I never tire of pointing out the virtues of beer vis-ą-vis other alcoholic beverages. More ingredients and wider spectrum of flavor than wine? Check. No refined sugars or artificial sweeteners that you’ll find in mixed drinks? Check (there are some exceptions to that one). Lower alcohol content and thus more suitable than distilled spirits for consuming multiple drinks in one session? Check. The list goes on.
Another check mark goes in the beer column for seasonals. Wineries just keep releasing the same wines year after year after year, with slight variations in quality due to the nature of the grape harvest in a given year. Distilleries only produce a handful of products intended to be consistent throughout the year, although the nascent craft distilling movement may be shaking things up on that front.
But beer isn’t set apart merely by the production of seasonals that get released once a year, every year, like winter warmers. Craft breweries are increasingly turning to “one-off” releases to excite their devoted fans. A one-off is a beer that is brewed one time and one time only. You have to snag your share of that one batch or you’ll forever miss your chance to taste it. I know of nothing like this in the world of wine, and not much that compares in the world of spirits.
One-off releases are a critical outlet for craft brewers’ creativity. Nearly every craft brewer begins life as a home brewer who rarely makes the same beer twice. There are over a hundred different styles of beer in the world, with countless variations on each style. It would be boring to brew just a handful of recipes over and over again when there are so many possibilities for that pile of hops, malts, and yeast. But that’s exactly what professional brewers have to do: brew a handful of beers time and time again, as consistently as possible. It makes for a good consumer experience when you know that bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is going to taste the same today as it did five years ago. But there’s not much room for creativity in consistency.
One-offs tend to be outside the norm of most commonly-brewed beer styles. They present a unique opportunity for the brewer to go crazy and use large amounts of the most expensive ingredients and processes because the hype that usually accompanies rarity ensures even a high price tag won’t stop it from selling out.
The most common time for brewers to release one-offs is to celebrate an anniversary or a milestone number of batches. For example, every year Avery Brewing releases a unique beer to celebrate the brewery’s anniversary. Last year was Seventeen, a dry-hopped black lager. This year will be Eighteen, and they have yet to announce what sort of beer it will be. Bell’s Brewery numbers every batch they brew, and for every 1,000 batches they brewed a commemorative beer. Batch 10,000 was recently released and it will be the last of the series. Some made it to Alabama, but only a few cases (which sold out immediately). The folks at Bell’s really went crazy on Batch 10,000, reportedly using one hundred different malts and sixty different hops. That’s the sort of thing you only do with a one-off.
Closer to home, Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, Georgia has done great things with their ongoing “Side Project” series. As I mentioned above, customers may love for beers like Rye Pale Ale to be consistent and always available, but brewers like Spike Buckowski enjoy working on new and different things. That’s where the Side Project series comes in. The next one we can expect to see in the series is Tomfoolery, a black saison. The most recent one was Big Daddy Vlady, an imperial stout, and before that was So Fresh, So Green Green, a fresh hop IPA. As is common with one-offs, these are packaged in 22 ounce bottles only, so we are still limited to enjoying this series only on draft in Birmingham.
Of course, I can’t write a column for Birmingham Weekly focusing on one-off beers without mentioning Good People’s County Line series. Again, the preferred packaging for one-offs is 22 ounce bottles, which are illegal throughout most of Alabama. But a handful of counties allow the sale of large bottles, and Coosa is one of them. So the guys at Good People are sending very small quantities of one-off beers packaged in 22 ounce bottles to a convenience store in Coosa, where each batch is selling out in less than a day and sometimes in less than an hour. The most recent shipment included bottles of a barley wine and Coffee Oatmeal Stout aged in a Jack Daniels barrel.
Once the 16 ounce limit on bottled beer gets reformed (hopefully this year), our access to all these special releases will be greatly improved. Support Free the Hops.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org