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Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Escalating Obsession with Rarity

With the passing of Thanksgiving, we have more or less officially entered the holiday season. It can be an awkward time of year. But we also know it's a time when many fine beverages will be consumed and shared. Something to look forward to.

What folks will be drinking and sharing is another matter. As Aaron Goldfarb's a recent article in Punch suggests, tastes are increasingly driven by rarity and extreme presentations. We have reached the point where a beer isn't likely to be considered great unless it's rare and racy.

This aligns with what we've seen in recent years, as rare, high-priced beers have established a strong presence in beer shops and many premium grocery stores. Total beer inventories have been rising, but a lot of old standards we used to know and love are gone, displaced by specialty beers.

That trend is a good reflection of the actual beer world. Fans chase rare and crazy stuff and want to be seen drinking it. They aren't going to show up at a bottleshare or similar gathering packing something that's readily available and moderately priced. Perish the thought.

In effect, we've achieved stratification in beer. That may not have been inevitable, but it was the logical result of the growing popularity of craft beer and the rise of super fans in recent years. While the brewery count was exploding, so was the demand for special beers. Examples include barrel-aged, fruit-infused, wild and even ultra hoppy beers.

Meanwhile, many of yesterday's best beers are forgotten. Even if they're still good and highly drinkable, they're too common and made in breweries that are far too big. As Goldfarb says, "There’s nothing 'cool' about [those beers] —no remote brewery to travel to, no can release to line up for, no rarely-seen, iconoclastic brewer to idolize."

Retailers have contributed to what's happening and it's hard to blame them. If you're a retailer, your prime directive is to maximize return per square foot. It's easier to do that with high priced specialty beers than it is if you're selling mainstream craft beer in any form. Breweries have jumped on the bandwagon, as well, offering specialty beers via spendy fan clubs.

Festivals have piled on, too. They strive to offer as many one-off, arguably rare and often extreme beers as they can. Organizers fully realize potential patrons are more likely to attend and pay premium admission prices if they think they're getting something unique, as opposed to tastes of broken down standards.

I tend to look for historic parallels in these trends and there's a feasible one here. As I was reminded while watching the Soundbreaking series on OPB, 45 rpm singles became highly unfashionable once LPs became the artistic standard in the late 1960s. I think we're seeing something similar to that in craft beer, as speciality beers push old, uncool standards into the background.

The trend is supported by a lot of the data we're seeing, data that generally shows many older, larger breweries losing momentum while many newer, smaller breweries gain share. Some of that is probably more closely related to the image new places are selling than the beer, but never mind. Rare and arguably innovative is the current cool.

Where does this lead? I have no idea and I don't think anyone else does, either. Some say beer is simply becoming more like wine. Maybe so. But there's also a chance this is an unsustainable, generational fad that won't last. We shall see.

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