With this weekend’s release of Three Floyds Dark Lord, perhaps the biggest release of the year, everyone is talking about beer releases. I reflected back on a release from Jackie O’s Brewery in February to bring you this article. I’m off to Dark Lord Day, enjoy the read!
I was one of the lucky ones. Somehow, even after a nightcap of a high double-digit ABV “iced Russian Imperial Stout”, I managed to not only hear the alarm on my iPhone but I actually woke up feeling pretty good. I’d say that, given my track record of oversleeping and my penchant for burying my head under 3 or 4 pillows, the fact that my brain processed the smooth blues piano riff ringtone as a call to rise instead of diving deeper into dreaming about dueling blues Piano players on Beale Street was more than just fate – it was a miracle. And so, I woke up, dusted my shoulders off and jumped in the car at 4:45 AM to go wait in line to buy beer. This wasn’t the first time and almost certainly won’t be the last.
I can recall waking even earlier to drive 5 and ½ hours solo to Grand Rapids Michigan for the Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout release (way back when this glorious beer’s name hadn’t attracted enough interstate attention to make acronymizing necessary). There’s just something so exciting about the last half hour of the drive, approaching a new city to encounter the unknown head-on. When I got to Founders that cold March morning, I was actually happy to find a small line of 5-10 people an hour before doors opened. After all, a few solitary hours in the car can make one giddy and I’m a big talker to begin with, so it was nice to hang out with the other handful of people as we waited for the brewpub to open and the sale to begin.
But this day seemed different. It wasn’t simply because of how things have blown up in the craft beer scene this year. I was at Dark Lord Day 2010 and saw how the massive influx of people has made events and releases bigger and the beer more difficult to obtain. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t because I only had a five minute drive from the hotel to the brewpub either. The reason was staring me in the face after I turned left onto the street in front of the brewery; there, waiting along the sidewalk was a line of at least 50 people already in line. The first person had shown up at 2:45, wandering over after the bars closed and pulling a “balls-to-the-wall” all-nighter. On a February day in Ohio, waiting in a dark, cold line this early in the morning sounds like a crazy idea, starting 2 hours earlier maybe downright insane. If that’s the case, the college town of Athens had enough imbibers to fill an institution that morning, all waiting for a chance to take home some bottles of Jackie O’s prized beer.
As the hours passed and more people showed up, there was a lot of fun conversation and camaraderie. Of course people were talking about how many more people had show up compared to the last release where no line ever existed and no one went away empty handed. And sadly, as the line grew, more and more people arrived with looks of disappointment on their faces – after all, there was only enough beer for the first 75 or so, and the line was stretching to 100 plus. But there was another topic of conversation; people kept mentioning other releases and recounting both great times and disappointments. I sat back and listened, and what I heard intrigued me. While some similarities exist from release to release, each is unique and vastly different impressions are made on the diehards depending on how the brewery conducts the release and the fans respond. In these days of golden tickets, lotteries and good old fashioned lines, I feel it’s important to have common ground and an open dialogue between the hosts and the partygoers. I don’t know all the details from a brewery’s perspective, but I do know what I’m looking for from them and I don’t think anything I am asking for is unreasonable. While I have attended over 40 beer releases in the last two years, I realize there are people that go to a different one each week, so I’m not the most hardcore – but I have a decent wealth of varied experiences with this topic. With that in mind, I present ten ideas for breweries to consider with the best hopes that we can make beer releases fair, fun and fortuitous. If we can establish this basis for hosting behavior – a Beer Release Customer Bill of Rights of sorts – we can move forward to brighter days ahead. Here’s my proposal, I hope you enjoy reading it:
The 10 Commandments for Breweries for a Successful Release
There’s no such thing as “too much information”
If you make good beer, people will travel (seemingly) absurd distances to attend your release and take a few bottles home. I’ve met people from overseas at Dark Lord Day, and we all saw the story of the guy who flew from New Mexico to a recent Tröegs Splinter release. Since people are willing to invest in their time and money in your product, please take a few moments to let them know what to expect. Things like bottle counts, limits per person and prices should be clearly communicated before the release.
Case in point: Dark Horse Brewery failed to let the hundreds who drove to their “Bourbon Barrel Plead the 5th” release know about one little fact: there were just 50 bottles to go around and no limits. The resulting shit-storm turned what could have been a fun day into a bloodbath for the brewery, who claimed ignorance of the “overwhelming demand”. Right, no one is going to travel for an ‘A+’ rated beer ranked #2 on the “hot list” at a popular rating sight.
