The Fresh Fetish - Part III

Posted by Bradford Fullerton on January 16, 2013

The Fresh Fetish - Part III

But for now at least, these incidents of inflated prices seem to be limited to niche collectors and involve only the rarest of Belgians, limited-release Imperial Stouts, Barleywines and other specialty high-gravity beers that can be cellared and age well. Amazing works of art, all of them, but definitely nowhere near dominating the craft field as far as popularity is concerned. And here’s where IPA comes in to save the day...

IPA’s fame is not by accident. The style’s base hop-forward characteristics lend themselves towards a shockingly vast arsenal of flavors which are incredibly complex and visceral. This gives brewers ample room for creativity and diversity while working within the style and thereby accounts for the near endless variety of IPAs being produced today. It is a big beer that when done right is still very easily consumed by most anyone. Someone relatively new to beer can enjoy the shockingly bold flavors that smack you across the face once upon experiencing their Lupulin Threshold Shift, while those with more refined palates can savor the balance and intricately placed finer notes hiding beneath the surface. This to me, accounts for IPAs deserved reputation and why I often refer to it as the “Cabernet of Beer” ... No, really, I even say it with a straight face too.

Here’s the key difference between a bottle of Cab and an IPA though: I can rattle off a dozen of the world’s top-ranked Cabs and each of them will undoubtedly cost hundreds of dollars. But ask any hop-head to name the best Imperial IPAs around and they’d probably come back with a list containing Pliny the Elder, Dogfish Head 90-Minute or Bell’s Hopslam. And guess what? Not a one of these would run you more than $10 per bottle.

With the hype and reputation these beers boast, any of those breweries could easily charge prices exponentially higher and still move cases, but so far no one has budged. The rockstars over at Russian River even went so far as to stop bottling their endlessly hyped and much revered yearly limited release triple, Pliny the Younger, simply to thwart people from reselling it on eBay, and if any bar so blessed with a keg that year is reported to have jacked up the prices, they lose their Pliny privileges from that point forward. These breweries make good beer because they themselves love beer. And the more people they get to share their passion with the better. Screw price gouging.

“But then again...” A particularly annoying naysayer may respond, “There’s still the matter of the free market to deal with. And though the breweries themselves may not inflate prices, what’s to keep savvy entrepreneurs from coming in and buying up bottles to resell later on as happened with wine?” Simple...

If you're lucky enough to be able to purchase a bottle of Pliny the Elder where you live, then you'll probably be familiar with these words: " Respect your elder. Keep Cold. Drink Fresh. Pliny the Elder is a historical figure, don’t make the beer inside this bottle one! Not a barley wine, do not age! Age your cheese, not your Pliny! Respect hops, consume fresh. If you must, sit on eggs, not on Pliny! Do not save for a rainy day! Pliny is for savoring, not for saving! Consume Pliny fresh or not at all! Does not improve with age! Hoppy beers are not meant to be aged!..."

It’s something that beer enthusiasts have long known but is only now starting to gain mainstream understanding. The hops that give many IPAs their signature bitterness have a very limited shelf-life before they fade and leave the beer unbalanced and lacking its initial spark. The sweet malt will come through much more as the once brilliant bitter character is now muted. This decline is particularly noticeable in West Coast style IPAs, revered for their hyperbolically heavy use of hops. Sure, a faded IPA is not gonna kill you, but it probably isn’t worth dropping major ducats on either.

Long-ass story short: IPAs are crappy investment. Who is going to pay hundreds of dollars for a bomber when on the bottle itself it clearly states that this product is now several years past its prime? The second an IPA leaves the barrel its value begins to depreciate. Thus, the flagship of the craft beer movement can never become the same commodity that wine is. It is not just wishful thinking... It’s Economics 101.

Stone, Russian River and every other major brewery that joins in this campaign is helping to educate the consumers more and more to this fact. Stone in particular deserves special props for leading the charge and going beyond the usual faint date stamp by naming an entire delicious limited release series after that batches’ specific Enjoy By date (Congrats to them on their Draftmag bracket win too, by the way). By doing all this it helps inform beer lovers, while also sending a message to would-be opportunistic outsiders that beer is not meant to be collected nor is it something you can invest in. Drink it, and you drink it now, damn it.

So there it is, as I would have told my liquor store clerk friend had I not been such a wuss, that’s why the “Enjoy By” stamps are so important. It’s not just that it assures me that I’m getting a delicious IPA at its prime, but by deterring hoarding it also helps to ensure that so many great beers might forever remain as affordable and accessible as they are today. This, in concert with the euphoric taste itself, is just another reason why I and everyone here at love this style so damn much. And if you’re reading this, buddy, I am truly sorry about that time I accidentally dropped the bottle while looking for the “Enjoy By” date and shattered glass went everywhere... My bad, yo.