John Otto doesn't visit ChurchKey often, but this was no ordinary happy hour. Otto joined two of his coworkers at the trendy bar in DC's Logan Circle neighborhood the evening it tapped a cask of Bell's Hopslam.
Hopslam quickly became legend among beer nerds when it debuted in the DC area about a decade ago. Nearly as quickly, it earned the nickname "HypeSlam" from cynics who call the beer over-celebrated and over-priced. Even so, DC beer enthusiasts keep their ears perked for news of the seasonal beverage's arrival from Michigan every spring.
"We've been tracking it for a month," Otto said proudly. He followed updates on Twitter and Bell's website, marking his calendar for the beer's advent in DC.
For the second year in a row, he and his friends, Kyle White and Patrick Murray, made a special trip to ChurchKey just to taste the mythical double IPA on cask. It's become a tradition, they say.
"It gives us an excuse to get together," Otto said.
Kyle White agreed. "We talk about it every time we see each other," he added.
But what's so special about Hopslam?
"Because it's limited," White said. "I think it's the hunt. The chase. The reason to have a beer."
Sure, it's a good brew. But a large part of the Hopslam's success has centered on its distribution strategy. It's basic economics: The brewer creates limited quantities to be distributed in certain regions and establishments, beer hunters begin marking their calendars for release dates, and word quickly spreads. Beer drinkers are rewarded with bragging rights, bars and stores turn a profit, and brewers create an intensely loyal—and vocal—community around their brand.
Of course, ChurchKey isn't the only establishment to cash in on the popular brew every spring. If you called up Total Wine in Springfield, Va., they answered the phone, "Yes, we have Hopslam." Cashiers reminded customers that they may only purchase one six-pack each—which may be a good idea, considering the $20 price tag. Some stores sell the beer for as much as $35 for a six-pack, or $6 to $7 for an individual bottle.
And Bell's isn't the only brewery capitalizing on a limited-release beer.
Rarity drives up the perceived value, and the beers become a collector's item on par with comic books or baseball cards, said Benjamin Weiss, director of marketing at The Bruery. The only difference between beer and, say, Beanie Babies is that customers are also collecting experiences.
"It's the event that people are excited about," said Omar Ansari, the owner of Surly Brewing Co. Surly releases its Russian imperial stout, Darkness, in limited quantities once a year on the Saturday before Halloween. Thousands of people attend, Ansari said, with about 1,500 fans camping out the night before.
"It's a huge challenge, because there are a lot of people," Ansari said. "We don't make any more money selling it at the brewery than the liquor store." Yet the event builds buzz and momentum around Surly's brewpub—and it keeps fans happy—so they continue hosting it.
Alex Barbiere, marketing specialist at AleSmith, said their limited-release events have grown in popularity over the last few years. To limit the lines of customers wrapping around the building, they began giving out tickets for popular releases.
"A great beer first and foremost is a delicious beer," Barbiere said. "But when people can't get their hands on a certain beer? The limited bottles that actually hit market are what really increases the demand."
Perhaps the most famous example of the soaring popularity of limited-release beer is found in Santa Rosa, California.
Russian River Brewing Company was founded in 1997, but they didn't catch the attention of limited-release beer enthusiasts until they began brewing Pliny the Younger in the early aughts. It really took off, said owner and brewer Vinnie Cilurzo, in 2010. It's only grown in popularity since, with perfect 100 scores on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer.
"It's 100-percent consumer-driven," Cilurzo said. "I don't think you can create something like this."
For two weeks in February, Russian River opens its doors to fans who travel from all over the world to taste the elusive Younger. For some, it's a onetime lark; for others, an annual pilgrimage. Some people meet while standing in line, have a beer together, and become friends who return the next year, Cilurzo said.
"It becomes very communal," Cilurzo added. The line itself is an event of sorts; the brewery applies for a municipal event permit and provides portable restrooms and trash pickup.
"Honestly, it's a lot of pressure, " Cilurzo said. "Each year, the expectations get greater and greater."
With such high hopes, some drinkers are bound to be disappointed.
Bryan Roth, the blogger behind This Is Why I'm Drunk, called Pliny "one of the White Whales of the beer drinking world."
"People go crazy," he said. Roth acknowledged that the Russian imperial stout is an excellent beer. "But it's also one of the most hyped beers out there, perhaps aided by its very limited distribution range," he argued.
Brewers say they limit beer because of the limitations they themselves face: in procuring ingredients, finding space on the brewery floor, and spending time cultivating the brews. But others argue that if it were a simple matter of limitations, brewers would find a way around the obstacles for such popular items.
"It's completely conscious," said Greg Engert, beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group (which includes ChurchKey, Birch & Barley, Rustico, Bluejacket, and others). "A 100-percent conscious decision."
"Brewers are hyper-aware of scarcity," Engert said, "and creating demand through scarcity."
"Clearly they could have made more if they wanted to," Engert added—especially when it comes to IPAs or imperial stouts. He acknowledged that some factors do limit the production of certain beers: the availability and capacity of barrels for aging; the seasonal timeline of spontaneous fermentation; and the freshness of wet hops available immediately after harvest.
But for the most part, the main driver behind a beer's limited release is the brewer's decision to make it so. "Grain and hops and water and yeast are available year round in every corner of the globe," he said, "so there's always going to be a sort of artificial scarcity bred into the brewing practice."
Yet Engert understands the business acumen involved in limiting the release of certain beers and creating "an annual love affair with a beer."
"You're just generating buzz around your brewery and your brand. Getting people excited again," he said. "It's a really great way to increase your business in an ever-crowded market."
Like Bell's does with Hopslam.
"It's a balancing act," said Laura Bell, vice president of Bell's Brewery.
"It's a labor-intensive beer, and an expensive beer in terms of the ingredients that go into it," she said. "We knew it was not going to be one of those things that we could double every year."
They ran one or two ads in local newspapers, Bell said, but otherwise the buzz has been generated entirely by fans.
"The excitement—and some people call it 'hype'—around it has really been driven by our customers," she said.
But the very fact of its scarcity must affect fans' excitement, right? If you limit it, they will comb UnTappd.
"If Christmas was every day, you would be less excited," Bell pointed out. "It's fun to have those things to look forward to."
Besides, she said, Bell's still has to produce its other flagship beers.
"It's not like you can drop everything at the brewery and only make Hopslam," Bell said. "We could double it next year and we probably wouldn't make everybody happy. You have to pick something and go with it."
And so far, fans seem pretty happy with their plan.
"It's incredible, the demand for this product," she said. "If you'd told us ten years ago that this would happen, we would have laughed."
Like many in the D.C. area, Alex Andujar moved here to work as a federal contractor. "I was not a fan of it," he said diplomatically. So he changed course entirely and became the D.C. and Virginia representative for Bell's Brewery.
"Ever since I've been with Bell's, it's been completely insane around Hopslam," Andujar said.
Does the hype ever set them up for failure? "It's just beer," he said, shrugging. "I'm not saving the world."
Although he said Bell's is limited by the price and availability of Hopslam's ingredients, he acknowledged the practice of limiting beer releases on purpose.
"I'm sure there are some breweries who try to keep it limited," Andujar said. "That way there's the hype behind it."
There's an undeniable advantage to exclusivity, he said—not just collecting the beer, but earning the badge of honor every year.
"The hard-to-get mentality," he said. "The thrill of the hunt, essentially."
The trio of thrilled beer hunters hunched over the bar at ChurchKey seemed satisfied with another year of their beloved Hopslam. "It's great," Kyle White said.
Will they be back next year? "Absolutely," John Otto said. "I will."
Heads nod all around, and the friends pause to sip their beer.