Fastest Finger First

Posted by on Feb 28, 2017 in Editorial | No Comments

What is the most effective weapon these days in the search for brand new beer online? Aside from a credit card that doesn’t scream at you, I mean? It’s not Google – searching for ‘Cloudwater Juicy Banger 10% Pineapple Can Hazy’ will only lead to out of stock dead ends and beer tasting blogs either loving or hating the white whale they ended up with. No, the secret to beer success online these days sits at the top of the keyboard, a short stab away – it is the humble F5 key.

Hammering F5 every twenty seconds to refresh a browser window is the modern equivalent of dialling and re-dialling TV Competition hotlines – back in the day when you wanted something equally badly, the frantic phone number entry upon hearing the first microsecond of the engaged tone was a rite of passage. Eventually, the redial button made that much less joint-painful and if you really wanted those Wham tickets (in a totally, off the top of the head random example, say) then you could place the handset on the kitchen table and use one thumb to hit the hang up button and the other the redial button a fraction of a second later. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Nowadays nobody uses their phones to phone anybody and trying to beat the queue has moved from jammed switchboards to servers straining under the power surge. The F5 key – essentially the redial button for the modern age – has come into play once again for the chasers of craft beers’ equivalent to Wham tickets – rare bottle releases. Whereas that band you truly love (and associated cloud of hairspray) may never turn up in your town again, these days it is the trundling of a flat-bed from a European brewery of choice that gets the heart pounding. I wrote recently about the new fad of Americans lining up outside breweries just on the off chance a beer launch happens – I guess the truth is that many people have been doing that – in an online sense – over here for years.

This morning was the perfect chance to see exactly what that is like – and for the first time, I decided to join in. Beer Merchants posted a blog yesterday with the subtle title ‘Cantillon is not currency’ and the news that they were about to receive limited stock of beers from the whitest of all whales – Cantillon. As they put it, whenever the musty Brusselwagon arrives it results in ‘2,000 people trying to buy 20 bottles’ and the website goes to pot. That’s great news for them, and posting that piece the night before a mysterious re-up of the new beers would have probably added another thousand to that number of unlucky sour beer fans. But this is what people do, everything ready, card details pre-entered, finger hovering over that ‘add to cart’ button in anticipation.

The crux of the Beer Merchants piece was that they are now looking to ban anyone found touting their rare purchases from buying beer in the future. This black market in limited-edition beer isn’t new either – filled growlers have been appearing on EBay in the US when a draught-only release hits the taps, and anyone who has been lucky enough to visit Westvleteren and ring the monks beforehand* can attest to the Euro-waving gauntlet you have to negotiate on the way out. I’m sure those guys who wave bundles of banknotes in the direction of your car boot are just really, really keen to get that Untappd check-in. But fair play to Beer Merchants – laying down some new (if surely impossible to police) groundrules whilst simultaneously stoking that fervour is great for business.

*Leave it to the Belgians to give you reason to re-live those days chasing Wham tickets…

Anyway, so on the stroke of 10am when the new beers were going live I’d filled my cart with 11 other Belgian and UK beers and was ready for a sweet, sweet taste of Cantillon to complete my dozen. Never having done this kind of thing before, I had to come up with a plan of attack. Guessing it was just a reallocation of existing Cantillon bottles they had on the site that were out of stock I focused all my attentions on one. That beer was Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella – the rarest of the rare, one of the only unblended lambics in the world. The product of a single vintage as opposed to the (delicious) wave of Gueuze that takes different years and creates something majestic. Bruocsella is the real deal. When going after Moby Dick, aim for the largest white whale there is. I cracked my knuckles at 09:58 and started hitting that F5 key. And at 10am, a puff of vapour appeared on the horizon. There she blows!

So it turns out I learned a very important lesson about hunting white whales. In the race of rowboats towards the prize, don’t let yours be weighed down and held back by other, smaller cetaceans attached to your canoe. In the high seas bloodbath that followed (all in the space of five minutes), the fog of server demand descended as the Beer Merchants site ground to a halt and could not be reached. However, in between these waves of static a positive sighting – a single bottle of Bruocsella in my online cart! Fling the harpoon towards checkout and…a miss. Items out of stock. Not Cantillon – Buxton and Stillwaters’ collaborative imperial stout Subliminial. No longer in stock, it anchored my pirogue and in the time it took to discover it was the red herring of the 11 onboard, the white whale had gone. Also out of stock. I had failed. The entire skirmish lasted 19 minutes.

As the ghost of a whale slipped away, snared on the harpoons of others – I consoled myself with the eleven beers in the case, and resolved to head back to port and hunt more common game in future. A lesson learned.

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