Buying Beer, Part 4: Beers Worth Standing in Line For

Buying Beer: The Series So Far

Part 1: Beers For Everyday Drinking
Part 2: Readily-Available Beers That Can Be Aged
Part 3: Seasonal & Limited Beers

Many craft beer drinkers are done with waiting in long lines in the heat or cold for a particular style. It’s just not as necessary now as it used to be. First of all, over the past few years, several brands that were formerly not available at all in Texas can now be bought in Houston. Even The Bruery in Anaheim has started shipping its sought-after, funky creations to Austin.

“The fact of the matter is, Texas has so much more beer than we had years ago that it’s no longer necessary to wait in lines for most things,” said Spec’s beer manager Joey Williams. “Years ago, beers like Brooklyn Black Ops, any of the Deschutes Reserve Series and many of the Stone limited-release or collaboration beers justified a line based on supply and demand. Additionally, you couldn’t readily find beers like these on the shelves. Today, walking into any corner, grocery or liquor store, you’re met with a sea of worthy beers that don’t require you to wait in line.” (Parts One, Two and Three of this beer series discuss these readily available, quality brews just waiting to be grabbed.)

All that said, there are a few beers that are still worth standing in line for — and some of them are made right here in Houston. Thanks goes to the members of the Houston Let’s Talk Craft Beer Facebook group, who were instrumental in helping with this list. 

The most popular (or perhaps notorious) beer line happens on Black Friday at the Spec’s downtown. Williams says it’s about bringing the craft beer community together as much as it is about the beer.

On that chilly morning, Spec’s arranges for hot coffee or hot chocolate to help keep customers warm. Williams says, “Last year the line started at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. That means some of these people waited outside of a liquor store in downtown Houston 16 hours for beer! But it was for a 20-foot-long table loaded with beers not easily obtainable otherwise, some only available in that store on that day. Each year the selection changes, but it is something we work all year to build and make worth the line. I both hate and love this day. I get to see some of my favorite people and spend a short time catching up with them over beer — even if we’re not drinking it.”

The beer they are most likely lining up for is the first in our list — and it's also the most controversial.

Goose Island Bourbon County Brand

Whether this one is still worth standing in line for is a topic of hot debate. Williams says Goose Island, of Chicago, started the barrel-aged craze with its Bourbon County brand. The once moderately sized brewery was bought by giant distributor Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011, and craft beer experts argue about whether it can still be called a craft beer. Still, though, plenty of drinkers lined up for it last year on Black Friday.

The base beer is Bourbon County Brand Stout, but there are a few variants that are scarcer and even more sought after. There’s also a coffee-infused version and a barleywine. In 2014, a vanilla-infused rendition was released, while in 2015, the “chase beer” was Bourbon County Brand Regal Rye, which was the Bourbon County Brand Stout aged in rye whiskey barrels with blackberries, Luxardo candied cherries, fresh sour cherries and sea salt.

This past year, though, so many beer drinkers complained about off flavors in Bourbon County Brand Coffee and Bourbon County Brand Barleywine that the company offered refunds.

Last year, The Hay Merchant's owner, Kevin Floyd (who has also contributed heavily to this series, including this installment), hosted a Black Friday rebellion, putting forth a bevy of rare bottled beers for purchase that weren’t Bourbon County Brand Stout, a beer he previously supported. That was right up until Anheuser-Busch started bashing craft beer in its Super Bowl commercials

Saint Arnold Brewing Company Divine Reserve

The sixteenth release in this series will hit store shelves on Leap Day, February 29. The style of beer changes from one release to the next. Some of Saint Arnold’s most popular beers have resulted from the success of the Divine Reserve series. Endeavor, a double IPA, began life as Divine Reserve 11. Spice-laden Pumpkinator, one of the most sought-after fall beers in Houston, was originally released in 2009 as Divine Reserve No. 9.

Divine Reserve No. 16 is a rather esoteric style called an Adambier. Williams says it is, “a dead German style that was brought back by Alan Sprints of Portland, Oregon’s Hair of the Dog. It’s a strong, dark German-style ale that presents similarly to an English old ale with the possibilities of smoke or tartness. It’s a great and exciting platform for a brewer to flex their creative muscles and knowing the characters working in the brew house at Saint Arnold, you can be assured that I would make a concerted effort to find this beer, line or not.”

Saint Arnold Brewing Company Bishop’s Barrel

One of the prime differences between Saint Arnold’s Bishop’s Barrel and Divine Reserve series is that Bishop’s Barrel is, as the name indicates, barrel-aged. Another big difference is that it’s trickier to buy bottles to take home because it’s not distributed to retail stores, only bars and restaurants. So, the key is to find a bar or restaurant that does not also have a full liquor license, only a beer and wine one. Thanks to the intricacies of TABC regulations, that is the only type of establishment also allowed to sell sealed bottles for off-premise consumption.

Here’s a list of places I personally have landed bottles of Bishop’s Barrel to take home: Star Pizza, Brix Wine Cellars, D&T Drive Inn and The Hay Merchant. Note that some merchants require some other type of on-site purchase by a customer who wants to buy the beer. Star Pizza, for example, requires a food purchase. Also, there’s a purchase limit per customer — usually only one or two bottles.

The 13th in the series is scheduled to be released in February. It’s the same Belgian quadruple recipe that was used for Divine Reserve 13. This time, though, it’s been aged a year in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels.

