The last time Boulevard Brewing Co. released its limited-edition Chocolate Ale, many local beer lovers — including Christopher Elbow — were left empty-handed.
It was 2012 and Elbow, the artisan chocolate maker who helped Boulevard devise its cocoa-infused brew, said he wanted customers to have first dibs. Instead of asking for a case from the brewery, he drove to four or five liquor stores to buy a bottle. No luck.
This year, his luck might change: After a two-year brewing hiatus, Boulevard is bringing back the ridiculously popular Chocolate Ale, which is part of its small-batch Smokestack Series. While it might not be so hard to find, it could be harder to hoard.
The brewery has nearly doubled its 2012 Chocolate Ale output to 9,200 cases and 2,800 one-sixth barrel kegs, setting a production record for the series. Half of that amount will be distributed in Kansas City — Chocolate Ale hits bar taps starting Feb. 3, and distribution to liquor stores starts Feb. 4.
When the beer was last released, the Lukas Liquor Superstores in Overland Park and Kansas City had lines around the buildings by 9 a.m. Their supply dried up by noon.
“It was the fastest we’ve ever sold through that much beer,” said Bob Leever, beer manager of the Overland Park location.
So this time, the Overland Park store is only opening its waiting list to customers who sign up in person.
“We used to put anybody and everybody on the list,” Leever said. “We figure they can at least come in the store and buy something.”
Gomer’s Fine Wine Spirits in midtown Kansas City is putting a percentage of its Chocolate Ale bottles aside for regular customers. The remainder will be available on a first-come, first-served basis — with a one-bottle limit — to walk-in customers.
“That seems to be the fairest way I’ve found,” owner Jack Probst said.
Chocolate Ale started as an experimental collaboration between two friends. Elbow and Boulevard brewmaster Steven Pauwels worked together on the recipe, which incorporates crushed, roasted cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic. The amber-colored beer has flavors you’d typically find in a bakery (dark chocolate, caramel and vanilla) and pours from kegs or 750-milliliter bottles.
For the first batch in 2011, Boulevard produced 1,600 cases and 350 one-sixth barrel kegs of the ale, a typical amount for a Smokestack Series release.
Boulevard marketing director Jeremy Ragonese said that because of its higher price and alcohol content — Chocolate Ale is 9.1 percent alcohol by volume, roughly twice the alcohol content of Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat — the product was expected to appeal to a small niche of artisan beer lovers.
But Chocolate Ale had mass appeal. Wine drinkers, chocolate lovers and even people who hate beer lined up to get a taste. That surprised Boulevard.
“Nobody had any idea that this collaboration would lead this beer into the stratosphere in terms of public interest,” Ragonese said.
Chocolate Ale’s release was perfectly timed: Right before Valentine’s Day, in a year when Kansas City’s local, artisan food movement and civic pride were beginning to bubble over.
Here in Kansas City, demand instantly exceeded supply. The thirstiest fans went to great lengths to stockpile the beer, driving to multiple liquor stores and, in some cases, stalking delivery trucks. The stores imposed one- or two-bottle limits, and some jacked the beer’s price to $17 or more per 750-milliliter bottle. On eBay, bottles of Chocolate Ale sold for as much as $100.
“It was pandemonium,” said John Couture, who owns Waldo’s Bier Station. “That’s why I call it the Beanie Baby beer.”
The pandemonium spilled over to 2012, even after Boulevard more than doubled its 2011 production of Chocolate Ale and reserved more of it for Kansas City.
“It still wasn’t enough,” Pauwels said.
The long lines turned off serious beer geeks like Pat Mullin, who writes forKC Beer Blog.
“The first year, I was one of the people making the bum rush out there to get it,” Mullin said. “I thought it was an OK beer. That second year, when everyone was freaking out, I stepped back. I didn’t want to dive in to all that mess.”
Matt Wiggins, who drove to six liquor stores to buy eight bottles of Chocolate Ale in 2011, said his friends in other cities had no problem stockpiling the brew.
“I knew a guy in Chicago who bought eight cases,” Wiggins said. “No one up there knew what it was, so it just sat around collecting dust.”
That is, until Boulevard started buying it back. When the brewery’s quality control team discovered that three batches of Chocolate Ale contained off flavors, they offered customers full refunds. Buying it back at retail meant a financial hit for the brewery, Ragonese said, but “it was the right thing to do.”
After that, Boulevard put Chocolate Ale on an indefinite vacation.
“We decided to rest for a year, see if everything would calm down,” Pauwels said. “We thought nobody would think about it anymore.”
That left room in 2013’s brewing schedule for other experimental brews, including Coffee Ale, a collaboration with The Roasterie. But customers didn’t forget about Chocolate Ale — they demanded a comeback.
In October, Boulevard announced its sale to Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat. The following week, the brewery released its 2014 Smokestack Series schedule, which included Chocolate Ale and another cult-hit beer, Two Jokers.
To make this year’s batch of Chocolate Ale, Pauwels used new equipment and 3,000 pounds of luxury Valrhona cocoa nibs. Those nibs aren’t just thrown into the brewing kettle — Pauwels said brewers filled pantyhose (unworn and size extra large) with the nibs, a technique from years past. But this time, they affixed the feet of the pantyhose to the bottom of the tank, a tweak Pauwels said ensured better beer flow-through.
On a Wednesday morning in December, Pauwels and Elbow met at one of the brewery’s bottling plants to taste Chocolate Ale together for the first time in two years.
The brewmaster opened a spigot on a 105-barrel tank, unleashing a stream of room-temperature, amber-colored liquid into two tulip glasses. He dipped his nose into the glass and inhaled.
“It smells like chocolate milk,” Pauwels said over the sounds of clinking bottles and whirring machinery.
Elbow took a sip and nodded. “It has a deep cocoa flavor,” he said. “It tastes better than I remember.”
But will this be the year supply meets demand?
Couture, who is preparing for his first Chocolate Ale release as a bar owner (Bier Station opened in 2012), isn’t sure yet. Still, he thinks setting a bottle limit is a good idea.
“I’m anti-hoarding,” Couture said. “We’d rather have 10 people try one bottle than one person get 10 bottles. Everybody should be able to try it.”
Including Christopher Elbow.
1,600 cases (containing 19,200 champagne-sized bottles) and 350 one-sixth barrel kegs of the specialty ale were produced by Boulevard for the first release in 2011.
9,200 cases (containing 110,400 bottles) and 2,800 one-sixth barrel kegs were produced by the brewery this year.
3,000 pounds of luxury Valrhona cocoa nibs were used to brew this year’s batch.