Take care of your fanatics, mug-clubbers and locals first
There’s nothing that can make a brewery or beer an institution like the support from fanatical fans. Likewise, there’s nothing that can knock your hard-earned reputation from its high perch like upset locals. They’re the people that support you all year, and they’re probably the most likely to cherish your limited products. Do a pre-sale for mug clubbers or make tickets or reservations available at the pub for a day before offering them to the general public. It’s the strategy that keeps paying you back all year long.
Case in point: Russian River knows Pliny the Younger is a special beer. But their local customers are even more special. That’s why the brewery decided to make the beer a “DONG” – Draft Only, No Growlers for 2011. Each day for 10 days in a row the brewery puts on several kegs so locals can enjoy the most famous beer their home team makes. In a less extreme example, Great Lakes used to allow mug club members to reserve spots at the Barrel-Aged Blackout Stout release party before the general public. While the mug club folded in 2011, the idea was a solid one and made life easy for those card-carrying members of mug-clubbery.
Pre-sell whenever possible
Thanks to the internet, it is now possible to not only inform your customers about your great upcoming release, but you can actually take the line online! Or, at the very least, you can hold reservations made over the phone. While people who don’t “get in” will complain about busy signals or web server issues, realize that those are not the fans but the people who will complain about anything. Let’s just put it this way – it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with phones ringing off the hook for a day than to deal with pissed off people at your front door.
Case in point: Three Floyds flagship event “Dark Lord Day” sells Golden Tickets online. The strategy has paid off with a much more laid-back event, even with the influx of thousands of additional people each year. This year, a ticket is required for Dark Lord Day. The result? Thousands of disappointed people, but every single one knew weeks in advance that beer wasn’t in the cards. No one will be making the trek to end up empty handed. Also, the Bruery sold Black Tuesday tickets online to avoid lines. While both events got their share of negative feedback from the shut-out, I contend the complainers were just looking for a reason to complain, and they were able to get the bad vibes out of the way before the event.
Price with efficiency in mind
Long lines and nervous excitement can combine to make some grumpy campers. While it’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time, take things like counting pennies and making change into consideration with your pricing models. Here’s a little known fact – people really don’t care if the beer cost them $13.94 with tax or $15. So, if you’re crunched on cashiers for the event, make running cards or taking cash easy for you and your thirsty fanatics.
Case in point: Jolly Pumpkin priced their Perseguidor 5 and Biere de Mars Grand Reserve releases at $10 each. But, with tax, the beers were something like $10.73 and all that penny and single counting made giving change to cash customers an ordeal. It’s no wonder it took over three hours to get 100 customers through the door.
Make it a true event – everyone loves a party
Ideally, the right venue and circumstances can make waiting in line an event. If you can, allow people to share their favorite beers in line. We know that’s not always possible based on location; so, if you can’t do the bottles in line thing, plan a day of celebration after people acquire their bottles. I can’t begin to tell you the wasted opportunities I’ve seen for breweries that sell beer and send thirsty and hungry people home after the transaction.
Case in point: We all know that Darkness Day and Dark Lord Day are two huge event-type releases. However, one of my favorite releases is at East End Brewing in Pittsburgh, PA for their awesome “Gratitude” barleywine. Head brewer Scott Smith will be the first to admit his warehouse brewery isn’t exactly what most people would think of as a “party spot” but every year this release finds more and more people sharing bottles, food and enjoying samples of Gratitude.
Merchandise can be a nice reminder of a lovely day
I’m amazed at how many breweries forget about the impact of merchandise. It’s not just about making a few extra bucks on the day of the event – people really wear those T-shirts all year round! They become marketing tools for you, and what’s better than free marketing? Still, I’m amazed at how many huge events (even Dark Lord Day) have little merchandise or run out after the first hour. Throw a logo on a snifter; put the event date on a shirt. It’s a simple way to make the fans happy, take in more profit, and get your message on someone’s chest.
Case in point: Surly Brewing Company’s Darkness Day is the one event that does this better than anyone else! There are amazing posters designed by celebrated artists, hats, coats, T-shirts and more. Perhaps the most ingenious consequence of these offerings is that Surly gets free advertisement at all the other beer releases from all the diehards in their branded Surly gear.
