By Will Carroll
Most of the questions I get about beer come from abundance. People wonder how to choose from so many beers. People wonder if there are too many breweries. However, some of the most interesting things in the beer world comes from the opposite side altogether.
Scarcity is hardly a trend, but a fact of life in this realm, and it’s becoming more and more a tool rather than an experiment. You may never be able to “collect the whole set,” but rare beers, hyperlocal beers and seasonal beers are being leveraged by breweries.
The fact is that even the biggest beers here aren’t available elsewhere. I can’t get a Sun King in Dallas, and I can’t get a Franconia in Indianapolis. This is a function of many factors — laws, transportation, scale and freshness — but it’s a reality.
On the other hand, there are seasonal beers. You can’t swing a cat without hitting six pumpkin beers right now. (And where the heck did the phrase “swing a cat without hitting …” come from anyway?) Is that a function of Halloween, of pumpkin supply or did the brewers just want a cut of that sweet, sweet Starbucks Pumpkin Spice gravy train? (Pumpkin Spice Gravy? It probably exists.)
I’m sure we could have a summertime pumpkin ale if someone really tried, but we probably couldn’t have an Apple Buzz. The seasonal fruit beer from Oaken Barrel is one of the top seasonals from the area, and the crew there has to wait for the materials. A shortage of cider two years ago really set them back, limiting supply even more than normal. It wasn’t quite to iPhone line levels, but it was close.
There are year-round apple beers, ciders are one of the fastest growing sectors of beer, especially with many breweries setting themselves up with options in case the hops shortage isn’t corrected over the next few years. (The surge in local hop farms shows one possible solution to the supply issue.) Could Oaken Barrel find a way to do Apple Buzz year round? Sure, but it would lose a bit of the cachet.
But what about beers that aren’t as constrained? Raw capacity aside, there’s no reason Zombie Dust has to be that hard to find. Three Floyds could make more, but it’s become something of a phenomenon due to its sheer unavailability. The same is true of experimental beers like Sun King’s Grapefruit Jungle, some of the Upland experiments or the Three Wise Men seasonals. All could be made in greater quantity, but aren’t.
There’s a reason. Scarcity is a great weapon. In a world of guerrilla marketing, brewers without the budget to advertise can leverage word of mouth and the spirit of collectors in order to get their brewery’s name out there and their beers into some — but not all — hands.
Besides, you do not want your brewer getting bored. Bored brewers have a tendency to burn out or leave to open their own operation, one that doesn’t bore them. Wonder why there are so many breweries opening? Boredom is part of it, as is demand and economics.
Supply and demand are as boring as a mass-market light beer, but even the best recipes taste a little better if they get a little “limited edition” glitter on them. Try as we might to be smart consumers, we all fall for it a little bit, and it’s not always a bad thing.