AHU: The few, the proud, the drunken

Does fanaticism toward one beer mean it is truly worthy of merit?

graphic by Sasha Plotnikova

graphic by Sasha Plotnikova

On February 9 in the small seaside town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a beer will be placed on tap in the Portsmouth Brewery. Its reception will ripple through the sea of beer aficionados across America. Portsmouth Brewery, which only produces about 1,000 barrels of beer annually (for comparison, Boréale’s brewers produce around 60,000), releases this beer so infrequently and in such small quantities that the Internet is buzzing with anticipation of its arrival.

Kate the Great, as the beer is called, wasn’t such a hot topic before December 2007, when the readers of BeerAdvocate Magazine rated it the number one beer in America and the number two beer on Planet Earth. The magazine is the periodical of the popular web site beeradvocate.com, which has over 175,000 members, most of whom are self-labeled beer geeks – lovers, defenders, and sometimes, to a fault, crusaders of craft-brewed beer. Such an accolade for Kate the Great created enough hype to give rise to Kate Day, the name given to the not-to-be-missed celebration of its release.

Kate is an Imperial Russian stout (named after the Russian Empress Catherine II),  an old style which lent the term “Imperial” to the extreme beer movement  and denotes a beer more concentrated in flavour, character, and alcohol.

These extreme styles of beer are often given very limited releases because their market base is composed of exactly the type of craft drinkers who would make such a big hype. The beer-drinking public is not typically drawn to such beers. Yet, on Monday afternoon, a line will form around the block at the Portsmouth Brewery, with people travelling from afar to secure one of about 900 bottles. If the most recent Kate Day this past June is an indication, they’ll sell out within 24-hours.

The anticipation for Kate the Great is bred at online beer-rating web sites like beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com. Their member forums overflow with predictions on changes in ranking (currently the stout is number five overall online), the distances traveled to make it to Portsmouth, and even arguments as to the motives of beer geeks.

“I am fascinated with the modern beer geek who has to have everything – at any price usually – just because it has been deemed the latest and greatest on the Internet,” writes one member of beeradvocate.com about Kate the Great. The buzz that a high ranking generates appears to be the main draw for many drinkers, who respond to such cynicism with validation – “I want [Kate the Great] because of the hype around it. I haven’t had it yet so I want to try it.”

However, others say that it’s as much about the journey as it is about the reward. As much as these beer geeks believe in drinking locally and supporting regional brewers, the thrill of attaining a bottle they have heard much about is a major draw.

Whether time and money is expended in trading for these limited-release beers – there is an intricate trade network made possible by these web sites – or great lengths are undergone to acquire the beer at its source, beer geeks find the search fulfilling.

Montreal’s own Dieu du Ciel! brewpub once had its own buzz-worthy beer. Another Imperial stout, Péché Mortel, elicited as much clamouring as Kate the Great – that is, before Dieu opened a large-scale bottling brewery and saturated the market. At 16th overall on beeradvocate.com, Péché Mortel still holds its own, but after seeing it in a beer store on the West Coast, I knew that it was no longer in the same league.

It’s hard to say if Kate the Great will follow Péché Mortel’s path. So long as the Portsmouth Brewery maintains its rarity and there are still beer geeks jonesing for that ultimate Imperial stout, the hype will live on.

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Filed under Beer News, Commentary

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