Introducing Pliny the Latte

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Last night, on the evening news, I saw a story about Starbucks Coffee. Specifically, they reported that the supply of Pumpkin-Spice syrup is running short. The syrup is used to make a wildly popular coffee drink available at Starbucks only during the autumn months. Sound familiar? Upon hearing the story, I thought to myself, “Pliny the Latte.”

Was there really a shortage of Pumpkin-Spice syrup? We’ll never know. It really doesn’t matter. Starbucks achieved its goal. The news was talking about the shortage, which they claimed was created by overwhelming customer demand for Pliny the Latte.

By now, everyone who likes to drink good beer is familiar with the Pliny phenomenon. No doubt, Pliny the Anything is a damn good beer. I do not want to talk about the merits of the beer; I want to talk about the marketing methodology that I refer to as the Pliny Strategy. I am not suggesting that the nice people at Russian River started this whole thing. All they did was brew a couple of damn good beers. In this particular instance, it is a strategy most likely started by distributors and perpetuated by consumers. Yep. It is our fault.

Sometimes I think we are just stupid human cattle. I am as guilty as anyone. Something is good because someone says it is good. If there is a line, we should be in it. I cannot explain why, but for some reason it makes me think of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The more difficult it is to acquire, the better it must be. It is good simply because it is good.

Like I said, Pliny the Anything is a damn good beer, but it will not stop your hair from falling out. It will not bring your dog back to life, you will not attain spiritual enlightenment by drinking it, and it does not make you any smarter or more sophisticated than anyone else.

I am so sick of people asking me (the presumed smart-guy expert), “So what do you think is the best IPA?”

It is a one-way conversation. They do not care what answer I give. Usually, they aren’t even listening and I could tell them that Elysian Brewing’s Perseus Porter is my favorite IPA, or that I prefer orange juice over beer, and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash. All they want to do is tell me, “I think Pliny the Younger is the best IPA.”

Well, la-dee-fricken-da. Congradu-fricken-lations. They’ve actually had Pliny the Younger. That’s all they really wanted to tell me. And they always have to tell me how long they waited, how far they traveled, and how much they paid to drink it. Drives me crazy.

Another example of the Pliny Strategy. There is a Thai food restaurant in our neighborhood, considered by many to be the best in the city. The more popular it gets, the more popular it gets. It’s a snowball. The food is the same as it was five years ago, but that snowball just keeps rolling. On a Friday night, if you call to place an order you will discover that they are not even bothering to answer the phone: not a busy signal, but a message telling you that they are unavailable.

In addition to the restaurant being packed to the rafters, at any given moment there are as many as 20 people standing around waiting for their orders. Since the restaurant no longer answers the phone, you must place your order in person and then wait.  The last I heard, wait-times ranged from 50 – 60 minutes.

You might think they’re crazy, but the crowd waits patiently for their orders of Pliny the Thai Food.  Sure, the food is good, but more importantly they can now stand around the water cooler on Monday and tell stories about how long they waited and how good the food was. Somehow, Pliny the Thai food made them better, smarter and more sophisticated than their coworkers.

I am not simply ranting. Well, maybe I am. My point is simple: whether it is by accident or design, this is a brilliant marketing strategy. We are sheep. Just tell us where to go and what to think. Now that I’ve mentioned it to you, I hope you realize when you are buying into the hype. I’m not saying it should stop you from waiting in line for an hour just to drink a five-ounce pour of Pliny the Younger, I’m just saying you should acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Because I don’t want to be stoned to death or banished-forever from the beer community, I must reiterate that I think Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder are both damn good beers. It’s the hype that I hate.

11 Responses to Introducing Pliny the Latte
  1. poured it out
    October 6, 2012 | 9:37 pm

    but Pliny sucks. really. i poured it out. all IPAs taste like grapefruit to some degree.. just that some are smoother than others and some are all HOPtageddon. hops are boring. there’s more to beer than tons of hops. there are no good IPAs. just that some of them suck less than others.

    it’s an easy way to make a ‘craft’ beer. just keep putting hops in your beer.

  2. 66jzmstr
    October 7, 2012 | 9:22 am

    So you’re bashing Pliny just because you don’t like double IPAs? Of course, not everyone needs to like Pliny, but personally, I find it very well-balanced with subtle flavors and aromas I don’t get in most other double IPAs.

