To the craft cognoscenti, big beer producers are sometimes dismissed with an uneasy skepticism. To a degree, this is healthy; the industry could hardly sustain more than 3,000 breweries across the country without feverish support for the upstarts and the so-called little guys. Yet, just because a brewery rises the ranks to national prominence, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s peddling flavorless swill. Craft beer, after all, exists less as a firmly-guarded term (its qualifying parameters continue to evolve every year) than as a philosophy; encompassed by brewers' dedication to quality ingredients and churning out liquid with a sense of purpose and place. Furthermore, no matter how sizable a craft brewery becomes, it’s likely helmed by folks that are still home brewers at heart. Accordingly, even the biggest players in the game continue to experiment with limited edition releases worthy of significant praise. Add exclusivity into the mix, and—more often than not—these beers elicit cultish fervor amongst beer geeks.
Just because a brewery rises to national prominence, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s peddling flavorless swill.
Included below are 10 of the 17 largest beer producers of 2015—who sell northwards of 200,000 barrels a year. While that figure soars above the 15,000 barrels a year your local brewpub is capped at, it’s a drop in the mash tun compared to the approximately 40 million barrels of Budweiser consumed annually. As for the breweries' small releases, most producers are not set to a specific output, and they also don't release those figures (because amounts fluctuate annually). But, figure that about 1 percent, at most, of a brewery's total production could be devoted to a microbrew.
10 Great Small Releases From Big Breweries
In a state dominated by craft breweries, Firestone Walker has emerged as one of California’s most striking success stories. Although the overwhelming preponderance of sales are driven by their easy-drinking 805 blonde, and Union Jack IPA, aficionados line up for their heavy hitting stouts. In 2008, when Firestone released Parabola, the brewery had been in existence for just over a decade. The barrel-aged imperial oatmeal stout now drops annually, every spring. A midnight black behemoth, ranging from 12-14 percent ABV, Parabola spends up to a year in casks formerly occupied by American bourbons no less notorious than Pappy Van Winkle. If you secure a 22 ounce bomber, you’ll want to cellar it for at least a few months, allowing the rich, roasted malt notes to develop in the bottle.
Sierra Nevada essentially conceived the craft category when the brewery released its Pale Ale—all the way back in 1980. Today, it’s one of the most widely consumed craft beers on the planet. In addition to innovating American styles, the brewery took to updating traditional abbey ales in late 2011 with the Ovila series. Produced for centuries in the monasteries of northern France and Belgium, abbey ales are typically characterized by a strong malt backbone, accompanied by slightly spicy, banana-like esters. In conceiving Ovila, Sierra Nevada collaborated with monks from the Abbey of New Clairvaux, in a neighboring Northern Californian town. Late last year they unveiled Quad with Cherries, an elegant, medium-bodied expression brewed with ripened fruit. At 9.2 percent ABV, it’s lighter than the standard Belgian Quad, yet it reveals similar complexities. Bread and peppery yeast—at the forefront of each sip—yield to dark stone fruit in a sustained finish. The limited edition, corked bottle is sold in a three-pack alongside the other recent Ovila offerings: a brown ale with mandarin and cocoa, and a saison brewed with sage.
Nowadays, any craft brewery worth a damn kegs at least one IPA, if not a dozen. Stone Brewing helped launch the trend in 1996 when they established San Diego as hallowed ground for hopheads. Nearly 20 years later, they revolutionized the style yet again, introducing their Enjoy By IPA. It’s an ongoing series with a Drink By date incorporated right into the label. So you’re guaranteed a bottle of something uncompromisingly fresh. The entire endeavor also serves an educative purpose, reminding imbibers that the hallmarks of a fantastic IPA—dank bitterness, and tropical splendor—rapidly disintegrate over time. Since conception in 2012, the brewery has bottled roughly one per month. A recent release was Enjoy By 5.30.16, a 9.4 percent ABV double IPA brewed with puréed tangerines bursting with juiciness. Whatever’s coming up the pike next is likely to be equally as alluring. Just remember to pop it open right away, as prescribed by a brewcare professional.
Samuel Adams Boston Lager is so ubiquitous it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that its parent brewery also directs a respectable amount of resources towards experimentation. Their Barrel Room Collection notably includes Flemish-style reds, and Belgian-inspired Krieks (brewed with cherries and wild yeast strains). But in sheer audacity, the aforementioned are overshadowed by Utopias—a strong ale brewed with maple syrup, that’s earned distinction as one of the most expensive beers ever brought to market. And strong might be a bit of an understatement; the pricey biennial release averages 25 percent in ABV. Devoid of carbonation, Utopias drinks more like a Cognac or port, delivering raisins, molasses and a significant amount of heat. Beyond its singular beer drinking experience, collectors are heartened by Utopias’ iconic packaging: bottled in copper-plated ceramic, fashioned as a miniature mash tun.
