As the palates of the beer buying public grow more sophisticated, brewers are beginning to enjoy greater freedom to develop their art of brewing.             

Brewery owners and executives are also seeing greater opportunity to develop specialty releases intended to capture both the attention and dollars of this new informed, discerning, and adventurous drinking audience.

Many breweries offer a changing rotation of products as part of their regular lineup. Brewers match their seasonal products to fit widely accepted stereotypes about what people want to drink during certain times of the year - light, wheat beers in the Summer and darker, heartier brews in the Winter. Outside of this regular schedule, brewers are offering special release beers, often provided in distinctive packaging including 22 ounce or 750 milliliter bottles, to create hype about their breweries and to attract the new, growing market of consumers willing to spend a few extra dollars for products with some buzz. Limited edition releases offer retailers an opportunity to capture some of the buzz, while returning higher profits per bottle on sales.

As the brewers releasing such specialty offerings seek to maximize profitability, typically by offering the releases at a substantially higher price point than traditional craft beer releases, certain products are excluded from this review. This new wave of specialty releases do not include novelty releases such as Magic Hat's Jeezum Jim, offered last year when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords switched his political affiliation from Republican to Independent, or Nutfield Brewing Company's Nutfield Primary Pale Ale, offered to capitalize on the hype surrounding the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary election.

Tired of the same old seasonal offerings, a small group of enterprising brewers have provided a series of beers that push the envelope of brewing and offer retailers special opportunities for higher margin sales. But enterprising retailers must respect the limited window of availability on these limited edition releases.

BOSTON BEER

The most successful and well-promoted limited edition release beers are those of the Boston Beer Company's special high-gravity brewing project. At the Boston Beer Company's pilot brewery in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, brewers constantly try to raise the bar of brewing. The brewers started offering truly limited edition releases with the Triple Bock, a high-gravity beer with barleywine and port wine characteristics. The beer was Boston Beer's first foray into its line of experimental high-alcohol beers - it contains four times the amount of malt used to brew the company's flagship Boston Lager. The company limited production of the beer to releases of 1994, 1995, and 1997 vintages. The beer, brewed in part with maple syrup and aged for six months in oak whiskey barrels, has notes of vanilla, chocolate, and leather, and weighs in at 17.5 percent alcohol by volume (a.b.v.). Dwindling supplies of the various vintages are still available and retail for about $5 per eight ounce bottle.

The Triple Bock experiments later gave birth to two devilishly drinkable and strong products. As part of the "Once in a Lifetime Series", Boston Beer released Millennium in time for the 2000 New Year's festivities. The brewery only released 3000 bottles, each signed and numbered by president Jim Koch and encased in an attractive cherry wood box. The product retailed for $200 per 750 milliliter bottle.

Perhaps no other beer has created the buzz and hype preceding and following the Boston Beer's release of the reigning world's champion of alcoholic beers - Utopias MMII. Weighing in at 24% a.b.v., Utopias was released to a limited number of retailers in February 2001. While news of the release traveled fast, retailers moved even faster to secure access to a bottle or two of the limited edition release. While Boston Beer doled out the specialty bottles to its favorite retailers, consumers frantically searched to secure their own bottle. At Sam's Wine and Spirits in Chicago, the beer manager pre-sold bottles of Utopias to his best customers. The buzz created by the release was so great that enterprising sellers hawked bottles of Utopias for exponentially more than the brew's stiff original retail price of $100.

MAGIC HAT BREWING

While the pricing of Boston Beer's consigned its limited edition releases to the market of venturesome, hard-core beer geeks, other craft brewers have offered limited edition beers priced for the wider niche of craft beer drinkers. From its smart, mysterious product names and advertising campaigns, to its exceptionally confusing, yet intriguing website, the eclectic Magic Hat Brewing Company of Burlington, Vermont, prides itself on taking a different approach to the brewing business. With a product line consisting of such bewildering product names as #9 ("not quite Pale Ale") and Fat Angel ("darker shade of ale"), Magic Hat clearly shirks conventional offerings. In October, Magic Hat added a new beguiling twist to their current stable of offerings - the Humdinger Series of Epic Elixirs.

Magic Hat brewers and marketers designed the Humdinger series to appeal to a niche within a niche of better beer drinkers. "I think we look at the market and we all feel our consumer, meaning the better beer consumer, continues to get more and more sophisticated, which is a great thing for our segment," says Magic Hat's Bob Johnson. "There is room to push the envelope with styles and package presentations and price points. In house, it gives us a real opportunity for our brewing staff to really push the envelope. When we put these two pieces together, we came up with the Humdinger series, a limited edition release."

The first release in the Humdinger series is the Braggot, an ale made with 600 pounds of wildflower honey and ample amounts of Marris Otter Pale malt and Canadian malted wheat. The honey used in the recipe, developed by Magic Hat brewer Todd Haire, was taken from hives cultivated by brewer Haire, a hobbyist beekeeper, and another local apiary. The Braggot pours with a thick white head and a deep off-gold color. The aroma is deeply fruity, with notes of peach, pear and honey. The flavor is a nice balance of Magic Hat's house yeast and deep, sweet honey flavor. The honey flavor is actually quite complex and hints as cidery, pearish, and green apples. The finish is very interesting - partly dry like champagne, partly varying levels of multi-layered honey sweetness.

