Against Hoarding

Miles Liebtag, January 23, 2014

Let me put this out there straightaway: I am not a collector.

I haven't bought a CD or record since I sold all of my music for beer money in college, I haven't watched a movie on a piece of physical media in more than five years, and I stopped buying books after a multi-state bedbug infestation caused us to dumpster our entire library. I do not collect, thus I do not cellar. Whatever remains of my collection impulse has been whittled down to the meagerest of nubs. Give me Spotify for beer and I'll be happy.

Bottle hoarding sucks. It's consumerism as hobby, object fetishism as aspiration, a kind of social currency that's mostly proffered and accumulated by people who would otherwise be buying baseball cards and replica fantasy swords. The dragon atop his golden hoard often comes to mind when I encounter these people out in the market: beasts of high cunning with an encyclopedic and up-to-the-minute knowledge of their itemized basement bounties, eyes lit with unquenchable avarice as they try (for reasons possibly not clear even to them) to talk some poor bottle shop cashier into selling them two extra four packs of Backwoods Bastard. Bury me with my Black Tuesdays, honey; I'm taking mine with me when I go.

Wait a second, you're probably saying. Even possibly: fuck you! You don't know me, I work hard for my money, etc. Why shouldn't I sock a few bottles away for a rainy day? What about my high ABV beers, my speciality Belgian ales, blended sours, and other wonders that will improve over time with extended bottle conditioning? What's wrong with maintaining a respectable cellar?

My answer would be: nothing! You are well within both your rights as a consumer and the bounds of propriety in keeping that cellar, friend. There are legitimate reasons to save a beer: to age it in the hopes of developing more nuance over time; to save it for a special occasion or to share with someone in particular; to create a vertical series of several or more years' vintage for a diachronic tasting. The distinction (arbitrary, yes, sure) I wish to draw is between cellaring and hoarding.

Cellaring is purposeful, deliberate, and thoughtful. Hoarding is greedy, unbecoming, and ridiculous. It's also bad for craft beer.

One of the first retail tastings I attended after moving to Ohio and taking a job with a wholesaler here was at a great bottle shop in a well-heeled suburb of Columbus. The weekly tastings at this shop are better than most retail tastings (a lot of which take place in supermarkets and are absolutely deadly boring), due in part to having a regular cast of customers who are genuinely interested in the beers. These regulars often spend the tastings gazing intently into their smartphones, dutifully checking into Untappd for each beer they taste and talking about other beers of the same style (from Three Floyds, from Hill Farmstead, &c.) they've had that are better than what's in front of them.

One of these guys, I'll call him Bob, spent much of that first tasting talking about a recent purchasing coup he'd made: it seems that a Giant Eagle Market District had received two cases of Founders KBS that week and, rather than singling the bottles out for individual purchase, had allowed each customer to buy one four pack. Bob gleefully recounted how he'd enlisted several people from his office, as well as his brother in law, in hustling down to the store that morning to pick up additional four packs. He ended up with an entire case, now safely ensconced in his basement. He showed me a picture on his iPhone to prove it.

Dick move, Bob! I would've loved to have enjoyed a bottle of that myself, as I'm sure five other people would have similarly been thrilled to pick up their own four pack of this beloved beer. Instead, the case will moulder in your basement, individual bottles to reemerge only when you deem a particular bottle share or trading opportunity worthwhile. You've contributed directly to the increased scarcity of this beer in your home market, and have literally deprived X number of people of the opportunity to try and enjoy something that only comes along once in a great while. And for what? Bragging rights? Trade fodder? A misplaced sense of accomplishment in thwarting the gnawing spiritual emptiness inherent in life under Western late capitalism?

Bottle hoarding takes a fine thing (an appreciation for a sensuous potable) and turns its object into a dead signifier for social clout. It turns shopping and spending into a hobby and the liquid in the bottle into a prisoner held captive by its own label. It taints sharing, as bottle share events often devolve into bouts of macho posturing and oneupmanship as participants try to out-compete one another by announcing what they've tasted, what they've brought, and what they have in their cellars.&
Owning a rare or expensive beer is not in itself an accomplishment. Even if you paid (paid!) for the privilege to buy it, drove out of state, or stood in line for hours to get it. Even if you brought your botts home and meticulously arranged them for a totally sweet haul photo. Tasting is a hobby; trading, even, sure, is a hobby; owning is not a hobby.

