The phenomenon of beer wait lines

There is an explosive trend in beer culture that has nothing to do with hops, yeast or malt.  It has to do with beer wait lines.

Waiting for beer

Just another Saturday morning, waiting to buy beer.

By this I don’t mean beer lines as in the polyethylene and vinyl tubes through which draft beer flows, betwixt keg and faucet.  I mean hundreds of people spending their Saturday morning hanging around outside a brewery, waiting for the doors to open so they can snag a few cans and bottles of limited quantity beer.

Used to be that this kind of behavior was reserved for the super-limited, draft-only release of Pliny The Younger at Russian River.  This I kinda get.  Over a decade ago, Russian River, already famous for their highly rated (and itself not widely available) double IPA Pliny The Elder, decided to brew a super-duper hopped, higher gravity version and release it in kegs only, originally just at their brewpub.  And it would sell out in hours.



But nowadays you can see long lines of people outside breweries across the nation.

Every.  Single.  Saturday.

Breweries like Hill Farmstead, Trillium, Tired Hands and Tree House (sorry, all east coast examples – please shout in the comments section about others) see lines almost whenever they open.  These breweries all make limited batches of one-off or sporadically released brews, and none of them have well-established distribution away from the brewery.

There’s a young, much-lauded brewery in my home town of New York that sees this phenomenon when it releases cans every other weekend.  I wanted to get under the skin of this odd trend,  so yesterday morning I woke to my alarm and took the train to Other Half Brewing Co in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn.

I drink Other Half pretty frequently.  Since opening in early 2014 this cult brewery has received great support from the bars and pubs of NYC, and I often buy pints of their excellent hop-driven beers when I’m out.  But if you want to drink Other Half beer at home (and, like me, you’re not big on growlers), you need to head to the brewery itself. Every second Saturday, Other Half sells cans and a few bottles of their world-class IPAs, double IPAs and specialty experiments from the brewery door.  And demand is high.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, just round the corner from Other Half Brewing

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, just round the corner from Other Half Brewing

Sales begin at 10am, but rumors of folks lining up for hours only to see the beer sell out before they reach the front means people get there any time from 7am.  That’s right, 7am on a Saturday morning.  I aimed for a more civilized 8.30am arrival, and when I got there I found about 250 winter-coat-wearing beer geeks already snaking around the block as the latest polar vortex gripped NYC with its frosty fingers.  Many had fold-out chairs, most clasped paper cups of coffee and a prudent few were munching on breakfast sandwiches.

“I got on a bus at 6am in Philly,” explained my beer line neighbor as I struck up conversation.  “I had no plans for the weekend and I’ve wanted some Other Half in my fridge for months.”  But surely, I insisted, this is crazy behavior.  This must be earlier than you get up for work during the week?  “Oh yeah, I had to set the alarm for 5!” said my single-serving friend.  “But I was doing limited release sneakers before I got into this craft beer thing, so for me it’s just another Saturday.”

Plenty of beer banter outside Other Half's graffiti covered entrance.

Plenty of beer banter outside Other Half’s graffiti covered entrance.

Another chap in the line near me lived just around the corner in Brooklyn, and often stops by the tap room at Other Half on the way home from work.  (Where, by the way, you can taste their beers any time you like.)  What was he doing there before most people had even got out of bed?  “I come to these releases almost every time they do them,” he told me.  “But I’ve seen the beer run out a few times, once when I was only three people from the front.  If you want the beer, you have to put in the line time.”

So where did this bizarre, seemingly irrational trend for Saturday morning beer wait lines come from?  As this article eloquently points out, there is so much good beer around these days, you really shouldn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to acquire it.  And yet, at the same rate as your nearby Whole Foods is upping the quality of beer on its shelves, more people are littering the sidewalk outside their local nano-brewery.

Well here’s my take.

Other Half Wait Lines

Lines gathering outside Other Half Brewing on a chilly Saturday morning,

People want the newest beers

It’s true that many of the better grocery and liquor stores have shelves burgeoning with world-class beer from national, regional and, increasingly, hyper-local breweries.  But the breweries with the weekend lines outside them are the ones on the cutting edge.  They’re the ones started by guys who left other craft breweries because they were too pedestrian.  They’re the ones that barely package beer.  They’re the ones that manage to bang out 40 different IPAs, 30 different saisons and 15 different collaboration stouts in a year.

If you want to try the latest thing – if you want to be ahead of the curve – you need to set the alarm before you go to bed on Friday.  We all know what the early bird got.

