There are certain expectations that accompany brewery-only beer releases: throngs of people, long waits for samples and possible cuts to the bottle limit.
This has not always been the way the beer community handled bottle releases. Once, breweries like Russian River Brewing Co. and Three Floyds Brewing Co. made big beers and released them to the public where bottles would sit for days or longer. It was a natural release into the marketplace and those customers who purchased a bottle learned to appreciate the beer, one sip at a time. When Cigar City Brewing first opened, Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout was on draft at bars around Tampa Bay for weeks.
Today, releasing the same beer has become big business and many have taken their own day on the calendar (in many cases, the only day where these beers are available). Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Day in 2005 was a night in the brewery with a few hundred of the brewery’s biggest fans buying bottles of imperial stout. The idea of a special release day grew and groups of people became crowds, cases of beers released became pallets, and the beer’s popularity amplified to 11 via trading demand and curious onlookers. Dark Lord Day ticket sales have crashed websites; Russian River’s Pliny the Younger takes over an entire week at the Russian River Pub; and Hunahpu’s Day sells out thousands of tickets in mere minutes. Beer enthusiasts travel from all over the world to attend these releases. Breweries and brewers have to manage people, set up spaces, pick up empties, clean toilets and start making beer again. With every bottle release seems to come the issue of managing expectations and people’s experience of the day.
While release days are lucrative and fun for breweries and their patrons, the breweries who join the fun are realizing that logistical hurdles can be a heady problem requiring solutions as creative as the beer they brew.
Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park, Florida, built much of its current reputation as beer innovators on the back of Maple Bacon Coffee Porter (MBCP). That beer attained cult status on trading forums and when demand surged, the brewery (then brewing on a 1.5-barrel system) was unable to ramp up production any further. Moving into a new production brewery in 2013 was a game-changer for Funky Buddha. Before that, growlers and limited bottle releases were the only way to taste MBCP. “I remember sitting in the lounge in 2011 or so and [Funky Buddha owner] Ryan [Sentz] showing me an eBay listing for one of the original growlers that was going for $250, and he was in utter shock,” remembers Brand Director John Linn. Once the new brewery opened, Funky Buddha was able to release more MBCP, but despite despite increased production and one-day release formula, the beer continued to sell out. “This year  we made about 150 percent of what we made in 2015, and maybe five times what was made in 2014,” says Linn.
While beer traders have sent MBCP as far as California and Copenhagen, Linn says it is not worth fighting hoarders and traders at the expense of frustrating loyal brewery patrons. “We don’t want to stress out or confuse our customers so I think as we move forward we will be further simplifying our distribution methods and let the chips fall where they may.”
Michael Kane of New Jersey’s Kane Brewing Co. knew in 2011 when he opened that he wanted a barrel-aged beer for a one-day release party, but he did not have time for the beer to be his first anniversary beer. Kane brewed the beer in 2012, dubbed it “A Night To End All Dawns,” then aged it 15 months in a Four Roses barrel. The first release happened in 2013, and there was enough left to send into limited distribution.
Momentum built quickly for Kane. He changed the recipe, news of the release hit the forums, and the second release won a gold medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. Kane credits the medal win with engaging people from outside the Garden State. The next year, despite more than doubling the amount of beer made, lines were immense. “What do you do?” Kane laments. “We’re not that big. We don’t have space for 1,500-2,000 people to pick up bottles.” The solution? Move to a release where people showed up just to pick up the beer (New Jersey does not allow guest taps at production breweries, so that precluded a beer festival). People showed up in RVs and at all hours, day and night. “We’re in an industrial area and share with other businesses. The landlord was not thrilled. We could not have that either.”
Kane jumped that hurdle by moving to an online sale. Fans of the beer had seven hours to pick up their beer and could buy 1-2 sets of four variants of the beer (Bourbon Barrel, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Bean, Dark Roasted Coffee, and Cacao Bean versions). That sounded great until 15,000 people descended on the website. The site worked, but the provider was not prepared and some people were unable to get beer. “The release went smoothly, but the transition was tough,” says Kane. He admits to always looking for ways to improve, but he is running into a space limitation that caps the amount of beer.
In Florida, Cycle Brewing owner Doug Dozark took on the challenge of doing an entire week of bottle releases during Tampa Bay Beer Week. Cycle’s bottles command hefty rewards on trading forums which enticed folks to travel great distances for a chance at a bottle. Irked locals then voiced their opinion to Dozark both in person and online. Cycle then revamped release days to give locals an edge: releases would be announced on social media, usually the day of the event (at opening time).
How does Dozark manage bottle releases? “Lately we manage expectations by having none.” he says. “We can’t hype our releases because our space is so small so we say nothing and let the word spread organically. This rankles some folks who would drive 2-plus hours with notice, but gives the local crowd that takes care of us week in and week out a little leg up. It’s a tradeoff, nothing is perfect … [this plan] is pretty fair, if inconvenient for some people.” Does his strategy work? While unorthodox, his 2016 releases have people lining up at 5:30 a.m. for an 8 a.m. release and selling out the same day.
To the north, East End Brewing Co. in Pittsburgh is the exception to the supply-and-demand rule—the brewery has released Gratitude barley wine since 2005 and has never turned anyone away empty-handed. Owner Scott Smith says that the bottle-release portion of the day can be turned around in under two hours. East End also lets people go through the line as many times as they wish until the beer is gone. “If I make sure the release is fair, then it cultivates an attitude of fairness,” Smith insists. “I have had a guy with a casual interest come in as the release is winding down and we are out, then the guy who bought a case just hands him a bottle.”
Mark DeNote is a native Floridian, a teacher, and a beer writer. The author of two books on Florida’s craft beer scene, Mark writes about craft beer at FloridaBeerNews.com.