When Skokie, Illinois–based Binny’s Beverage Depot released Goose Island Beer Co.’s Bourbon County stout last November, the first customer arrived more than 24 hours ahead of time. At Beverage Warehouse in Winooski, Vermont, hundreds of devoted fans line up every Saturday morning to purchase The Alchemist’s Heady Topper double IPA. And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Founders Brewing Co. marked the release of its coveted Kentucky Breakfast stout last spring during KBS Week. As part of the festivities, Grand Rapids sports bar The Score participated in the launch with a two-hour release event, becoming the only venue pouring KBS in the country during that window. The party attracted more than 250 guests on what normally would have been a quiet Wednesday night.
Like Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale in “Moby-Dick,” beer lovers are ratcheting up their quests to capture their own “whales”—a common nickname for the country’s most allocated brews. With limited supply and high demand, beers like Bourbon County stout, Heady Topper, KBS, Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Younger triple IPA and Surly Brewing Co.’s Darkness Russian imperial stout are often at the top of craft beer fans’ bucket lists. Retailers and bar operators are finding that the release of these beers provides upside opportunity that lasts long after the crowds have thinned out.
The cold and rain couldn’t keep diehard Bourbon County stout fans from lining up outside Binny’s stores on Black Friday last year. While all 34 Binny’s units received shipments of the Goose Island brew last November, two locations that feature tasting bars turned it into an event. Those venues poured other Goose Island draft brews ($5 to $8 a glass) and sold previous vintages of Bourbon County stout while a live band entertained customers. As a result, many patrons purchased other products in addition to the two allotted 16.9-ounce bottles of the new vintage ($9.99).
At KBS Week in Grand Rapids, 15 chosen bars like The Score are allowed to exclusively serve the newly released stout on draft for a two-hour window prior to the packaged beer’s release at the Founders brewery. The Score taps its KBS keg at around 7 p.m., but the bar is usually busy a few hours beforehand, with customers buying drinks and food as they wait. Like Binny’s, The Score uses the event to showcase other rarities from the featured brewery, such as the 2015 KBS and Canadian Breakfast stout (both $6 a 6-ounce pour).
Barcade—a six-unit concept that combines arcade games and a bar—prides itself on being able to obtain highly coveted beers. The chain’s Philadelphia location has offered Pliny the Younger, while New York City units have promoted KBS, Dogfish Head’s 75 Minute IPA and a special tasting of Portland, Oregon’s Hair of the Dog Brewing Co. beers on draft. “It took us a couple of years to get on the list for Pliny,” says Barcade CEO and cofounder Paul Kermizian. “But we carried other Russian River brews and established ourselves as a beer destination.” In recent years, the Philadelphia venue hasn’t even promoted the arrival of its Pliny keg. Instead, it prefers what Kermizian calls a “sneaky release,” revealing the tapping of a special beer on social media. “That way, we’re able to attract more of our regulars and fewer beer hunters who drive for seven hours for one beer and are never seen again,” he says. But even with just a few hours’ notice, the events draw a lot of people. “Usually, the keg doesn’t even last one day,” Kermizian adds. Barcade offers Pliny the Younger at $8 a 10-ounce pour.
Emporium Arcade bar, which has three Chicago locations, also promotes special beer releases. Its Wicker Park venue hosted “Darkness Night” last December to support the 2015 release of Darkness Russian imperial stout. “We had a great response with a full house most of the night,” says beer director Jared Saul, noting that the event also featured previous vintages of the Minnesota brew, all priced at $7 to $8 a 10-ounce pour.
While some beer “whales” are restricted because they’re released only once a year, others like Heady Topper—which is available only in Vermont—are constrained by production and distribution. According to Beverage Warehouse wine and beer manager Jason Dennis, the store’s weekly allotment of Heady Topper ($14.19 a four-pack of 16-ounce cans) sells out quickly, so the retailer offers it during just three windows—Wednesday evenings, Thursday mornings and Saturday mornings—and restricts how much each customer can purchase. Yet even with as many as 250 people in line, the retailer serves everyone in less than 30 minutes. Dennis and his staff also use the opportunity to point out other interesting local brews to customers as they wait.
In addition to hosting events tied to special releases, retailers are increasingly choosing to save and sometimes cellar beers to sell at a later date. The two-unit Discount Liquor in Wisconsin offered an “Allocation Celebration” in June, featuring hard-to-find and rare beer releases, including Surly Sÿx American strong ale ($12.99 a 750-ml. bottle), 3 Floyds Wigsplitter oatmeal stout ($10.99 a 22-ounce bottle) and Deschutes Cognac Barrel–Aged Abyss imperial stout ($23.99 a 22-ounce bottle). “We receive allocated beers, including some that are brewery-only releases and not sold at any other retail store,” says Discount Liquor co-owner Marie Greguska. “We hold on to some for later release and make an event out of it.” The one-day June celebration—which restricted each customer purchase to three bottles of the featured brews—attracted about 400 customers to the two stores, with some lining up four hours before the doors opened. “Our goal was to have customers shop for other products, and we found that a good portion did so,” Greguska says.
In Exeter, Pennsylvania, Sabatini’s Bottleshop & Bar and Sabatini’s Pizza staged a “Best of the Midwest” program in July, featuring limited-edition beers that owner Lindo Sabatini had cellared. “I could have poured Bourbon County stout in November or December, but I chose to cellar our keg until July,” he explains. The event attracted about 280 customers and also included KBS and Bell’s Brewery’s Double Two Hearted IPA ($4.95 to $8.95, a glass).
Hosting events tied to the availability of highly sought-after brews gives retailers and bar operators a unique competitive advantage. “Operators have said that a KBS release is the best night of the year for them in terms of traffic,” says Samantha Hendricks, events coordinator at Founders Brewing. “We’re glad we can help give them a boost.” Saul from Emporium Arcade agrees that hosting special release events can bring in “extra folks on an otherwise slow night.” But, he adds, “We like to host events simply to get these beers into people’s hands and celebrate the growing craft brewing scene.”
Retailers say the events can also help educate customers about products that aren’t being promoted on that particular day. “We make every effort to try to cross-sell other local products, such as wine and locally made cider,” says Dennis of Beverage Warehouse. “If people are coming in for Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ Sip of Sunshine IPA, for example, we might suggest that they pick up another Vermont IPA such as Lost Nation Mosaic.”
The events certainly can aid a venue’s reputation. “If you’ve hosted a KBS event, people know that you get other one-offs,” says Jake O’Rourke, bar manager of The Score. “They’ll count on you for any big beer release.”