RATIONAL RATIONING

For the most part, Russian River’s Pliny the Younger has come and gone for the year. If you were lucky enough to be in Northern California or at one of the scattered handful of bars (like Denver’s Falling Rock Taphouse) that got a keg of the Younger in February, you might have had the opportunity to sample the fabled brew. If not, then you’re like the rest of us…sadly Pliny the Younger-free for yet another year.

The difficulty of obtaining the Younger led a fellow Alehead to ask why Russian River intentionally limits the distribution of the beer. After all, it’s not like the beer is made with some impossibly rare or expensive ingredient like swallow’s nest or saffron. And it’s not barrel-aged or cellared so it can be brewed and distributed as quickly as any other normal, high-gravity offering. If it’s so good (at the time I’m writing this post, it’s the top-rated beer on BeerAdvocate) and so clamored for by Alehead Nation, why not brew it in greater quantity? Hell, why not brew it year-round?

That question gets asked a lot about some of the supposed “best” beers in the world. 3 Floyds The Dark Lord. Portsmouth Brewing’s Kate the Great. Founders KBS. Only the legendary Westy 12 escapes these kinds of questions because the Trappist monks that brew the beer don’t care about profit or popularity. They brew just enough to fund their charitable works and no more.

But those other beers are produced by American, for-profit ale factories. Why don’t they make their most famous beers year-round? As Slouch has queried on numerous occasions, “Do they hate money?”

I thought about that question as it related to the Younger. And for me, there are numerous reasons why Russian River is making the right choice in limiting access to their most celebrated creation:

1. It’s probably not THAT good: OK…I’ve never had the beer. I have no idea if it’s the “best beer on Earth” or just a solid version of the style. I have no doubt it’s an excellent beer (as is pretty much everything made by Russian River), but I highly doubt it would be sitting atop so many “Best Beers” lists if it were readily available in every corner grocery store in San Francisco. Its stratospheric rise to the top is a function of its rarity. It’s the difficulty of procuring a bottle that has made it so cherished. Human beings are notoriously bad at overrating things that we can’t have…there’s nothing better than something you want but can’t possess. By limiting access to the beer, Russian River has all but assured that Alehead Nation thinks it’s better than it is. Add that to the fact that it probably IS a great beer, and all of a sudden you’ve got one of the most well-regarded beers on Earth. Neat trick.

2. Free publicity: What’s the best way to get Aleheads talking about your brewery? Make a beer that they can’t find. Aleheads are an obsessive lot, and we love checking beers off of our lifetime list. But what about when a beer becomes impossible to sample? We talk about it…ad nauseum. I’ve probably spent more time talking about the Younger…a beer I’ve never had…than practically any beer I HAVE sampled. Russian River has received a priceless amount of publicity because of their über-rare brew. While they produce a murderer’s row of fermented gems (the Elder, Supplication, Blind Pig, etc.), the Younger is easily their most talked-about beer. And as long as they keep brewing it in such limited quantity, it probably always will be. In a nutshell, the reason the Younger is Russian River’s most famous beer is because practically no one can drink it.

3. Why fight yourself?: Let’s say Russian River decided that they DID want to produce Pliny the Younger year-round. At this point, the beer has gotten so hyped that it probably would be a huge commercial success for the brewery. But which readily available beer would suffer the most if Russian River scaled up Younger production? Pliny the Elder, of course. Think about it…why would you buy a bottle of what is essentially a scaled-down version of the Younger when you could just buy the bigger, bolder, brasher real thing? Sales of the Elder would plummet. Russian River would gain market share with one beer while losing the same amount with another. There would be no net gain for the brewery.

That last point leads to an obvious question…if the Younger is a hype-machine…the most talked-about beer in Russian River’s line-up…why not replace the Elder with the Younger and call it a day? I mean, it’s the #1 rated beer on BA! Ah, but the Elder isn’t exactly bringing up the rear. It’s currently rated #3 and up until the Younger’s release last month, the Elder was actually rated AHEAD of its stronger nephew. I think that if Aleheads were given equal access to both beers (ignoring the rarity context), they would probably select the Elder every day of the week and twice on Sundays. My guess is that the good folks at Russian River feel the same way. The crazily-hopped Younger is probably seen as more of a novelty for Vinnie and Co. They most likely think of it as a fun experiment…a huge, big-hitting hop-bomb that they enjoy cranking out once a year before getting back to making their perfectly balanced, arguably best-in-class Imperial IPA, the Elder.

For me, there are really no advantages of scaling up production of the Younger. I don’t think it would help Russian River’s bottom line. I think the beer’s sterling reputation would actually suffer. And I think the incredible free advertising they get from their rarest of beers would immediately dissipate.

So I get it. And I think the brewery is smart to continue being stingy with their Younger dissemination. Of course, that doesn’t make me feel any better. Another season of Younger has gone by without a drop of the beer touching my lips. To paraphrase the fedora-clad guy at the beginning of Lost Crusade, “Russian River might have the right approach, Aleheads. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.”

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4 comments

  1. Your grasp of supply and demand is truly impressive.

  2. Economics was not my strong suit in college. I’m still not sure what the word “fiduciary” means. But it has the word “douche” in the middle, so it’s funny.

  3. Pretty fantastic analysis! I have yet to try Pliny The Elder, let alone The Younger. Even on a recent trip to Seattle, it was impossible to track down for some reason…

  4. Mr. Draught · · Reply

    Late to the party on this post, but while I was in Hawaii apparently one of my local watering holes got their hands on the Younger. They only got a little pony Keg and decided to give it out free because pricing it didn’t make sense. They poured it out in 14 minutes. My Barista (only in Washington state do you say such things) reports that he likes the Elder better. He is an active homebrewer and has made his own Elder knockoffs before, which he believes are pretty close. He’s going to give me a bottle from the next batch.

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