HE WAS COMING for me. “Want the last pour of Isabelle Proximus?”

It may seem odd that a person I’d officially met only hours ago was offering me a glass of this highly coveted beer, but our online trading and posting history had forged a strong bond. Besides, it was Dark Lord Day — the beer geek equivalent of a marathon. A day of sharing, of generosity, of putting faces to names. So I didn’t hesitate in passing that pour of Izzy along to another friend who’d never tried it, and seeing his eyes light up made my day. This is what our little hobby is all about: sharing the things we love with those whose company we enjoy.

Dark Lord Day is just one of the many specialty beer release parties taking place across the country every year, albeit the largest. These “brewery only” releases are a celebration of creativity, showcasing the best offerings from each establishment. Bottles of the limited-release brews are only available for sale at the brewery itself, and are typically only available on this one special day each year. If extra stock is retained, bottles are sold for on-site consumption only at the brewpub, though this is more the exception than the rule. Each brewery approaches their event differently, as batch size and local flavor are equally important in shaping these celebrations.

1. Ananke (Freetail Brewing, San Antonio, TX)

Style: American Sour Ale, ~6% ABV
Details: A soured golden ale aged in wine barrels. With two well-received batches and one raspberry variant under their belt, Freetail’s flagship sour proves it can hang with the big boys.
When: Spring, annually.
MARS[1]: 3

Falling into the lighter side of the style, this oak-aged American sour is tart, crisp, and refreshing. Boldness of the flavors subsides quickly, finishing dry and just a tad watery. Yeast imparts more citric flavor than raw funk, and this affords Ananke an inoffensive, easily approachable flavor profile friendly to those unfamiliar with the style. The raspberry variant ramps up the sourness considerably, holding true to the nature of its added fruit. Aroma is a bold raspberry puree with acidic funk undertones. Soft fruity sweetness in the middle. Much more in-your-face than the base, and likewise better suited for the more experienced drinkers in your household.

2. Barrel Aged Speedway (Alesmith, San Diego, CA)

Style: Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, ~12% ABV
Details: Every few years, Alesmith sends a portion of its popular Speedway Stout to age in bourbon barrels for a full year.
When: Winter, every 2-3 years.

I’ve been fortunate enough to try the 2003, 2009, and 2012 vintages of BA Speedway in the past year, and I’m convinced 2012 is the best batch they’ve made thus far. Big, black, and full of roasty malt, this behemoth shows maturity that simply isn’t obtainable by aging your bottle of regular Speedway Stout. Similar to the base, however, the coffee still doesn’t present itself as strongly as it should in a stout this big, but the other qualities on display are more than good enough to ignore this minor gripe. Chocolate sits on your palate for days, massaging your taste buds until your brain reminds you not to drink the whole bottle.

3. Barrel Select Series (Captain Lawrence Brewing, Elmsford, NY)

Style: American Wild Ale, ~6% to ~10% ABV
Details: A multitude of different barrels and fruits have made their way into Captain Lawrence’s Barrel Select collection over the years. These are often blends of their other sours, such as Cuvee de Castleton. Low bottle counts and extreme demand from the NYC and Philly areas forced a change in policy at the new Captain Lawrence brewery in Elmsford: Sours will now be sold by “ghost release” only. Their newest brews are now released at the brewpub without prior notice.
When: Only the Captain himself knows.

The latest release in the series, Barrel Select Brown Sour Cherry, is a darker American sour aged in French oak with locally grown cherries. The ruby-brown hues emit a freshly picked fruit aroma amidst soured yeast and bacteria. Strong oak presence on the palate couples with puckering tartness briefly before fading to a dry, mildly bitter finish. This bottle has serious aging potential.

4. Beatification (Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA)

Style: American Wild Ale, ~6% ABV
Details: Beatification is one of the precious few American sours to rely on 100% spontaneous fermentation. First batch was aged in spent La Folie barrels from New Belgium Brewing.
When: No set schedule. 5 batches so far: 2006, two in 2008, two in 2012.
MARS: 4-6, depending on batch size.

