Three years ago, Boulevard Brewing Co. first released a special collaboration beer with Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate. The result, Chocolate Ale, soon became the most sought after beer in the metro. Waiting lists formed, bottles sold out in hours, and liquor store clerks spent days repeatedly telling customers they were sold out. Finding a bottle was pretty much impossible.
Chocolate Ale was my first real taste of beer frenzy. In my eyes, beer was something always readily in stock. Sure, I knew Boulevard has a rotation of seasonal offerings like Nutcracker Ale and Bob’s 47 available only during certain months. But a $13 bottle of beer selling out in a day? Crazy talk.
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What I didn’t realize is this sort of mania happens year round; it just doesn’t get as much coverage. Rare and special collaborations aren’t specific to Boulevard; breweries around the country come out with special releases on a regular basis.
These aren’t your usual tailgating beers. They’re aged in bourbon barrels, flavored with fruits like marionberry and even blended with spicy habanero peppers. Specialty beers like these, as well as Chocolate Ale, require a longer, more laborious brewing process. As a result, quantities are limited.
That’s where the thrill of the chase comes in. Boulevard can be found in most liquor stores in the area, but a beer like Backwoods Bastard from Founders Brewing Co. in Michigan is harder to come by. And things get even trickier when you cross state lines — some breweries, like Southern Tier, distribute in Missouri but can’t be found on the Kansas side.
There are even online forums like
dedicated to new beer releases and where to buy them in KC.
You’d be amazed at the lengths people are willing to go for a good bottle of beer, sometimes even visiting multiple liquor stores in one day. If someone posts that the latest release has been found at Gomer’s in midtown, it’s gone within an hour. Liquor stores even place quantity limits to ensure that no one customer takes more than his or her fair share. These rare beer hunters don’t mess around.
Recently, I got in on the chase as part of my Christmas shopping. Goose Island brewery in Chicago released a limited series of barrel-aged beers from its Bourbon County line. Prompted by a tweet about its stock, I dropped in at a Berbiglia on my way home in search of the Bourbon County Backyard Rye.
The guy behind the counter explained that less than 24 hours after they tweeted about it, all of the area Berbiglia stores were sold out. I couldn’t tell if the guy behind the counter knew I was an amateur, but I wasn’t dedicated enough to try a second location.
Not all liquor stores operate the same. Some keep rare bottles in the back, selling them only to those who ask for it. Others hold bottles for regulars and have reservation lists. And a few purists just let bottles go on a first come, first serve basis. The goal is to find a small store that’s off the beaten path. Stores with less traffic are less likely to sell out quickly.
To avoid looking like a novice, it’s best to know what you’re asking for. You have to talk the talk for anyone to take you seriously. Become a regular at a liquor store that keeps a good beer stock, and in return you might get insider information. While the hunt for rare beer is serious business, people are also friendly about it. Sometimes if a store is sold out, the clerks will even tell you other stores that still have it in stock.
Lucky enough to snag a few overstock bottles of something scarce? There are beer trading forums out there, too. But to get a good beer, you have to give up an equally good beer. If you thought only wine snobs kept a catalog of their cellar, think again. Some traders will send you a list of their private collection to choose from in exchange for your bottle.
After a year off, Boulevard brought back Chocolate Ale this month. Hopefully, you were lucky to find a bottle. As for me, I’ll stick to finding a fresh glass on tap. Taps are easier to come by and don’t involve as much commitment. This particular beer isn’t my favorite, but it would be a shame to miss out on the hype.
Andrea Olsen is a weekly contributing columnist who writes about her adventures in Kansas City. She’s never met a dive bar she didn’t love. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram: