The Growing Obsession with Limited-Edition Brews
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.
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.”
The Dark Lord Spreads His Wings
Though the BeerAdvocate website was launched by brothers Todd and Jason Alström in 2002, 2006 seemed to be the year when the site’s ratings began to have a rather profound effect. At the 2005 Dark Lord Day release party, the estimated 120 attendees were allowed to purchase up to two cases each, at $12.50 per 22-ounce bottle, of the 200 case production (a massive jump from the original bottling in 2003 of a mere 15 cases). These early vintages of Dark Lord even found their way into local stores because they didn’t immediately sell out upon release.
Since 2006, however, the per-person limit has been dropped from two cases to six bottles and though production has increased with the brewery’s own growth, there are still way more people showing up for Dark Lord Day than there is Dark Lord to go around, and thus it sells out within hours of its release.
“When we first made [Dark Lord], it was right when the information age had caught up with the craft beer world,” says Three Floyds brewmaster Barnaby Struve. “[The style is] more common now, but when [owner] Nick [Floyd] first started making [Dark Lord], it was the only beer of its kind. People tried it and these beer aficionados who are willing to travel and spend a lot of their free time, their hobby time, dedicated to beer, they were like, Holy crap! What have these people done? I’ve never tried a beer like this before. Then they write about it, they talk about how good it is and then other people want access, too.”
The 2008 vintage certainly lives up to much of the bluster. At 13 percent ABV, this blacker-than-black, mouth-coating brute, with its muted carbonation, drinks less like a beer and more like a digestif, the palate a complex mingling of smoke, molasses and dark fruits. Unlike the “regular” beers we consume in pubs or at home to slake a thirst or relax with, drinking Dark Lord is an experience—a “destination” beer, if you will. “The days I feel like drinking Dark Lord are very, very rare and limited,” agrees its maker Struve. “It’s a special occasion sort of thing. And that’s why we make it once a year. The rest of the time we’re making beers that people do want to drink year round.”
What started as simple seasonal release has turned into such a massive undertaking and logistical nightmare for Three Floyds, which has a total of seven employees, that it spends an inordinate amount of time simply planning for the thousands of people that now annually show up for Dark Lord Day. “We have weekly meetings about this,” exclaims Struve. “It is such a big pain to do. We realize that we can’t make everybody happy all the time, so we’re trying to make it as organized as we can and still try to make sure that people have a good time and have access to the beer.”
This year, getting access to the beer meant buying “Golden Tickets” which were sold through a website on St. Patrick’s Day. Four thousand tickets (maximum two tickets per customer) were made available at 4:20 a.m. and were gone by 9 a.m. The tickets were $10 each, with all the proceeds (save the printing costs) going to local charities. This was simply a way for the brewery to make sure that everyone had at least a fair shot at buying Dark Lord, instead of having to camp out in line the night before with no guarantees—even with bottle limits—that the person in front of you wouldn’t buy the last bomber of the highly sought-after brew. If you bought a ticket this year, you were at least guaranteed the option of buying your limit if you showed up on April 25.
The Price of Fame
Tomme Arthur, director of brewery operations at Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey, in San Marcos, CA, has also seen the mania that limited-edition beers can generate, since these kinds of small-batch brews are a large part of the Lost Abbey line, and its mystique. These are not everyday beers in either price or style. The February 28 release party for his brandy barrel-aged Angel’s Share barley wine, like the nearly dozen previous limited-edition release parties at the brewery, meant that rather than attending to the everyday task of brewing beer, Arthur was preparing for the crush of people that would descend on the facility.
“One thing that we have tried to put in place since day one is structure,” he says of the organizational systems they’ve had to resort to at release parties in order to make sure everyone gets a fair shot at paying $15 for a 375 ml bottle or $30 for a 750 ml bottle of Angel’s Share (with a per-person limit of six of each size). “As we’ve grown with each release, we’ve sort of put more sophistication in the process to ensure that the people in the front of the line get their beer and that as we move to the back of the line that we also know where we stand with bottle totals and counts, so we can tell people at the back of the line, We think you’re going to be OK at this point, but we may be down from having a six-beer limit to a three-beer limit.”
This vintage of Angel’s Share, though it wouldn’t have been cheap to do so, was well worth snapping up in quantity. It’s already wonderfully complex—the nose offering up a rich assortment of dark fruits and molasses, while the immense, warming body opens up to reveal medicinal notes, anise, a sherry-like nuttiness and even more fruit—and it is an ideal candidate for further aging where it can develop even more.