Batch 5 pours a hazy, golden yellow and a full finger of fluffy white head. Nose brings the funk stronger than a James Brown album: dirty yeast, wild barnyard blankets, earth & grass, musty cheese, soured fruits. Just wonderful. Sharply tart, funky, and quite sour from the start. Swishing the liquid around my mouth incites a grainy, slightly tingly texture or sensation unique to this brew. Puckering sourness lingers as it finishes clean and dry. An exceptional American-style sour.

5. Black Tuesday (The Bruery, Placentia, CA)

Style: Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, ~19% ABV
Details: This massive imperial stout is aged for a full year in bourbon barrels before the annual release party. Named for the miserable day of brewing suffered by Patrick Rue his first time brewing this monster in 2008.
When: October, annually.

The 2012 vintage boasts a massive roasted malt base, on top of which caramelized booze, bourbon, vanilla cake icing, chocolate, and toffee sit in layers. Alcoholic content is high, yes, but it integrates quite well into the overall flavor profile of the brew. A hearty, warming drink — as one should expect from a stout this strong — which is far too drinkable for its strength. As fantastic as this beer is, it falls quite short when compared to the first batch (2009 release). It’s doubtful the magic of that particular batch can ever be recreated since its brewing involved a series of unrepeatable mini-catastrophes, but here’s hoping they get close someday.

6. Cable Car (Lost Abbey, San Marcos, CA)

Style: American Wild Ale, ~7% ABV
Details: Brewed exclusively for the Toronado bars in San Francisco and San Diego, this small-batch sour is released to insatiable demand. Bottles occasionally remain behind the bar at both locations for on-site consumption only — if you ask nicely.
When: October/November, annually.

Cable Car 2012 pours a hazy golden/yellow body with white head. Its aroma bursts with lactic bacteria and a soured grain funkiness that I didn’t remember from previous years. Oaky citrus on the palate initially, supported by a host of sensations from the yeast: Granny Smith apples, plain yogurt, lemons. Minimally funky/cheesy. Finishes crisp, clean, and dry. Clearly follows the American-style of sour brewing, and it ranks among the very best. 2011’s single-year departure to the Kriek style was even more impressive and remains one of the absolute best beers I’ve ever tasted.

7. Cherry Adam From The Wood (Hair of the Dog, Portland, OR)

Style: Barrel Aged Old Ale, ~10% ABV
Details: A variant of the excellent Adam From The Wood, Cherry Adam is aged with black cherries in bourbon and sherry casks for 15 months. And while regular AftW has only been released twice since 2001, CAftW recently saw its fourth release in five years. Available for on-site consumption at the brewpub.
When: November, annually.

There’s no getting around it: Cherry Adam is an ugly beer. The 2011 vintage is red in color and completely flat with legs that stick to the sides of my glass like red wine. In fact, one could easily mistake this brew for red wine based on appearance alone. Aroma holds malty cherries and brandy — not too intense, but it’s interesting. Your first sip changes everything as cherry-soaked malts mingle with brandy, dark fruits, caramel, leathery undertones, booze, and a multitude of other subtleties. Big, chewy mouthfeel with zero carbonation. 2012 is adequately carbonated and suppresses the cherry maltiness in favor of a stronger leathery backbone. A unique example of American creativity in brewing, and it’s one of this author’s personal favorites.

8. Churchill’s Finest Hour (Port Brewing Company, San Marcos, CA)

Style: Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, ~11% ABV
Details: A fairly small release at the brewpub in San Marcos. Each year’s batch is a slightly different blend of barrel-aged stouts.
When: March, annually.

The barrel character in 2012 Churchill’s is not subtle: This stout was aged in bourbon barrels, and it makes damn sure you know that. Yet, despite its intensity, the profile of this bourbon is soft, rounded, and smooth. Toffee and caramel round things out, layering gently atop the already-complex base. Best vintage they’ve made yet. There really isn’t anything unique about this beer’s components; it’s the integration of flavors that truly shines. Many, many breweries make bourbon barrel aged stouts these days, but precious few of them will ever come close to one with this level of polish.

