Beer Lines and What They Say About the Culture of Craft Beer
A few weeks ago as I walked into my office, I noticed a massive line stretching around the block. It was just after 7 a.m. in the middle of the week; clearly, these people had been waiting either overnight or since very early in the morning. It wasn’t freezing out, but it wasn’t warm. I later found out they were waiting for the BTS, the Korean music group, pop-up store to open up. I thought they were all crazy.
I thought they were all crazy until I remembered the time I almost froze my toes off waiting in line for Prop Day. Until I remembered the time that I waited in line for Big Hugs a few years ago through a huge snow storm. Or the time I walked and waited outside in the pouring rain for The Beer Temple to open so I could grab a bottle of Jester King Spon.
One person’s craziness is another person’s passion. People are passionate about craft beer and they are willing to wait for the product they want. My wife thinks I’m crazy (and she’s not wrong) but she also knows that I love craft beer. I’ve paid a lot of money for one bottle of beer, I’ve waited overnight for a stout and I’ve made way-out-of-our-way detours on road trips so I can try a new brewery. We are quick to judge, myself included, those who show that passion in non-typical everyday ways, but that’s what makes the passion so amazing.
I’ll argue that lines are a good thing.
It’s not just beer and Korean music pop-up stores. People wait in line for everything. From beers and concert tickets to Apple products and restaurants, the list goes on and on. When you take a step back and look at it from a high level, it’s far more than just a product.
And remember, you don’t have to wait in line for these things. There are other beers in stores, other shoes on the shelves and you don’t have to be the first to get the newest Apple product.
But it really is more than just a product we purchase. Nearly 10 years ago I worked at the Apple Store on North Michigan Avenue. During the release for the iPad 2, we had lines every morning for weeks that stretched forever. On release day the line was nearly a mile.
Shortly after the release, I was opening up the store and handing out tickets for the allotment of iPads we could sell that day. I got to a woman and gave her a ticket for the exact model she wanted. She broke into tears and opened up to me with way too much information. But in the end, she loved Apple products and while personal matters (again, way too much info) had prevented her from coming on the release day, she was ecstatic to be getting her iPad.
Beer can play a similar role. We open beers that we wait in line for on special occasions. The night I got engaged, I opened up a Bourbon County Rare while my latest promotion at work had me opening up a Vanilla Deth’s Tar. These beers have a deeper connection because of what we had to do to get them.
We also use beer to help us get through tough times. I’ve seen countless posts of people sharing beers they drink to honor a friend or family member who has passed. It’s not just drinking a rare beer either—typically, it has a connection to the person. They waited in line with them for the beer; it was their favorite brewery/beer or something else elevates what this beer means to them.
Of course, I’m aware that there are people in those lines that only have the intention of flipping the beer for profits. I don’t like those people either, but I’d also argue that they are a small fraction of the line. However, they get thrust into the spotlight when we see what they try to sell the beer for on the internet. Most of the people who wait in line for products have the right intentions.
What do the breweries think?
I wanted to make sure the breweries have a voice in this piece—after all, they’re the ones who are creating the products that people are waiting for. I sent questions to Ben Ustick, the Person Who Does Things from Off Color; Goose Island’s President Todd Ahsmann; Doug Veliky, Revolution‘s CFO and & Head of Communications, and Half Acre’s Creative Manager Meredith Anderson asking them about lines for their beers. All four breweries produce beers that garner hype and attention from the craft beer community.
Revolution this year had four separate Deep Wood releases to help space out the series’ distribution. For Veliky, there’s gratitude and a little bit of stress every time he sees a line forming at Revolution.
“Expectations climb through the roof for each minute that a customer waits in line,” he said. “Meg, Tim and our taproom team pride themselves on delivering a pain-free, best-in-class experience, so the variables compound when there are hundreds waiting in line. We rely on our POS terminals to ring up each purchase, so the risk of that system going down is always a rare but lingering threat. Luckily we have a team of experienced pros that always deliver and when there’s an opportunity for improvement, they jump all over it.”
