Even Beer Snobs Will Love These Mega Brewers' Limited Releases
There is an understandably strong impulse to write off so-called craft beer when its producer goes from micro to macro. If someone’s beer purchasing is solely a political exercise, this reaction makes sense. If one’s interest in beer drinking, however, is in fearless experimentation and high quality no matter the source, she’d be remiss in overlooking some of the biggest U.S. craft breweries’ limited releases.
Anchor Barrel-Aged Old Foghorn Barleywine
Founded in 1896, San Francisco’s Anchor boasts possibly the most impeccable long-running legacy in U.S. craft brewing. Best known for their Anchor Steam, an otherwise neglected hybrid style that utilizes lager yeasts at warmer fermentation temperatures generally employed in the brewing of ales, the brewery was also one of the first stateside producers to make then-esoteric genres such as high-alcohol barleywines, like Old Foghorn, first brewed in 1975.
While Anchor Steam is now iconically ubiquitous, available at just about any remotely respectable bodega, the team releases some rare brewery-only experiments sporadically, such as a recent riff on their year-round Old Foghorn aged in the facility’s own Old Potrero single malt rye whiskey barrels (Anchor has doubled as a terrific micro-distillery since 1993). The barrel’s sharply boozy and spicy rye woodiness marries harmoniously to the 11.5% ABV base beer’s rich malt character.
Ballast Point Bourbon Barrel-Aged Victory at Sea
With a humble genesis two decades ago in the back of founder Jack White’s Home Brew Mart, San Diego’s Ballast Point has since ballooned into one of the U.S.'s most recognized craft breweries. Last year Constellation Brands—a beverage company that owns Corona, Robert Mondavi, and Svedka Vodka, among others—paid $1 billion for the beloved SoCal operation, at the time the 17th largest brewery in the country in sales volume.
While the brewery’s bread-and-butter wide-releases, such as the Sculpin IPA and its variants, might’ve been the motivation behind the acquisition, Ballast Point’s terrific limited-release experiments are just as exciting as ever. Recently a brewery-only version of its Victory at Sea imperial porter, aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels for eight months, was released to feverishly enthusiastic response. The un-barrel’d beer’s big roasty coffee and sweet vanilla is rounded out decadently with the lush, whiskey-influenced maturation.
Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
The 2011 sale of Chicago’s Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch InBev was among the most controversial in craft beer, as the titan triumvirate of B.M.C.—beer-nerd acronym for Bud, Miller, Coors—is generally seen as the enemy of microbreweries. The acquisition by the world’s largest brewer raised many questions (along with plenty of derision) across message boards about whether Goose Island's beer could legitimately be considered “craft” any longer. The attention that continues to go into the Bourbon County Brand Stout line of Goose’s portfolio—regarded as the original bourbon barrel-aged stout, conceived in 1992—is the operation’s rebuttal.
Now, new vintages and experimental variants are released to market annually on Black Friday and often compete in quality with even the smallest batch barrel’d stouts from "cooler," more niche breweries. Dark chocolate, coffee, leather, smoke, tobacco—it’s one of the more contemplative sippers around, especially at 14.5% ABV.
Lagunitas High West-ified Imperial Coffee Stout
In 2004, after 21 years in business, California’s Lagunitas became the fifth top-selling craft brewery stateside. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this accomplishment lies in the brewery and founder Tony Magee’s ceaselessly irreverent style, with his beer labels more often than not featuring cumbersome in-jokes and far-from-subtle marijuana references. Heineken International acquired a 50 percent stake in 2015, fueling the brand's global expansion while thankfully leaving the brewing team’s tenacious experimentation impulses in tact.
For evidence, look no further than its OneHitter series of “unique, strange” one-offs. Its latest, for sale in December, is the High West-ified Imperial Coffee Stout. The richly alcoholic (12.2%) dark delight is brewed with Chicago’s Metropolitan Coffee and aged in Utah’s High West rye and bourbon barrels for 17 months. Perfectly dessert-apt, consider it for a superlative beer & shot combo, with a welcome espresso chaser.
Samuel Adams Utopias
Craft options for beer drinkers in the States were few and far between in the 1980s, and Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager was a bit of an ingredient-driven game-changer when first introduced in 1984. An easy-drinking staple, it’s now one of the most widely distributed craft options in the country, losing its "cool" factor in the process (much to the chagrin of founder Jim Koch). While Boston Lager is easily the brand’s face and foundation, however, Sam Adams has since the mid-'90s been at the forefront of high-alcohol barrel-aging experimentation, which reached a peak in 2002 with Utopias.
Now a biennial limited release ranging in strength from 22 percent to 28 percent ABV and bottled flat after aging in a promiscuous blend of spent spirit and fortified wine barrels, they're a delicious oddity sharing more in common with fine cognac than with beer, both in flavor, packaging, and price tag—$200 per bottle. Think deep caramel, toffee, and maple sweetness, backed by an oxidative wood-forwardness that makes for a liquid truly without genre.