9. Dark Lord (Three Floyds Brewing, Munster, IN)

Style: Imperial Stout, ~15% ABV
Details: Dark Lord is the biggest and most widely known of all limited releases, and it’s one of the oldest too. Imagine you and 5,000 of your best beer friends drinking specially selected craft beers all day long in a small Indiana town. That’s Dark Lord Day, Three Floyds’ annual party featuring impressive tap lists and heavy metal bands. Tickets are required to attend the fest, and they sell out online almost instantly. Once inside, you receive a second ticket with a scratch-off section. Winners of this lottery gain the privilege of buying a bottle of Barrel Aged DL for $50 in addition to their DL allotment.
When: Last weekend of April, annually.
MARS: 2, or 6-9 for Barrel Aged DL, depending on the variant.

2010: Big, sweet aroma with healthy amounts of vanilla, coffee, chocolate, and roasty malts all hitting the olfactory senses before its viscous body carries everything onto the palate. Very sweet with an unusually high amount of fermentable sugars means it ages well.

Although DL is a polarizing beer, the Barrel Aged versions are universally lauded as world-class stouts, particularly the variants aged on vanilla beans. And having tasted every variant of BA DL released to date, I can assure you this hype is warranted.

10. Darkness (Surly Brewing, Brooklyn Center, MN)

Style: Imperial Stout, ~10% ABV
Details: This brewery in the suburbs of Minneapolis hosts a giant release party every year for Darkness Day. Grab a couple of your favorite bottles and jump in line with a few thousand of your best friends as early as 10pm the night before!
When: October, annually.

2011 vintage: Black as night. Pours a generous amount of dark tan head with the retention of a champ. Coats my glass with plenty of lace. Smooth and resilient start to finish. Tons of roasted malt and bittersweet chocolate at every turn. Hints of dark fruits in the middle, then boozy warmth and more baker’s chocolate as you swallow. Full, smooth body pairs well with the soft carbonation. Some of the older vintages (specifically 2007 & 2009) are actually quite hoppy, but the overriding theme of Darkness is its simplicity. This isn’t a complex stout like Hunahpu’s or Black Tuesday; instead, Surly focuses on a single characteristic and nails it.

11. Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, FL)

Style: Imperial Stout, ~11% ABV
Details: In Mayan mythology, Hunahpu gave cocoa to the Mayans. Hunahpu’s Day has grown tremendously since the inaugural event in 2010. This is their Marshal Zhukov Imperial Stout aged on cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, chiles, and cinnamon.
When: Second week of March, annually. Variants of Barrel Aged Huna are sold later in the year (September in 2011, July in 2012).
MARS: 3, or 7+ for BA Hunahpu.

2011 vintage: True to the base beer, Huna dribbles from the bottle with an uncommonly viscous body. Taste and aroma are both rich and complex, with different flavors dominating each. Nose yields boatloads of chiles with cinnamon & vanilla accents. An abundance of flavors flows across the palate with each sip. At its core, this is a supremely dark, roasty stout with chocolate accents. Chiles are barely present. A torrent of vanilla flows forth without imparting sweetness. Cinnamon adheres to the back of my throat as it descends. A touch of boozy warmth follows, leaving behind a cinnamon-vanilla aftertaste. I’m generally not a fan of chiles in beer, but their place in this beer really works — this is my favorite non-BA stout, hands down. Hunahpu is a marvelous beer and a unique drinking experience that every serious beer geek needs to try.

12. Imperial Russian Stout (Southampton Publick House, Southampton, NY)

Style: Imperial Stout, ~10% ABV
Details: Despite being one of the lesser-known brews on this list, Southampton’s Imperial Russian Stout ain’t no slouch. Those in the know make the trek to the eastern tip of Long Island for one of the most laid-back releases in the country. Cross your fingers that their quality won’t dip after the departure of head brewer Phil Markowski last year.
When: January, annually.

2012 vintage: Rich, silky black liquid pours from the tap into an oversized serving glass, bringing a fully charged chocolate aroma with it. A sturdy backbone of roasted malt and baker’s chocolate floats across my palate, finishing dry with hearty alcoholic warmth. Body is big and creamy; the low level of carbonation helps it go down easily. A bit too hot fresh; even six months of age really helped to mellow the booziness. Nothing fancy here — just a really well-executed, non-BA stout. And the 2012 is drinking great right now!

