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Monday, October 24, 2011

The lunacy of rare beer releases - A retailer's perspective

The high demand for limited-release beer means good sales, unique challenges for retailers.

By Steve Siciliano

Perhaps lunacy is too strong a word, but the recent release of Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout certainly had an unprecedented degree of madness associated with it.

The phone started ringing a half hour before we opened (we open at 8am) and the calls continued throughout the day. When would we be getting CBS? How much would we be getting? Would it be possible to reserve a bottle? Do we have any left? Any idea where to find more? When one early caller asked if our three cases had arrived yet I asked him how he could possibly know that we were getting three cases.

“I called the distributor,” he answered matter-of-factly.

Our store’s allocation, hand delivered by our harried Kent Beverage salesman, showed up about mid-morning. Three hours later it was gone.

I have varied emotions about these rare beer releases. On the one hand they’re a retailer’s dream—sell merchandise and reap profits almost before the ink dries on the check that was written to pay for it. And these rare beer releases certainly contribute to the over-all excitement surrounding craft beer. We are, after all, in the business to sell and promote craft beer, and whatever generates interest and keeps people talking can only be a good thing.

At the same time there’s an unsavory element simmering just beneath the surface of these releases. I have a feeling that there are people out there who took the day off from work or school to get their hands on as many bottles as they could—and not to have a cellar full of beer either, but for the express purpose of turning an extraordinary profit on the black market. On the same day CBS was released it began showing up on Ebay for $100.00 a bottle, more than five times what we sold it for at Siciliano's.

There’s not a good way for retailers to handle rare beer releases. We would love to see these beers end up in the hands of our regular customers and purchased by people who simply want to drink it. But how do you do that? For better or worse, our policy has been and will continue to be announcing the arrival of the shipments on our Facebook page and selling the bottles on a first-come, first-serve basis, with a certain bottle limit per customer. Unfortunately there are no easy answers.

It is my hope that as breweries like Founders expand their production the unsavory elements of these rare beer releases will be mitigated. Time will tell. I have a feeling, though, that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the lunacy.

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