Behavioral economics is a topic any economist would expect to make brewery visitors run. Whether there is more fear or active interest in the topic, craft breweries across the nation are becoming the perfect laboratories for fanatic behavior. Most of those studies would find the most influential contributing factor to the craft brewing fandom is one thing: scarcity.
With lines forming out the door and people spending hours just for an opportunity to taste a specific beer, it is evident there has been a dramatic change in the culture of the beer consuming world. Assuming this trend of craft brewing behavior is an indication of a shift away from the name brand beer beverages such as Budweiser and Coors is a stretch. But it is a trend that is shifting the landscape of the beer industry, and it is not entirely clear whether that change is for the best.
At times, tactics utilized by popular breweries appear downright manipulative. Is there a new wave of scarcity manipulation taking place to drive revenue and take advantage of consumers? Or is scarcity in the brewing world merely a symbol of a popular culture that is driving a market? This much is certain; there is no shortage of places to look to see the way scarcity is making business boom for some of the most popular breweries in the country.
Pliny The Younger
Ever since its creation in 2005 by Russian River Brewing Company, the annual release of Pliny The Younger is a spectacle that beer fans swarm. I had heard of the beer and its ancestor, Pliny The Elder, but being on the East Coast, I was not familiar with the annual event. That was until some friends of mine from the west clued me in. We were out sampling a local brewery in Western Massachusetts, and I heard them mention it.
“My brother took the next two days off of work for the release. He and his friends are driving up tomorrow and spending the night.” The drive they were alluding to was a three-hour drive, and the brother and his friends were preparing to wait in line for what they expected would be a minimum of three hours. This wait would earn them the right of the entrance to Russian River Brewing Company for a maximum of three hours and three 10-ounce pours of the sought after beer.
Upon my investigation of this particular release, I found the journey of my friend’s brother to be just the tip of the iceberg. Especially on the opening day of the release, it is not unusual for people to camp out the night before to get the earliest entry into the brewery. I also found reports of people planning their entire year’s vacation around the two-week release event and travelers coming from outside of the country for this event alone.
There is uproar in abundance when it comes to Pliny The Younger, but what’s that big deal?
Pliny The Younger is a Triple IPA with high alcohol content. It is from the model of the original Pliny, Pliny The Elder, which is one of Russian River Brewing Company’s year-round brews. According to reports, The Younger is only available on limited release because of the unique challenges presented by its brewing.
The resources used in creating this beer are said to be very expensive. Especially when considering the tremendous amount of hops and malt used for its creation, this can be understood. The sheer girth of ingredients that go into the beverage also means that brewing The Younger takes up a tremendous amount of tank space.
Thus, brewing this beer year-round, or even multiple times throughout the year, would be a daunting task for the brewery and its staff. Plus, why fix what is working with such astounding results? There doesn’t seem to be any reason to change a thing about what Russian River is doing with The Younger release.
While change is not necessary, there have been a few tweaks to the experience in the 2020 release of Pliny The Younger. For the first time, 14 Pliny-fans per day won the right to skip the line. Raffle tickets could be purchased for $25 in the fall and gave hope for those looking to skip the line.
Those quick to anger may assume this was a stunt by Russian River to milk the event for every dollar it is worth. In reality, the raffle was a part of a larger campaign named Sonoma Pride that wound up raising almost one million dollars for the aid of wildfire victims.
Tree House Brewing Company
The East Coast has its own version of Russian River with its Pliny line. At Tree House Brewing Company in Charlton, Massachusetts, King Julius is known as royalty in the brewing world.
At Tree House, one of the most successful breweries in the country, scarcity and uncertainty is in the DNA of what they do. The beers of Tree House are only available for purchase at their Charlton location. One of the only ways to know what will be available for purchase on a day-to-day basis is to follow their website and/or Twitter page.
With over 100,000 followers on their Twitter account, it is evident that Tree House has the attention of many. Lines with waits of hours have become a tradition at Tree House and are to be expected most days, especially on the weekends.
The process for earning your right to a Tree House beer involves buying a ticket to stand in line and wait for your selection of cans available. If you arrive too late and your desired brew is no longer in stock for the day, you are out of luck.
With a limit on how many cans you can buy, visitors need to be wise about the choices they are making. It is a challenge to prepare ahead since all beers are released immediately after packaging, making for somewhat of a mystery as to what beers will be available and for how long.
Tree House may not hold annual release events that attract crowds of lines and tourists. Still, their day-to-day operations attract admirers from around the country and, sometimes, the world. Where there are crowds, there are crowd favorites, and some Tree House releases are apt to leave the shelves too quickly if sales are not limited.
As I write this, their website shows that they have King JJJulius available (yes, different from the King Julius). This beer is so appreciated and pined over that they limit each patron to no more than two cans. Still, it is a near certainty the brewery will sell out of this beer early in the week.
Of course, there is no surprise that there will be scarcity at two of the most popular breweries in the country. But, scarcity is even becoming somewhat of a trademark at smaller local breweries.
At The People’s Pint in Greenfield, Massachusetts, scarcity is becoming a circumstance of the way they do business. Since they only brew a small selection of year-round beers and otherwise consistently come up with new creations, there is no telling how long a beer will be available.
They bring back nothing seasonally. That fashion of business has resulted in frequent guests lusting after beers they haven’t made in years.
After speaking with brewery manager Chris Sellers and owner Alden Booth for a recent article, I have no concerns about them abusing this power that they’ve come upon. In fact, they showed no signs of even acknowledging it as something they could take advantage of. Where good people are in business, there is much less reason for concern.
Managing the Ethics of Scarcity
In most scenarios where new trends begin, and tactics develop, someone will come along and abuse the advantage of that tactic. It is a near certainty that there are and will be breweries abusing the power of creating scarcity. Many business people will consider it good economics.
In the case of these two craft brewing darlings, I find it impossible to find any ill-intention in their tactics. One is raising tremendous money for victims, and another is limiting purchases to enable availability to more people.
Plus, the customers provide the most straightforward argument to settle their cases. Most actually appreciate the lines, the waiting, and the scarcity. It has become a part of the culture and a part of the experience. Without those waits and that scarcity, there would be less value in the weight of saying, “I drank Pliny The Younger,” or, “I just bought some King Julius – come over for a drink.”
I can see the potential for sales of inflated event tickets to breweries that don’t deserve the reputation and sleazy advertising of unique release beers that lack any features worth mentioning. Still, I trust the integrity of the craft beer consumer. As long as they continue to rush to the right places for the right reasons, their favorite breweries will give them justification for coming back again.