13. Kate the Great (Portsmouth Brewing, Portsmouth, NH)

Style: Imperial Stout, ~12% ABV
Details: The historic New England coast town of Portsmouth typically hosts Kate Day the first week in March, although 2013’s release was put on hiatus when head brewer Todd Mott left. This event has outgrown the brewery’s capacity in recent years, prompting the introduction of scratch-off lottery tickets sold in the weeks prior to the release. Proceeds from the tickets benefit local charities.
When: March, annually; recently suspended indefinitely.

[Disclaimer: Although I have experience with multiple (if not every) vintage of the other items on this list, my sole outing with Kate was the 2012 vintage in May of last year. I hear the previous vintages are significantly better; this review only applies to the most recent batch.]

The 2012 version brought with it some controversial appearance changes. Smaller bottle size aside, the new label is just hideous. Fortunately, the beer itself looks pretty sharp: dark and ominous with plenty of white, fluffy head up top. Aroma is rather standard for an imperial stout and doesn’t stand out in any remarkable way.

Unfortunately, the taste is similarly uneventful. The basics of a good imperial stout are all present, yet the craftsmanship is noticeably inferior to the other straightforward imperial stouts on this list. Darkness and Southampton’s IRS both rely on similarly “simple” recipes, yet produce a superior result. Don’t get me wrong: Kate is quite tasty, but she can’t compete with the big kids on the block.

14. LeBleu (Ithaca Brewing, Ithaca, NY)

Style: American Wild Ale, ~5.4% ABV
Details: The folks at Ithaca have released 3 batches of this blueberry sour with one more currently in barrels. An uncertain future looms, however, since head brewer Jeff O’Neil left shortly thereafter.
When: When it’s ready.

For a sour brewed with blueberries, this sure doesn’t look much like the fruit. Batches 1 & 2 are dark yellow/orange in color with high carbonation. The most recent batch is a little more rosy, but certainly not blue. Dry, zesty lemon aroma; yeast is more citric than funky. Bright, excessive carbonation reveals a mild fruity presence on my taste buds. Which fruit, you ask? Well that’s quite tough to decipher, truth be told, as I’d never guess this were a blueberry beer had I not read the label. Newer batches hold more fruit than the older ones, but overall this simply isn’t as refined as other fruit-forward sours being produced these days.

15. Mother Of All Storms (Pelican Pub & Brewery, Pacific City, OR)

Style: English Barleywine, ~14% ABV
Details: Lovers of the English Barleywine style look forward to winter in anticipation of this special brew. Originally known as The Perfect Storm when introduced back in 2008, it’s a bourbon barrel aged version of Stormwatcher’s Winterfest Barleywine.
When: November, annually.

2012’s version pours a much darker color than every previous year of MoaS: very dark brown with significantly more head than before. Caramely aroma, strongly malty, a kiss of dark fruits to round things out. Black licorice, raisins, brown sugar, and molasses join the caramel train across my palate. Meadows of malts are a safe haven for all things barleywine-esque. This is a clear departure from previous vintages of MoaS, and I like what they’ve done with the place. Excited to see how it develops with age.

16. Pliny the Younger (Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA)

Style: Triple IPA, ~11% ABV
Details: In the middle of wine country lies one of the best breweries in the world. Sour program aside, owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo is credited with inventing the Double/Imperial IPA style. The popularity of Pliny the Elder sparked them to brew a special, even hoppier version once per year. Younger is a limited release available exclusively on draft on the West Coast, in Denver, and in Philadelphia. And if you think you can get a growler fill, you’re dreaming.
When: February, annually.
MARS: ∞ (Younger isn’t bottled, and growlers are simply out of the question).

2013 batch: Massively hopped! Pine and fresh hops, almost a woody aroma. Malt in the base, but honestly not as much as I’d expect for an IPA this big, as the malty profile struggles to contain Younger’s strong hop presence. Finishes slightly boozy with hop resin on the palate as it descends, though it doesn’t bite with bitterness like its underlings might. Really tasty overall; significantly better than Elder. In today’s world filled with first-class IPAs from Alpine, Hill Farmstead, and Kern River, Younger proves Russian River is still relevant.

17. Sexual Chocolate (Foothills Brewing, Winston-Salem, NC)

Style: Imperial Stout, ~10% ABV
Details: Winter at the Foothills brewery is marked by winter frost, fresh snow, and ’70s funk-inspired bottles of an imperial stout infused with chocolate.
When: January, annually. A bourbon barrel aged version is released over the summer.

