The issue of selling beer on eBay, collectible or otherwise, tends to bring out strong (often, impressively strong) opinions in the craft beer community. Brewers feel cheated, beer veterans express outrage, and yet somehow the rest of the world still manages to mostly go about its business quietly and unaffected.
Within the past week, Struise has vowed to eliminate black-market Westvleteren sales by occasionally offering bottles up for sale (near retail) at their online Yeast Shop, Joe McPhee posted an article about the increasing prices of limited-release brews, and Beernews.org (in response to the Struise / Westvleteren situation) highlighted a recent poll they had done regarding eBay sales, in which 57% of the 300+ respondents indicated that they couldn’t care less. My vote was included in the majority vote.
The question surrounding the “morality” of reselling beer on eBay (in quotes because of the generally ridiculous way that most discussions on the topic tend to soon devolve into either hair-pulling umbrage or shoulder-shrugging ambivalence, neither usually terribly clearly expressed) doesn’t really interest me. Or, at least, not very often.
Most of the arguments I’ve heard tend to presume that the reseller is a particular kind of person – this can take the form of an opportunistic fiend (recruiting people to stand in line for them at rare releases, only to turn a quick profit at the expense of locals left empty-handed), the free-market renegade (it is, I guess, one way around the three-tiered distribution system in the U.S.…), traders going rogue, and beer collectors who really are auctioning aged bottles that really are far more valuable unopened. Personally, I like to imagine that it’s a bunch of old ladies utilizing craft beer to support their spiraling bingo habits.
My point is this: the fact that eBay auctions elicit such strong reactions from the craft beer community is symptomatic of something else. And what that is, for me, really only starts to become clear by looking at the current state of craft brewing alongside the (comparatively settled) state of the high-end wine industry.
What are three of the biggest complaints amongst beer geeks these days? (1) Things are changing, rare beer releases are getting more ridiculous, and beer is gradually becoming treated as a commodity. (2) Auctions and less-than-noble practices are becoming more prevalent. And (3) craft beer is getting more pricey.
Guess what? (1) and (2) exist mostly because craft beer isn’t pricey enough.
I absolutely don’t mean to suggest that we’re going to be seeing $50 six-packs of Sierra Nevada anytime soon, because that isn’t the market we’re talking about. Session beers, six-packs, regular releases – no brewers in their right mind should start ballooning their pale lager prices after reading this article.
Most of the craft beer industry revolves around being an affordable, available, almost-everyday product. There are still countless affordable bottles of wine.
But when’s the last time you heard someone complain about the price point of first-growth Bordeaux by saying, “There’s no way it cost them this much money to make that wine.” And yet, we still hear it regarding the increasing prices of Lost Abbey’s special offerings all the time. Better yet: people complaining about how something costs $20 a bottle – but (because the brewer’s a smooth talker and had a gun held to their head in the checkout line) they still bought two.
Deep down, we want these underpriced, limited-release beers without any consequences. And this says a lot about the current state of craft beer.
I haven’t broached the notion of entitlement yet in any of my previous articles, partly because I hadn’t really nailed down the sources of it. But you see this constantly: beer geeks calling for wider distribution, larger production numbers, the bottling of volatile beers (Pliny the Younger, anyone?), and an affordable pricing structure to boot. We carry around a lot of hidden expectations.
Rare beer releases can serve as useful publicity, under the (correct) assumption that the attention will help sell more of their regular lineup. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if costs were purposefully kept lower than they reasonably could be, just to continue this perception of unmeetable demand. It’s good press. It shows commitment from the fan base. It makes for a good story. It ultimately sells more craft beer. And we would be offended (!) if they priced beer like top-tier wine.
But these limited releases and their comparatively low pricing play a key role in letting these grey-market activities exist in the first place. Both the prices and the production numbers are maintained low relative to the current market, and this artificial gap is what, to me, seems to create many of these strange happenings, which are comparatively unknown in the wine world. We’ve got it too good.
Am I saying brewers should skyrocket their prices to eliminate eBay resellers and alleviate some of the tension surrounding limited releases? No. Craft beer continues to succeed and expand its market by serving the interests of the craft beer community, and overt profiteering tends to negatively affect the community as a whole. It’s a precarious balancing act, and it will continue to be.
Ultimately, we’re at a funny stage right now. We want craft breweries (especially good craft breweries) to succeed, to rise up against various monolithic BMC corporations while continuing to innovate, yet we’re quick to react with outrage every time their prices increase. We want craft beer to continue expanding its market share and pulling in new “converts” (I always feel weird using that term), and yet we’re still never quite sure how to handle all these energetic n00bs.
We’re not always sure what we want.
There are a number of disjointed elements in the craft beer community – and the current pricing of limited-release beer seems like just the tip of the iceberg. Craft beer still seems to be in a developmental stage, and maybe rare beer will never approach the same price points as Petrus or Lafite. Maybe this is something we should fight tooth and nail to avoid as long as we can. I honestly don’t know.
But we need to start talking about it on clearer terms. How the industry manages to negotiate many of these internal contradictions will determine its future. And, personally, I can imagine things both wonderful and terrible about craft brewers someday making beers so good I can’t afford them.
Leave a Reply