Written by Josh Noel for the Chicago Tribune. Image courtesy myextralife.com
Rick Schuler was there first Friday, idling in his blue Volkswagen Jetta outside Binny’s in south Lincoln Park, 40 minutes before the doors would open.
Then came the guy in flip-flops. And the doctor still in scrubs just off her shift at Swedish Covenant Hospital. And the father of three who left his kids with a baby-sitter to go to “daddy’s liquor store.”
For more than an hour, beer connoisseurs came, knowing that the window to buy a $12.99 bottle of limited edition Goose Island stout brewed with coffee beans and aged in bourbon barrels, would quickly close. Or, more accurately, slam â€” as Schuler had learned a day before, the beer’s first release day, when he arrived at a different Binny’s 20 minutes too late.
“That’s why I couldn’t take any chances today,” he said.
When the first cases of Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout were ripped open just after 10 a.m. Friday, Schuler, dubbed “patient zero” by Binny’s staff, was guaranteed a bottle. His and 70 other faces turned positively aglow as the store’s beer manager, Adam Vavrick, began passing out the red-labeled bottles with a pied-piper-like glee. One per customer. No exceptions.
Within 90 minutes, the store’s allotment of fewer than 100 bottles was gone.
In craft beer circles across the nation, this drama, elation and disappointment is not uncommon. While a boon for brewers, bars and drinkers, the national interest in craft beer has made getting the rarest beers a competitive sport requiring patience and persistence.
“It’s a hunt, like collecting anything else,” said Todd Van Dyke, 39, the Chicago father of three who on previous excursions has stood in line with his children. “I’ll wait for a special occasion to drink this one, maybe some night in a couple months after the kids are asleep.”
The fervor is well-established in many of the nation’s craft beer hot spots: Chicago, New York, Colorado’s Front Range, San Diego and Portland, Ore.
“The more educated beer lovers are as hard-core as any NFL fan tailgating at a game or someone waiting in line for tickets for the U2 show,” said Julia Herz, spokeswoman for the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based craft beer trade organization. “It’s a growing phenomenon with more beer enthusiasts growing into beer geekdom.”
The phenomenon has spread throughout the industry. The Goose Island release this week was preceded by months of online chatter about the beer. Many beer festivals â€” like Saturday’s first-ever Winter Brew in Lincoln Square â€” are selling out in record time, leading to brisk secondhand online markets. Also, brewery tours are increasingly popular. At Lincoln Square’s Half Acre Beer Co., they have been booked for more than a year.
The real prize, though, is the beer. Goose Island will incite the masses again in early February with Bramble Rye Bourbon County Brand Stout â€” an imperial stout aged in rye whiskey barrels with raspberries and blackberries.
Drinkers routinely stand in line for hours at Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Ind., each spring for a shot at the brewery’s iconic Dark Lord, a Russian imperial stout brewed with coffee and vanilla. More recently, the brewery’s Zombie Dust â€” a robust, easy-drinking pale ale â€” has garnered equal adoration, which as recently as Friday saw people overflowing the parking lot to buy cases minutes after the bottles were filled. Literally.
As a result, the most sought-after beers almost never reach shelves. Despite grumbling from consumers, brewers say making more is rarely an option, either due to capacity or the costs associated with barrel-aging beer. (Goose Island recently rented more space near its Fulton Street plant to expand its barrel aging program.)
The craft beer competition has become a strain on bar owners too.
“To some extent we’re all competing all the time,” said Phil McFarland, owner of Small Bars on Division Street and Fullerton Avenue. “There’s a lot of pressure to be aware of what’s in the pipe and to know that you should be asking for things.”
Half Acre has been overwhelmed several times by demand, running out of beer while people still stood in line.
“The first time we were caught off guard,” said Matt Gallagher, Half Acre’s head brewer and co-owner, who notes the brewery has made changes to smooth the process.
However, Gallagher has never quite understood the fuss.
“I’ve never been one to go out of my way to track down a beer,” he said. “It’s beer. If you don’t get it this year, maybe you’ll get it next year.”