What’s the Hype All About? (The Session #70)

Welcome to Planet Hype! Black Tuesday, Darkness and Kate the Great on Aisle 1. Westy 12 on draft.

It’s hard to say exactly where the hype surrounding any particular beer begins, and why some beers get much more hype than others.

Does it begin with the brewery when they announce they’re concocting some quad-hopped bourbon wine whiskey barrel-aged imperial IPA double stout brewed on the peak of a mountain? Does it start among friends with the both half-mocking, half-bragging, “What do you mean you haven’t tried the Pliny/Black Tuesday hybrid?! It’s soooo good!” Or is it a mix of both, with insatiable beer drinkers lining up for days to get the latest and greatest from their favorite brewery, only feeding the beast that much more?

That’s the question posed by David of Good Morning … as part of this month’s edition of The Session: How much does hype affect a beer, is it a good or bad thing and what does it mean when a beer doesn’t live up to the hype. Here are my thoughts:

How much does hype affect a beer?

There’s no denying there’s a wealth of hype in the beer world. Every few months, some new bottle is released to much fanfare. People line up for days on end or buy buckets of raffle tickets or stay glued to their computer screens just for a chance to buy a bottle of The Bruery‘s Black Tuesday or Three Floyds‘ Dark Lord, or even just a glass of Russian River‘s Pliny the Younger.

Hype can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can build up a brewery’s clout and help elevate a style. For a smaller brewery not often mentioned in “best in the world” discussions, it can help grow their profile. That’s true in the Carolinas with breweries such as Foothills, a great brewery that might not get much attention outside the Southeast if not for their excellent Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout. And as they say, competition is a good thing, and having a brewery put out a “Pliny killer” or some barrel-aged imperial stout that people go gaga for can cause other breweries to step things up and try to top it.

On the other hand, it can almost deify a brew in a way, giving it gargantuan and mythic qualities. When it come down to it, it’s just water, yeast, hops and grain. It’s not the Holy Grail. There was a time not that long ago when I did my damnedest to make it to every bottle share or tasting in hopes of tasting a white whale or something super rare. My mentality’s changed since then, settling into the ol’ “It’s just beer” groove. If I don’t have hyped beer A, I’ll likely have hyped beer B at some point, or some beer equally as good that has no hype surrounding it.

That brings me to the second question …

What does it mean if a beer doesn’t live up to the hype?

I’m going to get into this by delving into two different experiences with two massively hyped beers: Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Westvleteren 12.

Before I discovered and became involved with beer trading, I participated in the shunned practice of buying beer off eBay. In my defense, I didn’t have a network to traders yet or a sizable cellar, so I didn’t have much to go on and figured just buying it would be the easiest thing. One of the first bottles I bought was Pliny, because 1) I’m a complete hophead and 2) the hype surrounding it had sold me.

It did not disappoint. I shared it with a few friends at a Halloween party last year and everyone agreed it lived up to the hype. This thing is, I hadn’t necessarily hyped Pliny up to epic proportions in my mind. I really wanted to try it, but I didn’t think it would be the end-all, be-all imperial IPA. I was just excited to try it.

On the other side of the spectrum we have Westy 12, which is widely considered to be THE beer to end all beers. I was lucky enough to come across bottles during my honeymoon in Brussels, Belgium earlier this year. In my review, I said this regarding the hype surrounding Westy 12 and whether it is the best beer in the world:

It’s a very subjective question and not one that’s easily answered. What I think is that the lure of Westvleteren beers creates a manufactured importance, and people certainly get caught up in the hype. It’s hard to live up to the expectations you have in your head.

That being said, Westy 12 – as well as Blond and 8 – are truly phenomenal beers. Is Westy 12 the best beer I’ve ever had? No. Is it one of the best beers I’ve ever had? Absolutely. Is it the best quad I’ve ever had? It’s a definite contender.

Westy 12 certainly didn’t disappoint me, that much is certain. But I absolutely got caught up in the hype and lure of the beer, and maybe at the time I had convinced myself it was a better beer than it actually was.

You'll never get this! But that's OK.

You’ll never get this! But that’s OK.

With Westy 12 getting (legal) distribution in the U.S. for the first time, I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it’s worth shelling out $90 for six bottles and two glasses. If you have some extra cash and want to treat yourself, I say go for it. Save the extras for bottle shares and people will really appreciate it.

However, that $90 might better be spent on bottles of St. Bernardus Abt 12, or Straffe Hendrik Quad, or Rochefort 10. They’re all Belgian quads, they’re just as good as Westy 12, they’re available everywhere and they’re pretty affordable.

And the best part? They’re not hyped at all, and a lot of times, those are the beers that deserve the most attention.

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