It seems like I hear less tongue-wringing over the inevitable kablammo’ing of the alleged craft beer bubble than I used to. This might mean we’ve decided the beer business is healthier than we’d thought, or it might just mean I’ve been eavesdropping on a more optimistic crowd. But I run in mainly the same circles that I have for the past couple of beer-years, and not much else has changed: People I consort with are still predicting the any-day-now rise of craft pilsner and debating whether hazy IPA brewers should be knighted or jailed, with no option in between. Yet they no longer get nervous about the ever-climbing total of American breweries.
We’re pushing 5,000 now, which seems like a lot until you consider we manage to support approximately that many Dairy Queens, despite the millions of Americans with the misfortune to be lactose intolerant and the many, many more with the good sense to be soft-serve intolerant. Surely we should be producing at least as many brewskis as Blizzards. My dumb guess is that 5,000 is an easily sustainable number; hell, 10,000 or more might be as long as they’re of the right mix of size and ambition.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re going to have the same 5,000 breweries this time next year. Although the newest wave of breweries has been at least as successful as your average small business — every medium-sized town has at least three restaurant spaces that turn over annually, and I know of no similar phenomenon among cursed breweries — some will surely fail. It happens. And even for breweries that never face a serious existential threat, just because survival is somewhat assured doesn’t mean it’s easy. Your favorite brewer may be in no danger of going under any time soon, but he’s also not in any danger of a three-day weekend.
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That’s why many breweries are so proud to peel entire years off the calendar that they release special anniversary beers to mark the achievement. Presented below are eight of the best currently available (some more available than others — I’m defining available to mean they’re not extinct and if you find one it will be in good drinking condition; your corner store may not have them all).
Great Divide 22nd Anniversary Dark American Sour Ale
It’s tricky to declare a brewery over- or underrated, because of course it depends entirely on who’s doing the rating of his own perceptions of the other raters’ ratings. You see. That said, I think Great Divide might deserve even more respect than the fair bit it gets. This 8.7-percent ABV dark wonder was aged in red wine barrels, which lend a hint of vanilla to the tart cherry cola, fig, tobacco, and leather. This is a multi-faceted shape-shifter that rewards slow, thoughtful sipping that allows you to appreciate the contrast between bright berries and brooding, almost savory earth tones.
Coronado 20th Anniversary Imperial IPA
Plenty of breweries choose to celebrate their anniversaries with huge IPAs, but Coronado was one of the few with the basic decency to do so within the last few months and distribute it to my state. So here we are with a still-fresh 10-percent ABV with Citra, Mosaic, Hellertau Blanc, and the all-important “careful selection of experimental hops,” which come together to produce a fruity and approachable beer by San Diego imperial IPA standards, with loads of bitterness but also more than enough tropical and citrus fruit character.
Port 10th Anniversary Ale
Coronado’s like-minded neighbors at Port Brewing also release a huge double IPA in late spring or early summer. This year’s Anniversary Ale is 11-percent ABV, and it brings a little burn, but just enough to add character, dammit. More prominent are grapefruit, mango, and pine.
Ithaca Anniversary 18 Baltic Porter
We don’t have enough excellent 7-percent ABV porters and stouts around this joint, you know? The roasted numbers we come across are too often either 4-percent milk stouts or 12-percent triple imperial black-blooded monster brews, both of which have their place, sure, but I appreciate Ithaca hitting the overlooked sweet spot in between. This special edition was aged in American oak, adding wood and subtle spice to the caramel, chocolate, plum, and coffee flavors.
Weyerbacher 21st Anniversary Imperial Stout
Pennsylvania’s often-overlooked (by stupid me) Weyerbacher took the high road with its anniversary stout, blending a bourbon barrel-aged portion into a batch fresh from the steel to produce a slightly smoky and oaky 11.9-percent bruiser smoothed out by cocoa nibs and vanilla beans to produce a beautiful nightmare of a beer.
Stone 20th Anniversary Citracado
Want a story of moral courage and personal sacrifice to help dull the pain of this election season? Once upon a time, there was a plucky little beer blogger who was compelled by dark forces to go out and get a day job. That meant our hero was no longer home to sign for his biweekly bribes from Stone; many were the days when he’d come home from a long shift of comma-shufflin’ to see “Sorry we missed you, you weren’t home to sign for an age-restricted package so we flew it on back to Escondido” stickers fouling his front door. But Stone’s 20th anniversary IPA, brewed with citra hops and avocado-flower honey, just sounded too damn interesting — and maybe even good? — to miss, so he dropped 10 of his own dollars to acquire a bottle. It turns out Citracado is a smooth, approachable 9-percenter in which both the honey and — swear to job — the ghost of the pre-avocado whence it came hum lightly along in the background behind all of Stone IPA’s customary and delightful bitter pine and mixed citrus, along with grilled grapefruit, mint, and faint juniper.
Otter Creek 25th Anniversary Double IPL
Vermont’s venerably Otter Creek combined old and new to honor their first quarter-century, pairing lager yeast with trendy modern hops — Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic, Galaxy, Columbus, and just enough Sorachi Ace to get a little weird — to produce an 8.5-percent ABV double India pale lager that hits all the right citrus notes along with earthy pine and an unexpectedly spicy finish.
Firestone Walker XIX Anniversary Ale
This is what I said about it in this space shortly after it came out last December: “Every year, Firestone Walker suckers some Paso Robles-area winemakers into putting together a special blend of their barrel-aged beers. This year they were instructed to lay off the hops, so the 19th anniversary edition is a dark, terrifying, and utterly fantastic blend of Parabola imperial stout, Sticky Monkee Quad, Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, and Velvet Merkin Oatmeal Stout. This one was also a free sample, but I intend to buy at least a couple bottles with my own wife’s own hard-earned dollars.”