These beers are best when they’re fresh

There are beers that can age well – I have a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Worldwide Stout that I’m resisting till it peaks – but 99% of beer tastes best when it’s released.  I’ve drunk beer from the brite tank before: it has a startling zippiness that exists for but a fleeting moment.  And let’s be honest, most of the beer people are waiting in line for is IPA that’s been dry-hopped to within an inch of its life.

Ultra hop-forward beers have a starting gun fired the moment they emerge from the tank; their aroma will begin to deteriorate within a fortnight.  If you really want to taste the beer “as the brewer intended”, you can’t even wait for it to go from brewery to wholesaler to liquor store.  You need to buy it at the very place it began life as a sack of malt and a bag of hops.

People will go to great lengths for scarce goods

Would you pay $1,000 for a bottle of water?  Of course not.  But what if I told you that it was natural spring water filtered through rare crystals that form once every decade in a remote cave in the Alps, and enough water can be collected to fill only three bottles?  Oh, and by the way, the other two bottles got bought by Madonna and Vladimir Putin.  The utility of the water is the same as the stuff that comes out of your tap, but scarcity creates a weird psychosomatic reaction in humans.

Put in beer geek context, would Heady Topper taste quite so good if you didn’t have to wait outside a random convenience store in rural Vermont for an hour on a Tuesday morning to get it?

Assuming a product is good, the less of it there is – the harder it is to get hold of – the more people value it.  (At this point I’ll mention that the four packs of 16oz cans I was waiting for at Other Half cost $18.)  There is both economic and social value in getting your grubby mitts on a beer that only a few hundred other people will ever own.

You can spend your time in line practicing a smug expression for an Instagram post.

The moment of victory! Inside Other Half's brewery and near the front of the line.

The moment of victory! Inside Other Half’s brewery and near the front of the line.

There’s a crazy-big secondary market for beer these days

Limited release beers from uber-hip breweries aren’t just social currency, they’re hard currency too.  For other beers.  There is a vibrant, buzzing, oft-frowned-upon market for bottle trades these days, and people need to stockpile the rare beers from their neck of the woods to play the game.

Within a matter of days, the internet-savvy beer trader can turn a four pack of Tree House Julius into an Alchemist Focal Banger, a Creature Comforts Koko Buni, a Modern Times Blazing World and a Breakside Kolsch, all without leaving the comfort of their early morning fold-out chair on the sidewalk.

There are people who like standing in line on Saturday morning

Frankly, despite the discomfort, the early morning wake-up groan and the weirdness of buying beer while you can still taste the toothpaste, there are people who like getting up on a Saturday morning to stand in line.  As my queue buddy from Philly explained, “What else am I going to do today?  It’s not football season!”.

I was wary of being the weirdo who tried to start conversation with the people around me at 8.30am, but it was surprisingly easy.  And I wasn’t the only one: the whole block was buzzing with beer nerd talk.  I got chatting to three pleasant people around me, and the two hours we spent together breezed by in the wake of banter about west coast breweries opening up on the east coast, who ABI might buy next, who had met the brewers from Other Half and other geek-out topics.

It was fun!  Not only do you spend two hours chatting with like-minded people, you get your small-batch brews to take home AND you feel like you’ve done something with your weekend before it’s even lunchtime on Saturday.  It’s better than mowing the lawn.

(Just kidding.  We don’t have lawns in New York City.)

My beer (and a tee shirt for the wife) nicely packed up.

My beer (and a tee shirt for the wife) nicely packed up.

I must admit, my beer line cherry-popping experience wasn’t that bad.  In fact, I quite liked it.  To the credit of the folks at Other Half, they’ve evolved and adapted to make the process slick and swift.

First, they have a max per-person allocation to stop people greedily snatching more than a fair share.  They hand out wristbands on a first-come, first-served basis and they only hand out enough wrist-bands as they have beer available (if everyone took their total allocation) to prevent disappointment.  They have a cash only line, and they’ve just plain gotten good at getting people in and then getting them out.  I was done by 10.30, just two hours after arriving.

But will you be doing it again, I presciently, telepathically hear you ask?  Well, nice as it is to have fresh Other Half in my fridge, the stool by the bar at my local looks just a tad more comfy than the wind-swept streets of Brooklyn.

But you never say never.

The fruits of my labors! L-R: Peach Wood Aged Sour Ale, Stacks On Stacks, Hop Showers

The fruits of my labors! L-R: Peach Wood Aged Sour Ale, Stacks On Stacks, Hop Showers all from Other Half Brewing.

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