02 April 2010

The Session: Cult Beers

This week's Session comes from Beer Search Party and is about cult beers.

With Kate the Great Day a recent memory and the day of the Dark Lord fast approaching, I started thinking about what beer or beers that I would get up at 4:00 in the morning, drive across state lines, stand in a long unmoving line in the cold and rain for the chance to taste with a crowd the size of Woodstock.

So here is my question to you (with a couple addendums).

What beer have you tasted recently (say, the last six months or so) that is worthy of their own day in the media sun?

And to add a little extra to it, how does “great” expectations affect your beer drinking enjoyment?

AND If you have attended one of these release parties, stories and anecdotes of your experience will be welcomed too.
I haven't attended any big beer release dates, as I'm not much for huge crowds (even huge crowds of mostly-like-minded beer geeks), and I've just generally had other obligations on the days that these kinds of things occur. But I started thinking, what's a cult beer? A beer that gets a few hundred or thousand beer geeks a-Twittering and salivating over their keyboards in anticipation, or a beer that serves to unite an entire region of a state, a beer for all ages, for men and women, a beer that is equally enjoyed by executives, grandparents, college students, and pudgy bearded guys like myself alike?


Okay, so it may not get my juices flowing like the most recent single-batch barrel-aged Belgian sour stout fermented with aged cherries (or whatever) might, but how many American-style Pale Wheat Ales are even drinkable by beer aficionados, much less respected? I mean, there's Gumbalhead, and there's Oberon, and maybe I'll give you Widmer Hefe, and that's about it. Oberon's sweet but not cloying, crisp but smooth, cloudy with yeast but not chewy, and every year it's just a little bit different just to keep things interesting. And it accounts for nearly half of Bell's yearly sales, which definitely helps them to stay afloat and produce the more beer-geeky products they produce, like Expedition and Batch 9000 and the Oracle and all the wonderful small-batch stuff they don't even bottle.

And in Kalamazoo, the release of this sucker is an event. People were calling my store weeks in advance asking when we'd have it, and every bar in town will be serving it all the way into early November, when it goes off-season again. Release parties are held where local bars start tapping pints at midnight, serving customers who resemble all those enthusiasts standing in line waiting for Star Wars Episode One a decade ago. Without the costumes. (I think.) My store has put it on sale for $7.99 for the first month or so after release, and we've sold a hundred cases or so just in the last week.

One of the things I love about beer is how local brewing usually is, how microbreweries generally respond to their immediate neighbors first and worry about the rest of the world later. Microbreweries are tiny businesses run by passionate people making products to serve local demand, and only in Southwest Michigan (or someplace very like it) can a beer like this exist. After four or five months of constant snow cover, of below-freezing temperatures and the Lake Effect and icy roads and a general haze that blocks out the sun and drives most of the population just a little bit crazy, those first days of spring are a herald, a reminder that warmth and sunlight have not been banished but have merely been hiding. People here appreciate the warm days in ways that a Southern boy like me never could, because they live under conditions under which there are just so few really warm days.

And Oberon is a marker of spring, of that return of livable weather, in the same way that the coming of ice cream trucks heralds the beginning of summer. Bright, citrusy flavors dominate, with a light body and an oh-so-refreshing finish. Even the bottle has a cartoon sun, almost a smiling way of commemorating the end of winter and the beginning of something new. Even I got caught up in the momentum of Oberon release, visiting the brewery around noon on the day of release, just to get a fresh taste of this year's batch, as it's always best just when the brewery releases it. Later batches are good, but somehow just not the same.

So what's a cult beer? How about a beer that worships the sun? That good enough for you?

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