It’s not surprising that some of the bottles of the latest Angel’s Share purchased at the Lost Abbey release party—like Dark Lord, Kate the Great and other must-have limited-edition beers with meager bottlings—will eventually end up on eBay going for ridiculous prices, a practice that Arthur and other brewers abhor. “What we were seeing [in the past] was a lot of people coming to our releases, buying the beer and then coming home and selling it immediately on eBay,” he says. “I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of people basically creating an über-heightened awareness about our brand in a way that we weren’t.”
Three Floyds’ Struve shares Arthur’s frustration. “Our name, our brand—Three Floyd’s Brewing Co.—is on that label,” he says. So, when people go off and they sell it on eBay or sell it online, they charge exorbitant amounts of money or whatever for it, it’s a poor reflection on us. But it’s because it is rare that people will try to capitalize on that and I don’t think that’s an ethical sort of thing to do. We charge a lot of money for the beer because it’s very, very expensive to make.”
The main reason that the more sought-after limited-edition beers are, in fact, made in such small quantities largely comes down to the economics that Struve alludes to. “[Our Dissident and Abyss] came from a collective curiosity about stretching our boundaries, using the skills we’ve gained as brewers over the years and having fun,” says Deschutes’ head brewer Brett Porter, “[but] these beers are hard to brew and the ingredients cost a fortune. They also fill up precious fermentation space, have to age a long time (often in barrels), they have special packaging requirements and generally need a lot of fussing over.”
Though wildly different from each other—the Dissident is a Flanders-style sour brown ale, while the Abyss is an Imperial stout, a portion of which is oak aged—both reflect the care and resources poured into them. The Abyss cloaks its 11 percent ABV well with a complex palate of coffee, dark chocolate and dried figs, finishing with a bitter smokiness. The Dissident was barrel-aged with Washington-grown cherries for a portion of its maturation adding great depth to both the pronounced fruity acidity on the palate and the crisp, bitter finish. These are clearly beers that have benefited from the attention given them, and their price, $10 per 22-ounce bottle, reflects that.
Special Handling Required
For smaller breweries such as Pittsburgh’s East End Brewing, whose limited-edition Gratitude barley wine features hand silk-screened labels that are signed and hand numbered by brewer/owner Scott Smith and wheat-pasted around champagne bottles, these beers are simply labors of love. That people are clamoring for them, and rating them highly online is just a bonus. The first vintage of Gratitude in 2005 comprised 600 bottles, while the latest was still just 1,400 (and sold for $17 for a 750-ml bottle)—nonetheless it was a huge strain on his small operation.
“Quite frankly, barley wine is a pain in the ass to brew,” Smith replies in response to why his production is so low. “It’s a beer that we put a 1,000 pounds of barley into the mash tun and it’s exceeding the design specs of [our] system to stuff that much in there. It’s an epic brew day. The first time I brewed it, it was a 20-hour day—I came in at 4 in the morning and left at 1 a.m.” (“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.”)
Despite it’s micro-production, Gratitude nonetheless ranks number four among American barley wines, according to Beer Advocate ratings, and Smith is pleased to see positive reviews of it from across the country, the result of his customers trading with other enthusiasts. “Our focus is really to be a local brewery and serve the local community,” he says, “but if the beer makes it outside of Western Pennsylvania, I’m all for that. Once they leave the nest, they can fly wherever they need to fly.”
Much of Gratitude’s appeal certainly lies in the packaging—from the wax-dipped cap to the beautiful silk-screened bird on the label—but what’s inside certainly doesn’t disappoint. It offers a noseful of caramel and burnt sugar, while the soft mouthfeel and slight carbonation deliver the promised sweetness—with hints of fruit and spice—as well as nice finish of crisp, bitter hops.
Ultimately, no matter the hype, the gotta-have beers need to deliver something extraordinary—unique packaging, incredible complexity, unusual ingredients or aging techniques—and these certainly do. Are they worth camping out over night, paying $30 for a 750-ml bottle or traveling half way around the world for? Obviously to some people they are. Certainly not all.
“I’m thankful that there’s passionate people out there that are willing to do that,” says Lost Abbey’s Arthur, “to guarantee that they’re going to get the beer they want. I’m glad that we have created, on some levels, that kind of patron.”
Portsmouth’s Mott is a little more philosophical about it all. “I just think that people always have to have something to hype up and rave about,” he surmises, “The big Imperial stouts are huge right now and [Kate the Great] happened to be that one style of beer that we’ve got.”