Special Releases Lose The Buzz

Amid a crowded market, rare beer releases are generating less excitement.

Though many special releases from brewers are losing steam, Bourbon County stout (pictured) from Goose Island Brewing Co. still sells through 90% of its stock in 24 hours, even with increased production.
Though many special releases from brewers are losing steam, Bourbon County stout (pictured) from Goose Island Brewing Co. still sells through 90% of its stock in 24 hours, even with increased production.

It wasn’t long ago that beer aficionados would wait in lines snaking around liquor stores and bars or chase down beer delivery trucks in attempts to purchase rare, highly regarded releases. But with today’s intense saturation of craft beer, coupled with expanded production by many breweries, the bloom may be off the rose for some of these coveted brews.

“The beer world has changed,” says Matt Fish, founder and owner of Melt Bar and Grilled, a 13-unit casual dining chain in Ohio that largely focuses on beer. “Special beer releases aren’t receiving the same attention from consumers that they once did.” Indeed, Fish notes that for the last two years, Melt—which typically serves up to two dozen draft beers, priced between $5-$8 a 16-ounce pour—hasn’t hosted as many special release parties as it once did. Adam Fry, co-owner and general manager of Washington, D.C. bar Ivy and Coney, describes a similar response from his customers. “While we’ve had fun with limited releases like Bell’s Hopslam ale and the Goose Island Bourbon County Brand stout, we’re seeing less demand for them,” he says.

The softening in demand for beer “whales,” as they’ve come to be known, is a result of the staggering growth in the ranks of craft brewers and production expansion by marketers of notable releases. Annual releases that were once tightly allocated are now broadly available. “There’s a sentiment among consumers that those beers aren’t as special anymore,” Fry says.

Retail beer customers are also finding an abundance of supply. “As veteran craft breweries expand operations, some beers that were once in short supply are now available for us to purchase in much greater quantities,” says Roger Adamson, beer marketing and education specialist at Illinois retail chain Binny’s Beverage Depot. He points to Founders Brewing Co.’s Kentucky Breakfast stout (KBS) as an example. “In the past, a customer might’ve left the store with one 4-pack of 12-ounce bottles,” he says. “Now, we can offer entire cases.”

Yet brewers of in-demand labels say that while they’ve increased production in recent years, demand remains strong. Russian River Brewing Co. more than doubled production of its Pliny the Younger triple IPA this year to about 350 barrels, but co-owner Natalie Cilurzo says the beer remains highly allocated. Released in early February, Pliny the Younger is available in California, Oregon, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. “Retailers are very limited on how much they receive due to our desire to keep production low and have it available at a greater number of locations,” Cilurzo says. And while Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. has increased production of its Bourbon County label each year for the last decade, president Todd Ahsmann notes that the company is “still selling as much as we can make,” with 90% of sell-through happening  in the first 24 hours after release.

But other brewers concede that the special release field has become crowded. Mike Stevens, co-owner and president of Founders, notes that while production and sales of KBS have grown exponentially in recent years, the brewer is seeing less hype upon release. With so many breweries now producing one-off beers, “it dampens the luster for others,” he says. Bill Manley, vice president of marketing at Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Co., which makes Darkness Russian Imperial stout, adds, “With 7,000-plus breweries, each with their own set of specialty releases, it’s tougher than ever to earn share of mind.” Last year, 600 barrels of Darkness were produced, up from 150 barrels in 2014. “It’s now enough that most of our retail partners can get some, but not so much that it lingers,” Manley says.

Rising interest in new and local brands has also contributed to reduced hype. “Even award-winning beers that were once perennial purchases tend to lack the excitement of a new name, label, or unique flavor,” says Adamson of Binny’s. Retailers are responding accordingly. “I’m less inclined to fight over a certain type of sour or beer made with certain hops when I know three other breweries are doing limited releases that may be just as good,” says Fry of Ivy and Coney. While beer retailers and marketers work to find the right balance, there’s no question that when it comes to special beer releases, it’s now a buyers’ market.