The Black Friday wait for Bourbon County has become as much about the experience of the overnight wait on Thanksgiving night as the beer itself.
“We learned a while ago that part of lining up for beer isn’t always about getting a specific beer before it’s gone,” Ahsmann said. “That is part of it, being first, getting it before it sells out, etc. I think the part that is just as fun is the community around it. Standing in line is a great opportunity to talk beer, trade beer, make new friends, run into old friends. If we’re helping to fuel that community with our beer releases then I’m happy.”
What can be done about lines?
This really is the million-dollar question. Lines are inevitable for big beer releases but while Revolution and Goose Island are trying to make the lining up process more enjoyable, Off Color and Half Acre have moved to a different set-up for some of their releases.
“At Off Color, we’ve made a pretty conscious decision to avoid lines whenever possible,” Ustick said. “Over six years, we’ve pretty much tried every kind of release possible and found that for us and our customers, a ticketed approach works best. Experience has shown that this allows for an efficient and enjoyable pickup experience. If tickets sell out in a few minutes online, then that certainly becomes a similar situation to what you’re trying to avoid with lines. You’re just playing the online lottery rather than the standing in line one. However, in certain situations, lines and disappointment are going to be inevitable, so the best thing we can do is try to learn from those experiences and adjust and inform so we can avoid something similar in the future.”
The online lottery is also what Half Acre has adopted.
“Some breweries offer presale like we do for Benthic or Big Hugs so that you can guarantee yourself an allotment without having to stand in line,” Anderson said. “Sometimes increasing production and distribution is an option like we’ve done with Beer Hates and Galactic (Double Daisy Cutter).”
With the online lottery, breweries have better control of the traffic coming to the release and can even space things out, staggering the group times. It’s a method that More Brewing has done for their big releases as well.
But even in those situations technology issues, inability to get to a computer at the on-sale time and other factors doesn’t make that the perfect situation either.
Revolution and Goose are working to make the line experience better for their customers.
“At the first ever Deep Wood can release in November 2017, I saw a line forming about 90 minutes prior to opening, which we were not expecting,” Veliky said. “I filled up a pitcher of Café Deth to give everyone in line an early taste. Before I could finish pouring, the line doubled, so I filled up another pitcher, then another and another. We’ve had six releases since then over the past two years and I’ve made this a tradition to walk the entire line, sampling the goods, and thanking everyone who came out in the typically cold weather. Our brewers walk the line, saying hello and answering questions that anyone has.”
For this past December’s release, Revolution hired a saxophone player to play carols for people while they waited.
What do lines say about the state of craft beer?
All-in-all, the breweries agree that lining up shows the passion and dedication customers have to their product.
“It showcases the tight-knit community of craft beer drinkers and the communal bonding experience of waiting in line to sample a great, quality beer,” Ahsmann said. “So many things that used to cause lines, like buying concert tickets or phones, are gone because of the simplicity of online purchasing. It’s great that beer is still a face-to-face, in real life, experience.”
If you’re also expecting a line, which today you should, it’s part of the experience of getting the product.
“That’s part of the fun of this industry: People really care and they bring energy to what we do,” Anderson said. “In my experience, when lines are managed well and prepared for, they can be a fun extension of the beer release itself.”
As beers continue to push the boundaries of what can be done and new styles and variants are released, lines will continue to form. From beers with Lucky Charms to the latest barrel-aged stout, there’s plenty to line up for and that’s a testament to the craft beer industry.
“Lines for beer releases say that the subculture and hobby that exists within craft beer is still alive and well,” Veliky said. “Beer enthusiasts love the feeling of being connected, which is why they check-in beers on Untappd, share them on Instagram and post in a Facebook group. They’re buying the story, anticipation and experience, waiting in line with friends, followed by tasting variants in the taproom. Sharing those experiences contributes to the conversation and can lead to discovery and new friends. Sure, there’s amazing beer all over the shelves at small bottles shops and big box stores alike. But for a small, enthusiastic segment of drinkers, it’s the journey in addition to the destination.”