From an industry perspective, hoarding is a mixed bag. For brewers/suppliers, having a devoted fan base willing to buy up your limited releases at a very high price point provides affirmation, free marketing, and fat ducats. Brewery-only releases of limited beers can make a ton of money for the producers; there are no distribution costs, after all, and a bottle release party has the potential to pack the pub or taproom.

For wholesalers, hoarders present number of challenges. Consumers who know a limited beer is in the works will hound retailers sometimes months in advance of its release, and when it does finally hit the market, there's never enough to go around. Purchasers, sales managers and street reps have to very carefully manage where these things go and in what quantities. Retailers have to manage consumer expectations and (if they're doing it right) make sure the beer gets into as many hands as possible, a notion that often runs counter to the wishes of the hoarders, who wish to get their hands on as much of the product as possible for stashing and trading purposes.

The advantage to the brewer in releasing limited beers through their distribution networks is twofold: it gets more of their beer into more and diverse hands, and it keeps them (the brewery) out of the sometimes nasty business of managing overwhelming demand in the face of necessary scarcity. Very rarely does consumer ire turn towards a brewery for not producing enough of a limited beer; rather, people feel that they're getting fucked by their retailers, and the retailers feel that they're getting fucked by their wholesalers. Ever wondered why your corner shop only got a single case of that rare Stone, or Odells, or Bells? The answer to that question is bound up in an alchemy of different metrics of little interest to anyone other than that retailer and their wholesaler. While breweries might see less money from distributing limited releases, it allows them to put themselves at a remove from this madness (there are other, similarly intangible advantages for producers in going through a distributor, some of which are more cultural than material).

There's a decent argument that hoarders drive some business at the retail level -- everyone loves traffic in the door, even if people are only coming in to see what's new or limited that week. Hoarders, however, are by their very nature fickle consumers with little retailer loyalty. They have their local spots like anyone else, of course. But they also spend a lot of time popping into bottle shops and big craft retailers to buy up whatever's being kept behind the counter that week, leaving less of the new hotness for that retailer's regular, loyal customers, the people in the store three or four times a week buying Lagunitas IPA or Left Hand Milk Stout. Most hoarders I know could also give a shit about breweries' bread-and-butter brands, those core beers that allowed the brewery to build a successful business and branch out into more adventurous projects like barrel aging, sours, etc. The intrinsic elitism of hoarding fosters an implicit dismissiveness of everyday beers: core brands are for the punters, the thinking seems to go, and no one gets excited about, say, a classic American stout that's been made consistently for 25 years. Unless you put that shit in a bourbon barrel. Then everyone needs that shit.

One great advantage of the current moment in craft beer (for the consumer, at least) is the ever-expanding galaxy of beers to try. With a brewery in America opening literally every day, there's no shortage of new and wonderful things to buy, sample and share. Hoarders, with their constant need to chase the latest wax-sealed bottle or bourbon barrel imperial stout from whoever, might miss the elegant simplicity of a local pilsner, or the fleeting beauty of a session IPA. There's more to beer than high gravity and barrel aging, but well-made lagers seldom make the grade with the hoarder crowd (there is not, for example, a single lager on the RateBeer Top 50). The hoarding lifestyle creates some stark divisions among a consumer cohort that prides itself on rootsy egalitarianism, especially as there exists a perceived teleology of craft knowledge and experience--one "progresses" from the intriguing alien flavors of IPAs to things like imperials, sours, huge stouts and wood- and barrel-aged beers. (I've always found it intriguing myself that so many of the most sought-after and top-rated beers are actually quite sweet, and often accentuated with flavors from barrel aging that would appeal to the most uninitiated of palates, but).

If there are hoarders, and then there's everybody else, I guess I'm in the plebeian consumer camp. My cellar is exactly the size of my refrigerator and contains at any one time a number of session beers, some homebrew, and certainly some fun, large format, high gravity stuff -- that I intend to share with a friend as soon as the opportunity presents itself.