2012 batch: Dry baker’s chocolate in the nose with supporting notes of roasted malt. Chocolate malt and bittersweet baking chocolate show up again on the palate. Rich and creamy body, though not quite as full-bodied as its peers. BA Sexual Chocolate delivers similar goods with a very barrel-forward flavor profile. The base gets a bit overwhelmed by the barrel, however, which is why I prefer regular Sexual Chocolate. A tasty release that delivers a solid B+ across the board.

18. Various Hill Farmstead Releases (Hill Farmstead, Greensboro, VT)

Style: Saison, Imperial Stout, American Wild Ale
Details: Yes, this one isn’t quite the same as the other releases listed, but I’m willing to make an exception for Hill Farmstead. Shaun Hill’s brewery is widely recognized as one of the best in the world despite only turning 3 this coming May, and that’s not an accident. A surprising amount of the beer they produce contends for best-of-style accolades on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, and anyone who’s made a journey to the Middle Of Nowhere, Vermont knows why.
When: Their two annual festivals are typically held in May and August.
MARS: 6 to 9

What to look for this year:

  • Civil Disobedience #6 – A blend of their saison Art and “our favorite Belgian lambics.”
  • Double Barrel Damon – HF’s flagship imperial stout aged 1 year in port barrels, 1 year in bourbon barrels.
  • Flanders Red – Brewed in collaboration with Cambridge Brewing back in April 2011, this sour has been aging in wine and port barrels ever since.
  • Flora – Wheat saison aged in wine barrels.
  • Spontaneously Fermented Ale – The brewery’s first foray into the world of traditional sours still doesn’t have a name, but expect its release before the end of summer.
19. Various Upland Sours (Upland Brewing, Bloomington, IN)

Style: American Wild Ale, ~6% ABV
Details: Few would suspect a college town in rural Indiana is home to one of the leading sour programs in the country. Their fruited, American-style lambics are some of the best produced anywhere. Bi-annual releases require you to win an online lottery to secure a bottle — you can no longer show up on the release date hoping to bring one home. Upland’s sours come in many varieties, using both common fruits like raspberries and peaches to more specialty harvests, such as kiwi and persimmon. Their Sour Reserve (American-style Gueuze) and Gilgamesh (Flanders Red) have also received praise from both the beer community and their industry.
When: No set dates; join their email list.

Kiwi Lambic pours a murky (and honestly ugly) gold-orange hue with a surprising amount of fruity pulp in the mix. Pungent aroma of freshly squeezed fruit and funky yeast lets you know this one’s gonna be tart. Slightly oaky. Fresh tropical fruits lead the way, puckering sourness spurs up as the funky yeast makes itself known. Huge salvo of fruit and acidity assault my palate. Pulpy kiwi solids mingle around my mouth. Finish is a touch watery, though, which is true to its kiwi roots but remains ever so slightly disappointing. Steer clear if you dislike enamel-melting sourness. Otherwise, Kiwi is the strongest offering from Upland yet.

20. Zwanze (Cantillon, Brussels, Belgium)

Style: Fruit Lambic, ~5% ABV
Details: Effectively exclusive to draft — only a handful of bottles are made each year and given as personal gifts to friends of the brewer. Kegs are tapped simultaneously worldwide on Zwanze Day at a select number of bars around the world for a uniquely communal experience.
When: Typically September, though 2012’s batch wasn’t ready until December.
MARS: 10

Zwanze 2012 saw a return to the original recipe with rhubarb as the fruit of choice. Golden-amber body, not much head. Dry, fruity, slightly vegetal aroma. Soured fruits meet the palate with high acidity — considerably more so than most fresh Cantillon fruit lambics, likely due to rhubarb’s inherent tartness. I enjoyed this past year’s version the most of any vintage, likely because of how well-suited rhubarb is for lambic. If you’re fortunate enough to live in (or near!) a city with a Zwanze Day bar, don’t squander the opportunity.

    [1] MARS = Matador Arbitrary Rarity Scale: an arbitrary 1-10 scale which denotes a beer’s relative worth on the trading market. Signifies this author’s personal view of how rare each bottle is relative to other limited release beers.