It is a sure sign that the pioneers of the American craft- brewing movement now have more than a few grey gray hairs. Last year Sierra Nevada celebrated its 30thth anniversary with a special four- beer series. Brewers like Avery (18), Great Divide (17) and Stone (15) are closer to their milestone 20thth anniversary than you might think.
It is also a sign that craft beer has put down roots and will be a part of the American culinary landscape for generations to come.
As brewers celebrate significant anniversaries, more labels with Roman numerals will start popping up. These beers are often limited- edition affairs, but some develop such a fan base that breweries are compelled to bring them back as part of their normal stable of brands. For fans of a brewery celebrating a milestone, these are must- have vintage brews.
“It is a chance to be experimental. We’re brewing a finite amount, not trying to a build a brand per se,” says Adam Avery of Avery Brewing in Boulder, CO, which started its anniversary tradition in 2003 to mark the brewery’s 10tenth year in business.
Avery says the “ballsiest” anniversary beer ever made at Avery Brewing was to mark the 15thth celebration. “It was the largest Brettanomyces beer ever created” and was spiced with hibiscus, black pepper and black mission figs. “It was a binary beer. You either loved it or hated it.”
Firestone Walker Brewer brewer Matt Brynildson says that when the brewery started in 1996, it “was kind of going in the opposite direction of most breweries at the time” by eschewing high- gravity brews in favor of session ales.
“We were kind of playing our own game and resisting the urge to brew big beers,” Brynildson says, noting the company was building strength in a three- county trading area around Paso Robles, CA, where 90 percent of Firestone Walker beers are sold. “Then as we prepared for our 10thth anniversary in 2006, we brewed a Russian imperial stout as a pilot batch.” More experimentation followed with a barley wine and imperial brown ale soon in the wooden Burton Union- style fermenting tanks.
“We were doing months of trial beers and started wondering what we were going to do with all of that beer. The only place to go with the beer was to put it in barrels,” Brynildson says. “A light bulb went off:; Wwe could make a blend.”
Further inspiration struck when he decided to invite some of the winemakers from the 170 local wineries in to blend the anniversary beer. “We made a beer we would have never thought to create,” Brynildson says. “I used to have to beg winemakers to come in and take part. Now I have a line-up and have to choose.”
At Great Divide Brewing, in Denver, CO, the answer to what to brew to celebrate the 15thth anniversary of the Denver, CO, brewery was to go back to the very roots of the brand.
“We took a lot of the same malts and hops we use in our Denver Pale Ale—one of the first beers we ever made – as the base ingredients,” says Taylor Rees, Great Divide’s brewer. “We started doing a lot more seasonals about three years ago and decided to do an anniversary ale.” The wood-aged double IPA has a big following, so Great Divide keeps the beer close to the same each year.
In St. Paul, MN, Summit Brewing is celebrating its 25thth anniversary. The brewery distributes to 13 states, with 90 percent of its sales concentrated in the upper Midwestern. The company last made an anniversary beer—an Extra Special Bitter—to mark two decades in business and decide to do another this year.
“As we kicked around different styles, we talked about imperial pilsner, smoked alt and some others,” says Mark Stutrud, brewery founder. “We decided to make an extra pale ale, which goes back to our early days.”
In San Diego, Stone Brewing has been making anniversary beers for 15 years—starting with the very first birthday of the brewery. The effort is a team approach at the brewery with people tossing ideas around about styles and multiple test batches brewed each year.
“We released Stone IPA on our first anniversary,” says Greg Koch, Stone Brewing CEO. “Every other anniversary beer was intended as a one- off, designed to be released and then go away.” Even so, some of the anniversary beers are so popular they come back to lead “normal lives” in the Stone brand family. Sublimely Self Righteous Ale (11th), Ruination (4fourth), and Smoked Porter Aged in Oak (6sixth) got started as anniversary offerings.
“There are fans of each one of these beers who periodically call for the return of one of the beers,” Koch says, noting that the imperial black IPA that became Sublimely Self Righteous is his all-time Stone anniversary favorite.
In Fort Collins, CO, New Belgium Brewing has a dual approach to milestone beers. Brewery President Kim Jordan says that on one hand they it brews Abbey Grand Cru to mark every 1,000thth batch made by the company. They The brewers also make an anniversary beer—this year, to mark 20 years, it was New Belgium Super Cru, which has a malt base similar to the Fat Tire brand, with fruit and a new yeast strain. These special celebration beers get rolled up in New Belgium’s “Lips of Faith” series and sometimes will reappear from time to time. That is the case with Le Fleur Misseur, first made five years ago.
“It allows us to show off our brewing chops,” Jordan says. “This gives people an opportunity to try something unique and experience our forays into brewing creativity.”
As long as there are brewers celebrating anniversaries, we can expect them to strut their stuff, making it a good chance that your next beer might just be in honor of a brewery birthday.
Rick Lyke is the founder of the Pints for Prostates men's health awareness campaign. www.pintsforprostates.org.