A few nights before New Year's, a certain reporter found himself perusing the cramped aisles of the midtown brew store Beertopia when in walked a tall man with a dark beard wearing a bright yellow jacket.
The man inquired about a particular beer, sending a clerk into a storage room for what turned out to be a single 22 ounce bottle (a “bomber,” to use the parlance) in such limited supply that Beertopia imposed a one-per-customer limit.
“That must be good,” the reporter said to the bearded yellow jacket fellow.
“It will be gone in 30 minutes,” he said of the store's supply.
Moments later, he was on his phone, trying to ascertain information about the beer's availability elsewhere. Then he checked out and left.
Except he didn't really leave. When this reporter exited with a beer of lesser demand, he found bearded yellow jacket waiting outside.
Since you're not getting a bottle, he offered, would you mind buying me a second? It will be a little more than $18, he said, holding out a crisp $20 bill.
“You can keep the change.”
So began this reporter's introduction to Bourbon County, a series of limited-release brews from Chicago's Goose Island brewery that represents the counterintuitive end of craft beer culture: Beers so popular most people don't know they exist.
The past year has brought plenty of hops news to Nebraska, including new brew pubs opened or opening soon in Omaha, the proliferation of microbreweries throughout the state and even the triumphant return of the Storz brewing name.
But for a certain subset of Omaha beer fans, true cause for celebration comes from beyond. It comes from breweries in California, Michigan, Illinois and parts elsewhere. It arrives in limited supplies on the backs of trucks, like rations for first-world beer connoisseurs. It crosses the thresholds of beer stores on dollies and exits in the hands of customers without ever reaching an actual shelf.
If it sounds like a phenomenon surrounding rare whiskey and vintage wine, you're in the right mind. Some of the beers themselves have been aged in bourbon barrels that once swished with the likes of Pappy Van Winkle. Some aficionados will “cellar” years' worth of limited-release, high-alcohol beers and then open them up together in “vertical” tasting sessions.
“That's kind of fun,” said Patrick Wolfe, a manager at Beertopia. “It's also kind of messy.”
At Beertopia, Wolfe sees more and more lifelong Budweiser drinkers visiting the shop for a taste of something new. Within that surge is a growing community of fans who pour over review sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer and share their own hoppy conquests on the beer-minded social network Untappd.
One of Beertopia's best customers is Rod Hamblin, 47, who until a few years ago considered himself a Busch Light man (“yellow water,” he calls it today). One day, Hamblin ordered a brown ale at the Crescent Moon. The bartender told him he shouldn't waste his time with anything but a stout or India Pale Ale (IPA). And a new world opened to Hamblin.
Today, he gets together with friends every couple months for tastings. He's traveled as far as Kansas City to get a beer not yet available in Omaha (the Proprietors Reserve series from California brewery Firestone Walker). Last year, he took a three-day trip across Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, visiting 13 microbreweries.
“It's just a bunch of great people that like drinking wonderful beers,” Hamblin said. “That's what craft beer is about. It's about sharing good beer. I love it. I'm very passionate about it.”
He was there when Beertopia's Bourbon County beers arrived this year. He's currently waiting for Hopslam Ale from Bell's Brewery to arrive in Council Bluffs (it's not yet available in Nebraska).
Hamblin appreciates the one-per-customer limits that have become customary around Omaha for limited-release beers. He also knows not to hesitate when a new beer hits town.
“There are like truck-chasing people when it comes to some of these beers,” he said.
Adam Desler can confirm that. Desler manages craft beer sales for distributor Quality Brands of Omaha. He's also a certified cicerone, the beer equivalent to a wine sommelier. He can appreciate the complexity of the various brews and the verve they inspire — even if it's a little strange when his customers know a beer has arrived in his warehouse before he does.
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“The craft beer community likes to call those whales,” he said of the cult labels. “The beers are so rare, it's kind of like seeing a whale.”
Of course, the whitest whales are those out of reach. BeerAdvocate's top-ranked beer of the moment is the Heady Topper double IPA. Brewed in Waterbury, Vt., by an outfit called The Alchemist, it is available only in that immediate area and routinely sells out as quickly as it's made available.
The whitest whale of all appeared ever so briefly in December 2012, when six packs of Westvleteren XII sold for $85 apiece — a fundraiser of sorts for the Trappist monastery in Belgium where it's brewed.
But beers don't need to be handcrafted by monks to create sensations. This spring, Beertopia's Wolfe expects a batch of Kentucky Breakfast Stout from Founder's Brewing Co. and anticipates a reception similar to what happened on Black Friday.
In that case, a shipment of Bourbon County beers arrived, as has become tradition, on the day after Thanksgiving. About 20 customers were waiting when the truck pulled up with 72 four-packs of the trademark Bourbon County Stout and 30 four-packs of Bourbon County Barleywine.
Even at one package per customer, the supply sold out in a few hours. (At Spirit World, where the delivery was even smaller, staff sold individual bottles to accommodate as many customers as possible).
Then, a couple weeks later, a surprise shipment arrived at Beertopia: four cases of Bourbon County Backyard Rye, each containing a dozen 22-ounce bottles.
“I was just standing at the counter, and he wheeled these in,” Wolfe said.
Word spread quickly. Customer after customer showed up, thrilled to fork over close to $20 for a single bottle of the coveted oil-black stout.
The bearded man in the yellow jacket was among them. He secured one bottle, and then, with the assistance of a befuddled reporter, a second.
He predicted all bottles would be gone in 30 minutes.
As it happened, that proved a slight overstatement.
It took about an hour.