Brewery pilgrimages already dominate most beer-lovers’ travel itineraries, and with craft beer Meccas like Boulder, Denver, Bend, Portland, San Diego, San Fran, and relative new-comers like Ashville, N.C., the destination choices have never been more varied. But the relatively recent trend of crazy-limited annual releases have added a sense of daunting immediacy to beer tourism, one that paradoxically requires months-long preparation and planning just to reach the brewery—to say nothing about getting ahold of the beer itself. You think getting tickets to the Stones is tough? Try scoring a coveted ticket for Dark Lord Day. Among the legions of annual beer releases, there are a select few that justify all the scheming and waiting. Here are seven releases that deserve a place on your calendar.
Release: Late April
This annual release drops on Dark Lord Day, a madhouse, one-day festival in Munster, Ind., that’s attracted as many as 5,000 enthusiastic beer-lovers. The event includes live music, food, beer from across the globe, and the chance to buy a bottle of the dastardly, barrel-aged imperial stout made with Intelligensia coffee, Mexican vanilla, and Indian sugar. Coveted “golden tickets” are required for entry, and guests are broken into timed-entry groups to avoid the mad rush. Last year the tickets ran $30 and went on sale in mid-March through the Three Floyds website yes, they sold out fast.
Release: February 7, 2014
Pliny the Younger may not have been the first ultra-rare seasonal release, but it’s arguably the most well-known. Legions of loyal beer-drinkers queue up outside of the Santa Rosa, Calif., brew pub as much as eight hours before the doors open, ready to plunge their taste buds into a ten-ounce glass of the triple IPA. Customers are limited to three pours, which should be enough of that crazy-hopping, dangerously smooth 10.5% beer. But you could always get back in line. We advise you to dress warm.
Release: February 1, 2014
The iconic ‘70s-influenced beer label alone demands that you seek it out, but this cocoa-infused Imperial stout rallies legions of fans for more than just the retro graphics. The 9.75% brew delivers on its promise of chocolate, partnered with molasses, sweet toffee, and coffee. People line up as much as a day in advance at the Winston-Sale, N.C., brewery. And this year, they’re leveraging the beer’s popularity to raise some coin for charity. Every Monday leading up to the event they’ll auction off one of four spots at the front of the line. Winners also score a bunch of swag and a $50 gift card, which we anticipate will be spent on some Sexual Chocolate.
Release: March 8, 2014
Unlike other annual releases, Tampa, Florida-based Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Day event requires one flat, $50 entry fee. Once you’re one of the 3,500 to get through gates, you can sample as many beers as you like. Bottles of this famed aged, imperial stout, which boasts ingredients like cacao nibs, ancho and pasilla chiles, cinnamon, and Madagascar vanilla beans, will be sold in limited quantities. Just get your tickets in advance as they’re in high demand. Cigar City’s website promises that details are coming soon.
Thanks to Deschutes’ wide distribution and established brew pubs in both Portland and their hometown of Bend, Ore., scoring a pour of this fantastic, potent sour brown ale doesn’t require quite as much mad planning as some of the other beers on this list. And that’s a good thing. The beer had been offered pretty sporadically, but starting this year, it’ll be an annual release, typically arriving with the warmer weather of spring. The Dissident is the brewery’s only wild yeast beer, aged for 18 months in Pinot and cab barrels. The use of Brett delivers a satisfying pucker, and the boozy 11.4% ABV perhaps makes its limited release a quiet blessing because you’ll probably want to drink it every damn day.
Release: Mid-September (Typically)
All of the beers on this list are labors of love, but Pittsburgh-based East End adds a personalized touch to their annual Gratitude Barley Wine release with beautiful, hand-printed silk-screen labels on the bottle, each signed and numbered by the brewer. A different color of wax around the bottle’s neck denotes which year the beer was released. They typically release this 11.4% American-style barley wine on the anniversary of the brewery, but the 2011 and 2012 weren’t carbonated, and thus not made readily available. So, there are no guarantees—save that both the beer and the packaging will be stunning if you can get a bottle. As with most barley wines, the beverage will only improve with age, a slightly ironic footnote to the mad rush of scoring one.
Release: Last Tuesday of October
Named after both that dark day in the Great Depression and the chaotic and unfortunate circumstance that befell the brewery the first day it was brewed, this is one seriously complex, boozy imperial stout. The ABV of previous releases hover around 18.5%, and it delivers an intense experience of rich caramel, toasted malt, vanilla, and burnt sugar. And that’s just for starters. Yet the alcohol itself remains perfectly masked in the layered flavors. The bottles are sold from The Bruery’s website and ship to California residents. The rest of us have to arrange to pick up our bottles at their Placentia tasting room before the year ends.
Bells Hopslam India Pale Ale, Alesmith Barrel Aged Speedway, Hair of the Dog Cherry Adam From The Wood, Pelican Brewery Mother of All Storms, Lost Abbey’s Angels’ Share, Founders KBS, Highland Cold Mountain Ale,