Magic Hat's next intended release is the Chaotic Chemistry, a three year-old bottle-conditioned barleywine. The beer has spent two years in bourbon barrels and one year stainless steel conditioning tanks. Magic Hat also plans to release a Russian imperial stout during the Spring, aged in total 18 months. "The idea is not to do this too often," says Johnson. "Maybe do three or four releases a year and see where it goes. We're really sticking our toes in the water to see if our customers want to support something like this. Can we continue to get 10, 12 or 15 dollars for this bottle of beer?"

Because the Humdinger series is allocated on such a limited basis, the beer will only go into accounts that have an informed staff can do a good, effective job of hand-selling the product. "It is pushing the envelope on price point and I think the consumer is going to want and should get a level of description," says Johnson.

BREWERY OMMEGANG

In a new farmhouse brewery in Cooperstown, New York, the Brewery Ommegang produces America's finest line of Belgian-style beers, all at a highly affordable price. In addition to its regular line of beers and its special series of cave-conditioned products, Ommegang recently released a series of limited edition beers. The series was the end product of the "Create a Great Beer" contest held in conjunction with Realbeer.com. The contest invited beer lovers to submit descriptions of their dream beers with a promise that Ommegang would brew a batch of beer to meet the description.

After sifting through numerous responses, contest directors finally selected a recipe by a Portland, Oregon homebrewer who wrote: "My dream beer is a strong Belgian ale with a burnished cherrywood color that pours with a fine, long lasting mousse. Upon raising the glass to my nose, a tremendous burst of dried apricots comes in several waves as if exhaled by angels. Underneath, a steady pulse of cedar, leather, and black figs lets me know that she is indeed possessed of an extraordinary animus. Each sip sends tendrils of pear, prune and raisin flavors to the four corners of my palate." Ommegang makes the limited run beer available only at its Cooperstown brewery.

VICTORY BREWING

Victory Brewing Company's new 23,000 square foot brewing space includes a bottling line that allows brewers to produce either 12 ounce or 750 milliliter bottles. The new bottling line allows Victory to further innovate its product line.

Learning from his trials with Victory's Golden Monkey Belgian-style Triple, Bill Covaleski and his partner Ron Barchet developed the idea for a new series of limited edition beers. "We've had great success with the release of a new limited run series called V-10. V for victory and vintage," says Covaleski. "It's essentially a strong Belgian-style dubbel at 10 percent alcohol by volume. Only 1200 cases were produced so it was released to a very limited amount of people. The idea behind the series is that every quarter there will be another release of a different product in that series."

The limited edition offering provides a new outlet for Victory's creative brewing staff. "This series permits us to grow as brewers. We are challenging ourselves to address a different form of packaging. And the effects of that packaging on the beer are substantial. So we're challenging ourselves to make the proper beers to really utilize that packaging well."

Covaleski notes that his limited edition releases not only allow him to develop his brewing ability, but also offers a valuable experience for consumers. "We feel we're giving something back to our audience because our audience has always rewarded us when we innovate. The V-10 is an experiment. It's the challenge of our capabilities to innovate as brewers and a challenge to the consumers to involve themselves in something new. And to also give the consumer the opportunity to do the aging and conditioning on their own. So it really is product that has a certain playfulness to it. It's an interactive product in that we'll get feedback from consumers."

Limited edition releases also offer brewers new opportunities to interact with active consumers. Shortly after the release of V-10, Covaleski began hearing from both satisfied and concerned consumers. He continues to receive scores of phone calls and emails from consumers who are aging and testing the V-10 series.

Covaleski is also receiving many phone calls from consumers distressed over their inability to locate the special release. "We're taking some flack from some of our loyal consumers in markets that didn't have access to these beers. So that has been the toughest headache of this - who do you deny these unique products. Our thought process on this is that (the V series) really is a treat for those who can get their hands on it. It's supposed to be limited. It's supposed to appear on the shelves and then disappear from the shelves and make way for the next one. It's a difficult situation, but it's the nature of limited edition things."

For the foreseeable future, Covaleski plans to keep the runs limited to 1200 cases. Victory's V Series will include the V-10, V-12, a BATF-approved grand cru, and a yet-to-be determined fourth beer, with the next release scheduled for January.

For retailers, Covaleski notes it is important to understand the concept and pricing of limited edition releases. The pricing of the V series differs significantly from Victory's regular pricing structure. The V series prices at $75 per case with a suggested retail price of $8.99 per 750 milliliter bottle.

The limited nature of specialty releases offers great opportunities for informed retailers to score higher margin sales. While breweries continue to develop the palates of their sophisticated customers, their new offerings provide new opportunities to capture increasing sales among craft beer enthusiasts.

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Article appeared in the January 2003 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.