In June 2018, Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing hosted Green City, a beer festival dedicated to “all thing hoppy.” Some of the hottest names in the industry attended, including Los Angeles’s Monkish and Richmond’s The Veil. All brought several of their of-the-moment, New England-style IPAs (NEIPAs).
After paying the $100 admission fee — $300 for early-entry VIPs — many of the bearded men in attendance chose to spend a good portion of their afternoons in epically long queues awaiting 2-ounce pours from the aforementioned breweries. Meanwhile, the lines in front of IPA legends Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist were shorter than those at the help-yourself water coolers. Why? The geeks had already tried their beers before.
Among today’s most fervent craft beer fans, there is an unyielding demand for new brews. Thus, breweries are releasing new beers at unprecedented speeds, catering to a consumer culture more interested in diversifying their Untappd portfolios than in necessarily drinking something great.
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It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2011, John Kimmich, founder and brewer at The Alchemist, had to close his brewpub in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, and relied entirely on The Alchemist’s production brewery. “We were only producing Heady Topper,” Kimmick remembers. “We could not even come close to producing enough Heady to meet demand, so we only made that one brand. It is a different scene nowadays, though.”
That’s putting it lightly.
For breweries that want to stay hip, success has become an arms race to pump out ostensibly unique releases every single week. Meanwhile, breweries that are honing high-quality products to perfection — like The Alchemist once did with Heady Topper — are now no longer considered cool by Untappd-obsessed beer geeks.
As Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, the owner of Evil Twin, lamented on Facebook recently: “Man i miss the good old days where we didn’t have to put out 5 new beers every week to make the customers happy.”
“More Into New Than Good”
According to Gage Siegel of BeerMenus, a website that tracks what’s currently available at different bars around the country, Evil Twin added 108 new beers to its online database this year alone. It isn’t the only one. Barebottle Brewing added 138 new beers, Jackie O’s clocked 137, and Other Half 126. That’s about 2.5 new beers a week for these breweries.
They aren’t outliers by any means. Industry pioneer Stone Brewing, established in 1996, felt it necessary to release 83 beers in 2018.
“It’s certainly the status quo, with breweries from huge to nano pretty much all pumping out a wide variety of beers,” Siegel says.
Jarnit-Bjergsø feels these staggering numbers have mostly been generated by one thing: line culture (#linelife). These days, weekend can releases attract morning-long queues of free-spending beer fans. In other words, lines represent a lot of potential profit for a brewery. In an industry with as slim margins as craft beer, it’s hard not to play ball and give the people what they want.
“More and more people are buying their beers directly from the brewery, which is a good thing,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says, “But in order to keep those lines going week after week, breweries have to come up with new beers all the time in order to make it attractive for people to show up. People now expect two, three, four new releases every week.”
This sea change is relatively recent. Just a few years ago, NEIPA, a beer style characterized in part by its short shelf life, wasn’t yet mainstream. Mobile canning units that allow brewers to package their own products, and thus consistently crank out new beers at a moment’s notice, weren’t yet prevalent. As a result, people were more willing to re-buy something they liked. Heck, a brewery might need only to release one “new” beer per season to continually generate excitement.
Now beer geeks expect something new every single time they head to a brewery. Jarnit-Bjergsø says that two of his longtime seasonal offerings — Imperial Biscotti Break and Even More Jesus, both first released in 2012 — are still selling well, but he believes it’s not the beer geeks who buy them any more. It’s what he calls “real people.”
“The beer nerds sometimes seem to be more into ‘new’ than ‘good,’” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. He believes it’s currently this way for all breweries, not just his. “I think it’s easier for breweries these days to sell new mediocre beer than already released great beer!”
That may very well be true. In fact, it’s very hard to think of a brewery that has risen to prominence in the last half-decade and attracted any sort buzz without producing tons of new beers every single week.
Siegel claims he can only name one.
“Industrial Arts did a great job of putting out a core range of beer and still managing to get drinkers excited about it,” he says. The Hudson Valley brewery opened in the summer of 2016 with a solid core of about a dozen offerings, most of which were not even IPAs.
Recently, however, Siegel admits that even Industrial Arts has begun introducing more variety with now-monthly releases. If you want to garner hype and attract the tickers, you kind of have to.
The Rise of Tickers
A ticker is someone who cares more about “ticking off” a new beer than simply drinking a good beer they’ve had before. Tickers have long existed in the art world as well; in the cruise industry, they’re called “port collectors.”