  3. Kendall Jones
    October 7, 2012 | 11:49 am

    Contrarian babble.

  4. Craig
    October 7, 2012 | 12:21 pm

    I sort of think there’s a Pliny the Black Raven thing too. Some of their beers are great, but crazy-long-festival-line great?

    And the Black Raven Wisdom Seeker DIPA (which happens to be released again this Sat 10/13) comes out every 3-4 months. I think it’s better than Pliny the Younger, plus it’s local and it’s fairly easy to get. But there will surely be a long line to get bottles since they always sell out the first day. If they brewed it all year long and it was always available, would it be as “good”?

  5. Russell
    October 7, 2012 | 1:34 pm

    Oh to have that level of hype though… :) But it’s elementary econ that scarcity can drive demand. Our whisky stout kicks almost immediately because A) it’s awesome and B) I only make like 20 gallons of it at a time. “It went in a day!” has more meaning if it’s just a sixtel. Would we like P-Diddy the Younder less if they shipped it in 1/2bbls? But I do get tired of “When’s the whisky stout back on???” (Answer: “Which it’ll be ready when it’s ready.”)

    But your main point, perhaps summed up with “Opinions are like noses…”, is right on. My personal favorite recurring conversation, as a brewer, is:

    “Well I’m a Beer-Advocate-Gold-Star-Member/BJCP-Grand-Wizard/Amazing-Newbie-Homebrewer/Self-Appointed-”Connoisseur” and we need to have a talk about this beer.”

    “Oh, we do?”

    “Yes, it’s on the right track, but you need more X, and it’s got just a little to much Y to be a proper Z. You certainly shouldn’t have used _____. (Which isn’t even in the beer). You should really make it more like Some-Obscure-Brew-from-Deepest-Darkest-Nowhere. Next time do A, B, and C and you’ll be just fine.”

    *raised eyebrow* “Yeah, I’ll get right on that…”

    It’s not the comments I dislike. We’re new, always fine-tuning our recipes, and my regular customers definitely impact how the beers evolve. If lots of people say it “isn’t hoppy enough” or “the last batch was better”, I listen. And I appreciate feedback, positive and negative, from people whose opinion I respect. I’m much happier when a pro tells me my beer is “clean” than when some random, drunk beer fest stranger says “this beer’s great!” (though I do appreciate it.)

    It’s just the imperiousness and pomposity that some people assume, as if clearly I don’t know what I’m doing and should be supremely grateful for their enlightened assistance in running my business.

    Ok, enough procrastinating. Malt won’t mill itself… But next time I see you Kendall I’m totally asking your (undoubtedly wrong) opinion on orange juice. Florida’s Natural 4LYFE!

  6. poured it out
    October 7, 2012 | 9:51 pm

    @66jzmstr -

    yes. single, double, triple.. whatever. they’re all terrible to my mouth. so it goes. but i don’t mind telling people i don’t like their favorite thing. they get all butt hurt over it.

  7. 66jzmstr
    October 7, 2012 | 10:43 pm

    @ poured it out

    No worries. I can’t stand doppelbocks because I find them way too sweet. I don’t think I would ever write, “Celebrator [or, insert other nameworthy doppelbock here] sucks,” merely because I don’t care for the style, but to each his own.

  8. Shannon
    October 8, 2012 | 8:55 am

    Similar phenomenon for DFH 120 as I have never seen Pliny in this part of the world. It brings to mind Voodoo Donuts in Portland… as I passed the line of 30 people standing outside waiting for their pink box of sugary confections, I thought to myself “NO donut is THAT good!!” But it’s more than the donut – it’s like a status symbol, I guess.

  9. Dan
    October 8, 2012 | 11:33 am

    Nobody hates hype on beer as much as I do. I often put a big chip on my shoulder when I finally get to meet said hyped beer.

    Here is the thing, Pliny The Elder and Younger aren’t good examples of hype outweighing actual quality. I also don’t think they would get repeat business from us lucky Californians if we were drinking it because of the hype. There are a few dozen dank amazing IPAs on the market. It just so happens Pliny and Blind Pig are the best two in the world.

  10. Kendall Jones
    October 8, 2012 | 12:36 pm

    Great conversation. Many point being proven. Immensely entertaining.

  11. Fremont Brewing
    October 13, 2012 | 9:23 am

    So what’s your favorite IPA?