-based identity crisis—or as Engert puts it, “missing out due to a collector’s mentality.” But maybe that’s what was going on.
At what point did checking into the beer take over the experience of drinking the beer? How many times did I rush my intake to check in, instead of getting a full nose of rare wild ale? (Probably 30 or 40, at least.) What happened when I checked into a beer the morning after, rating beers based on further introspection? Was I becoming the person at the bar who’s more concerned about attaining a number than with enjoying each individual moment, basking in the simple joy of trying something new and exciting? Was I reducing the art of brewing to quantifiable data—to take an experience that is one of the most pleasurable on Earth when enjoyed in the company of friends to an experience burdened through expectation?
Was I turning drinking great beer into work?
So a few months ago, I just…stopped. I still enjoy the best beer I can get my hands on at bars, at bottle shares, and at breweries. But, two or three semidrunken relapses into Internet-enabled geekery aside, I just don’t miss the obsessiveness. At all.
Ishmael? Nah. Call me beer drinker.