Producer: Bell’s Brewery
Total Production : 318,926
Small-Production Release: Black Note
Retail Cost: $24 for a 4-pack of 12oz. bottles
Brewed just once every two years, Black Note is an an irresistibly smooth and creamy 11.4 percent ABV stout that only gets better as it ages in the bottle. All the familiar traits of a bourbon-barrel aged dark ale shine thru in spades; thick cacao, espresso, oak. What separates this one from the pack, aside from excruciating rarity, is a satin-like mouthfeel, shepherding the tongue to a serene landscape of untold bliss. As Bell’s Brewing ascended the ranks, entrenching itself as a top ten craft producer, their flagship brews have become commonplace in bars and bottle shops across the nation. Black Note, however, is seldom seen outside of Michigan. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Ditto, its supernatural drinkability.
Delaware’s largest craft brewery was one of the first to make waves flouting existing convention when they arrived on the scene in 1995. Point in case: 120 Minute IPA. Fancy yourself a hophead, eh? Every April and September, Dogfish Head puts your devotion to the test with this unapologetic palate blaster. To make it, brewers continuously bombard their wort for two hours (hence the name), with the bitterest American hops they can find. As the liquid sits in the fermenter over the subsequent month, they add more hops daily, before the beer is aged a final thirty days atop whole-leaf hops. The finished product, clocking in anywhere between 15 to 20 percent ABV, has attained legendary status throughout the past decade. Beyond the expected bitterness, there’s a syrupy sweetness to each sip, a result of a dizzying amount of residual sugars in every 12 ounce bottle, making it that rare IPA that holds up to bottle-aging.
To reward their impassioned followers, New Belgium Brewing, out of Fort Collins, Colorado, developed Lips of Faith. The ongoing series of smaller releases caters specifically to the advanced beer drinking palate. Built upon whimsical ingredients, and riffs on esoteric styles—such as a Berliner Weisse brewed with yuzu juice—many of the offerings are one and done. Le Terroir, on the other hand, has enjoyed a lasting staying power. A 7.5 percent ABV sour beer patiently aged for two years in the barrel, Le Terroir is dry-hopped for eight days before bottling. The result is a uniquely tart, somewhat oaky number, with surprising depth and lingering complexity. The beer's continued popularity is at least somewhat responsible for kickstarting the dry-hopped sour movement in craft beer today.
Deschutes was born in 1988 as one of Oregon’s first craft brewpubs. Over the ensuing 25 years, they've bloomed into the state’s largest beer producer, propelled by the smashing success of their Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter. With their Reserve Series, they maintain an avenue for envelope-pushing brews, released on a much smaller scale. The crowning achievement: The Abyss—a 12.2 percent ABV barrel-aged imperial stout, released every winter since 2006. Rested for a year in a variety of cooperage, including ex-bourbon and pinot noir casks, the Abyss is brighter than its opaque body and ominous name would suggest. Coffee, bourbon, and vanilla dominate the nose, but in the backend, a patient tongue is rewarded with hints of pine tips and cherry-ridden notes of local Willamette Valley pinot noir. This year’s rendition included two variant—one finished in Cognac barrels, the other in rye whiskey barrels. These beers disappeared from shelves immediately upon arrival. So when next winter approaches, promptly add this one to your wishlist.
Producer: Founders Brewing Co.
Total Production : 193,000
Small-Production Release: CBS Imperial Stout
Retail Cost: $18 for 750ml.
Have you ever seen bigfoot riding a unicorn, in hot pursuit of the chupacabra? Well you’re only slightly more likely to catch a glimpse of this white whale, continually considered one of the world’s highest-rated beer by the folks who rate these kinds of things. It’s also been released outside of the brewery few enough times to count on one hand, and only bottled once—in 2011. A tweaking of Founders’ imminently popular Kentucky Breakfast Stout, the 10.6 percent ABV Canadian variation is brewed with a blend of coffees and foreign chocolates, before maturing in ex-bourbon barrels (subsequently used to age pure Michigan maple syrup) in a cellar eight stories underground. Organic sweetness, robust roast, and deep forest bitterness converge in symphonic unison. Last kegged in 2015, your best bet for seizing a sip is a pilgrimage to the source, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even then, it’s kicked within 20 minutes of unannounced tappings. And, as of now, the brewery has no plans to reintroduce it.
Brooklyn Brewery is the largest craft brewery from the country’s largest city, yet it’s impossible to overstate the impact that Brooklyn Brewery and brewmaster Garrett Oliver have had on American beer in the 21st century. Favorable international distribution has also positioned Brooklyn Brewery, established in 1987, as something of an emissary across the globe, signaling to foreign markets that beer in the States doesn’t have to taste like stale water. The brewery's large format releases, available in 750ml bottles, are less ubiquitous, rewarding those committed to tracking them down. Best in show among them is Sorachi Ace, a 7.2 percent ABV saison that displays the eponymous hop varietal developed in Japan during the 1970s. German malt and Belgian yeast round out the international cast of characters, tying together crispness in body, a refreshing lemony zest, and peppery tickle on the tongue. Sorachi Ace is bottled conditioned, meaning that active yeast is added into the glass before it’s sealed, insuring the beer develops long after it hits the shelves. If their flagship Lager fails to captivate your senses, Sorachi Ace might make you rethink the brewery in a new light.
Editor: Kat Odell