There’s a bite to the breeze coming off Lake Michigan on this unseasonably cool spring evening in Northern Indiana. The people queued outside the large, industrial-looking building—some are Chicagoland locals, while others have traveled a great distance to get here—don’t seem to notice. They’re dressed warmly enough and there is plenty of beer being passed around. The mood is jovial, and the charge of anticipation for tomorrow’s event is palpable. It dominates the conversation between the diehards who have dedicatedly staked out their place in line.
“Every brewer will complain jokingly about the trouble and fuss,” says Deschutes’ Porter of these demanding, special production beers. “Every brewer loves the trouble and fuss.”
Tonight they’ll sleep in tents, or just sleeping bags on the cold, hard cement, but tomorrow they’ll be listening to bands and drinking even more beer from when the proceedings kick off at 11 a.m., until late into the following night. The prelude to a multi-band, multi-stage rock festival?
This is Dark Lord Day. The one day a year, late in April (this year the 25th), when the Three Floyds Brewery hosts quite possibly the biggest craft beer release party in the U.S.—a gathering of 5,000-plus people—to unleash its monstrous, and fiendishly sought-after strong stout, Dark Lord. The economy may be in dire straights, unemployment is continuing to rise, but there seems to be no shortage of people clamoring to pay $15 for a 22-ounce bottle (or six) of the latest vintage of Dark Lord, with its wax-dipped cap and cartoonish label.
Welcome to the insane world of limited-edition beers.
Power to the People
Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Day—a 12-hour marathon of beer and bands—is just the most extreme, over-the-top case of fanaticism engendered by a single beer. There are plenty of other limited-edition releases produced by equally small, regional craft brewers throughout the year.
Seasonals, by definition, are “limited”—be it a summer hefeweizen or a high-alcohol winter warmer—and most brewers have tapped into the growing popularity of that segment. But only a handful of breweries and specific beers—Lost Abbey’s Angels’ Share, Portsmouth’s Kate the Great, Foothills’ Sexual Chocolate, Deschutes’ The Abyss, and of course Dark Lord, to name a few—seem to stir up the kind of frenzy that compels people to travel from as far away as Japan and Denmark for an event such as Dark Lord Day.
It wasn’t always this way, though. And we can thank the Internet, with two sites—Ratebeer.com and Beeradvocate.com—specifically fueling the current madness. This was all surely an unintended consequence of the public ratings that members of these sites are allowed to post on specific beers they’ve tried—from pints they had at a pub to bottles they bought at a store to samples they tried at a beer festival. These, along with detailed tasting notes, then get compiled into rankings based on the points that Joe Public “reviewer” assigns the beers.
While it’s a sort of populist way to determine the “best in the world”—and isn’t that what the Internet’s becoming, giving a voice to the masses via blogs, forums and other new media?—it has also helped foster a certain hysteria. As of this writing, prior to Dark Lord Day 2009, nearly 500 BeerAdvocate users, going back to 2002 when Dark Lord was first made, have posted reviews of the various vintages of the beer released over the years, using florid language—”big malty chocolate cake with hints of toffee, coffee, clove and dark fruits”—to describe its every nuance.
One rather incredulous beneficiary of this kind of rating/reviewing hysteria is Tod Mott, the head brewer at Portsmouth Brewing in Portsmouth, NH, whose Kate the Great Imperial stout has been regularly ranked in the Beer Advocate’s Top 10. His annual Kate the Great release party in February has drawn people from up and down the East Coast and as far away as Illinois for the chance to pay $10 each for a couple of the scant 900 22-ounce bottles (there’s a two-per-person limit) that are produced. Last year’s offering sold out in a mere four hours, probably about as long as a flight from Illinois to New Hampshire. “It’s really funny because [the ratings are] so subjective,” he says. “There are so many incredible beers on the West Coast that I’m totally blown away that we’re ranked number four. This tiny little brewpub in the middle of Portsmouth. We produce 1,200 barrels of beer a year.”
But those rankings and the buzz surrounding them do have a lot of power. After all, what serious beer lover/enthusiast/geek wouldn’t want to try—cue symphonic flourish from heaven above—The Greatest Beers In The World? And since most of the beers topping these lists are, no surprise, damn hard to get a hold of because of the small production runs and, therefore, nonexistent national distribution, it just feeds that irrational desire many consumers seem to have for things that are hard to get.
A number of brewers mention these sites specifically when trying to explain the rise of the limited-edition cult beers. “[It’s] all thanks to the Beer Advocate, the goddamn Beer Advocate,” Portsmouth’s Mott grouses jokingly. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, [Kate the Great] is a good beer, but, Christ, there are so many good beers out there.”