Don’t change the game half-way through
Sh!t happens. Just this last year, there was a panic at Three Floyds Dark Lord Day as it seemed people were showing up with bootleg “golden tickets”. While the first people through the line got four bottles per ticket, the limit was lowered to three for a while because of the threat of impending doom. However, there ended up being enough beer to go around. Sure, the “right” answer would probably be to create more secure tickets that can’t be easily bootlegged and that has happened. But, the biggest take away is that the limits should NEVER be dropped mid-stream.
Case in point: The only acceptable time to change bottle limits is before the sale starts. For the Jackie O’s February bottle release, an unprecedented number of fans showed up. This amazing turnout was, in fact, the inspiration for this article. Head brewer Brad Clark made the difficult call to slash limits from 3 to 2, allowing more people to get beer but making the pot at the end of the rainbow slightly smaller for those who had traveled a great distance. I expected to hear some grumbles (especially from those who travelled from places like North Carolina), but this change was generally well received and accepted for the greater good.
A little organization goes a long way
Some brewers are a bit eclectic, and I truly think some breweries succeed despite their lack of business skills. That being said, there are some simple ways to get set-up for a release that are sometimes skipped. Things like marking the lines, thinking about crowd flow and crowd control, and even having a friendly, knowledgeable face ready to greet the masses can make for a much better experience for both the seller and buyers.
Case in point: Tröegs sets up different lines for cash and credit sales. They also hand out tickets for their special releases, allowing people to get there, claim a spot, then head somewhere warm and return at their leisure. This is a great idea and certainly has paid off, as the Splinter releases are regarded as some of the best releases by fans.
Once it leaves the building, let it go
Let’s face it – there are some things in life you can control and some you can’t. There will always be death, taxes, and those little bitches who re-sell on eBay. There will even be people who bring funnels and tape to sneak beer out in water bottles for resale. I’m not saying it is right, but I’m saying it happens. And there’s nothing to stop it. Once the beer leaves the premises, the brewery should let it go. Otherwise, a losing battle ensues. While it’s unfortunate that the short-term profiteers are taking product out of the hands of those who will truly appreciate it, at the current time there’s really no way to stop them.
Case in point: Russian River has made comments recently about Pliny the Younger being snuck off premise and sold on eBay. While I love Russian River and all they stand for, this was a losing battle. The people taking the time to read about the brewery’s response were probably not the same people that would sneak beer out.
However great these ideas may be, don’t forget to stick to your core competency
While I encourage breweries to create these fun and profitable events complete with all the fanfare, I also understand that planning can become a full-time job. That’s why it’s important to make sure, no matter what, the beer never suffers due to event coordination. You’re a brewer after all, not a party planner. Don’t pull your hair out over it – these are supposed to be a fun way to promote your business and reward fans. The second it stops being fun is when you should consider taking a step back.
Case in point: Three Floyds puts a ton of effort in to Dark Lord Day but takes their share of criticism each year. When I met with Lincoln Anderson from Three Floyds in October, I was amazed with how much he really cares. That being said, he realized that planning Dark Lord Day is a full-time job and he’s not in the event planning business. This year, consultants were brought in to make the festival better. All signs point to this being the best Dark Lord Day yet!
The examples above are meant primarily as “food for thought” and aren’t meant as a slight to any brewer, person or beer in particular. I’d love to hear your feedback on these, and I look forward to the day when more people express their thoughts and we achieve a common understanding.
As for Jackie O’s, I was one of the lucky ones who went home with bottles. But I know the day is coming when I’ll get “skunked” or “shut-out” and I’ll make a sad drive home without beer. After all, there are only so many bottles to go around and a seemingly endless stream of people getting into better beer. When, that unfortunate day happens, I’ll have no one but myself to blame if assuming there are no shenanigans and everyone else simply got there earlier or were quicker making reservations. That’s why I hereby accept the Golden Rules and hope more and more beer release attendees do. As long as I pledge to hold up my end of the bargain, I feel like it’s appropriate to ask the brewers to put some thought and consideration into the event. If you throw a beer release, please try to abide by the Ten Commandments – it will pay off, I promise. I urge everyone to treat the scene and each other with respect. Remember, put it in perspective – if you miss out today, the next release is just around the corner. And, after all, it’s just beer and there’s always next year.
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