Karbach Brewing Co. Bourbon Barrel Aged Hellfighter (BBH)

BBH also appeared in Part 3 of our beer series as a seasonal release to seek, and it’s worth lining up for, too. Williams says, “Nothing Karbach has done has been as exciting for consumers as their Bourbon Barrel Hellfighter and its variations. The Internet forums have been alight with talks of BBH being as good, or better, than many of the best barrel-aged beers out there. It’s everything you could want in a big, roasty imperial porter aged in boozy, vanilla and charred oak-laced bourbon barrels. I’m partial to bourbon in my coffee, and this is very much a beer version of that cup of joy.” The next one in the series, a chocolate-infused version, is set to be released soon, if not this month then the next.

Clown Shoes Hephaestus

It hasn’t been released yet, but this is a beer Houstonians will want to keep an eye out for. Hephaestus, named for the blacksmith of the gods, is a Russian imperial stout that incorporates espresso brewed by Blacksmith coffee shop. (Click here to read the full story on how this beer was created.) Greenway Coffee’s Finca Santa Barbara beans from El Salvador were used for the espresso.

Adding coffee or espresso to beer is not a unique idea. What is unique about this beer is the care that was used to preserve the integrity of the espresso. After 1,000 shots of espresso were pulled, they were vacuum-sealed, degassed and then shipped overnight to the brewery. In December, The Hay Merchant offered patrons a taste of the unaged beer. The final opportunity for that will happen during its anniversary party on February 18. After that, the next time Hephaestus will show up is as a finished, barrel-aged product in bottles.

Firestone Walker Parabola

The Hay Merchant proprietor Kevin Floyd says he doesn’t have to stand in line for beer (bar ownership has its privileges) but, if he did, he’d stand in line for three Firestone Walker beers. First up is Parabola, a full-bodied Russian imperial oatmeal stout that’s been aged one year in bourbon barrels from Elijah Craig, Four Roses, Pappy Van Winkle, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. It’s then blended. The result is roasted and malty with bourbon and vanilla notes. It’s a limited release that sells out very quickly, so if you hear it’s available, run, don’t walk.

Firestone Walker Sucaba

Technically, the name is spelled “§ucaba,” but then we wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. The beer was originally named Abacus, but then ZD Wines forced a name change because it had trademarked the name for its Cabernet Sauvignon. (Really? Someone is going to confuse beer for wine?) Firestone Walker likely used a section mark symbol instead of an “S” to ensure there would be no further trouble.

The latest version of §ucaba, a barrel-aged barleywine, was released on January 16, 2016. The big, boozy beer is for sipping, not quaffing. The American oak barrels used for aging have a strong presence tempered by malty, chocolate undertones. Other tasting notes include tobacco, coconut and dark cherry. Firestone Walker says this is a beer “built for aging.”

Firestone Walker Anniversary Blend

Floyd says that among all the coveted, limited-release Firestone Walker offerings, this one is the best. The brewery brings in expert winemakers to blend the beer and changes what they are or are not allowed to incorporate. In years past, some of the brewery’s hoppier beers, such as Wookey Jack, were added to the blend. However, for the most recent offering, the 19th in the series, brewmaster Matt Brynildson wanted to get back to basics and use only barrel-aged beers. The latest release only incorporates Parabola, Stickee Monkee, Bravo, and Velvet Merkin in various incarnations pulled from 235 different barrels.

Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Narwhal

The base version of Narwhal, an imperial stout, also appeared in Buying Beer, Part 3: Seasonal and Limited Beers. This is that same beer, this time aged in bourbon barrels. The aging contributes a great deal of depth and many nuanced flavors including tobacco, chocolate, spiced rum and toffee. There’s a bit of hop bitterness that keeps all the dark flavor notes in balance.

Deschutes Brewery The Abyss

The Abyss, another imperial stout, has been a favorite among beer collectors for years for cellaring, although drinking it upon release is good, too. So, buy two bottles: one for now and one for later. It’s a complex brew of six different types of malt and four kinds of hops. Tasting notes include molasses and licorice. Drinkers who managed to land extra bottles of this should check out the brownie and chocolate truffles recipes on the brewery's website (and invite us over).

Jester King Atrial Rubicite

Austin brewery Jester King created Atrial Rubicite by aging sour beer in oak barrels and then adding raspberries. It’s a farmhouse-style ale that is unfiltered and unpasteurized and has a distinctive ruby hue. It was the first of the brewer's sour beers to incorporate fruit. There’s a sherry-barrel aged variant well worth seeking out, too.

Founders Brewing Co. KBS

KBS is Founders's limited-release version of its Kentucky Breakfast Stout. The beer, brewed with “a massive amount” of chocolate and coffee, is aged in oak barrels in a cave for a year. The 2016 release is scheduled for April.

Avery Brewing Company Uncle Jacob’s Stout

This massive beer usually ends up around 16.7 percent ABV. It was the second barrel-aged beer Avery ever made. (Rumpkin, another highly sought-after brew, was the first.) It’s generally released in February, but Williams says this year’s version hasn’t arrived quite yet. Avery’s website says it’s named for Jacob Spears, a distiller in the 1790s who is credited as the first distiller to label his whiskey “bourbon.” This is only one of the more coveted barrel-aged Avery beers. In addition to Rumpkin, others to check out include Tweak and the latest release, Pump[KY]n (which was sighted just yesterday at the Whole Foods Champions store).

Come back next week for the fifth installment of our beer series. It’s going to be about which beers to look for while traveling that are not yet available in Texas.