Tickers used to be a minuscule subset of the beer world. I was, admittedly, once one myself. We were people who had already tried so many strange beers that we had to continue searching far and wide for a few ounces of anything unique. It wasn’t exactly a healthy obsession.
Today, however, just about every beer geek has become a ticker of a sort. Today’s beer tickers are less concerned with trying a few ounces of some strange, far-flung oddity, though; they’re more interested in getting each week’s newest 4-pack (if not case) from their favorite IPA makers across the country. In turn, every single brewery in America has become expected (expected!) to release two to four new canned beers every single weekend, less the brand lose its caché.
“You see breweries doing 100-plus different IPAs in a year. How is that possible?” wonders Jarnit-Bjergsø. “Are they actually new beers, or are they just small variants of beers they have done before, under new labels?”
(Anyone close to the industry has certainly heard rumors to this effect, even if they are only jokes. Quite frankly, how would we beer drinkers even know?)
The vast majority of these new releases are NEIPAs, which tend to taste pretty similar across the board. All NEIPAs have low bitterness, a fruity and juicy flavor profile (leaning on hops like Citra, Galaxy, Mosaic), and thick mouthfeel (often due to oats and/or lactose). They typically have a bit of an alcoholic burn, usually due to how extremely fresh they are. Drink a flight of them and it can be hard to distinguish one from another.
And while their typically turbid, almost glowing orange appearance makes them quite photogenic, most look exactly the same once poured. This can lead to even more chicanery.
“I even know of breweries that post fake pics of beers [on social media] that are not even made yet, just to get likes, not knowing if the beer will actually come out like the picture they posted when they actually brew it,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says. “To me that’s [losing] focus on what our business is about. If the beer is not good, no one should care what it looks like on Instagram.”
Whether or not these shenanigans are actually occurring is up for debate. If they are, it raises another question: Are these simply marketing gimmicks, or is ticker culture causing real damage to an industry that has worked long and hard to garner respectability for its immense ambition.
“I think it’s hurting the creativity in some ways,” Jarnit-Bjergsø says, “because it seems like the intensiveness of ‘new new new’ forces breweries to just slap new labels on stuff they have made before instead of spending the time and energy on actually creating something new, or making what they already do better.”
Siegel believes the industry’s lack of inventiveness is due to the fact that the majority of new beers are iterations of one style.
“There’s a tendency to lean on a bunch of IPAs instead of making a diverse lineup of beers,” he says. “That seems more shortsighted to me because the want for styles will probably shift before a brewery will need to be known for just one beer.”
Complicating things further, Siegel also believes that modern beer consumers are less concerned with the caliber of individual beers than they are collecting beers from seemingly desirable breweries.
“The perception is that all Other Half or Monkish IPAs are good, so the individual can is less important than who it came from,” Siegel says. “And that speaks, to some degree, to the skill of the brewers if they can produce enough different beers that consumers believe so strongly in their brand.”
Ticker culture is making things pricier for consumers, too. Forget the days of buying a $10 6-pack of something you know you love, like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Or even trying a $7 tulip of a new seasonal release. With so many breweries selling brand-new beers by the 4-pack, you pretty much have to stand in line and sink $20 just to try anything new.
Rage Against the Machine
Luckily, there are some breweries resisting this culture. They are focused on making great beer, not just releasing a continual stream of new beer.
“I have always brewed my beer to satisfy our own needs,” Kimmich says. He calls himself a perfectionist when it comes to each of his beers. “Thankfully, our customers agree with our opinion on how IPA, and beer in general, should taste.”
For Jarnit-Bjergsø, this current ticker climate presents some very real concerns. Evil Twin is set to open its first brick-and-mortar location on the Brooklyn-Queens border in Ridgewood, N.Y., early next year. He tells me that, since Evil Twin has been around for eight and a half years, it’s considered an “older” brand, and thus doesn’t garner as much hype as the new guys. As a result, he doesn’t plan to build his business around the every-weekend-a-new-release line life.
Instead, he plans to direct his attentions to the actual tap room experience. He is hoping to build a place that will attract everyone from the big-time beer geeks to European tourists to just average Joes from the neighborhood. He wants to offer beers that speak to all of these audiences.
“While I obviously love experimenting and making new stuff, I also see great pleasure in people coming back for the same beer over and over,” he says. “Coming up with hundreds of new beers every year is just not possible and shouldn’t be necessary.
“It’s O.K. to drink the same beer twice if you like it!”