Beer Geek

How do you score a rare beer? Pros share their tips

Jan. 17, 2013 at 12:25 PM ET

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Getting a taste of high-demand brews is possible if you make the right connections.

By the time you read this, it’ll probably be too late to get a taste of the latest and greatest limited-release craft beers that are just now hitting shelves across America. We’re talking about delicious and interesting beers like Logsdon Farmhouse Ales Peche n’ Brett, Firestone Walker Sucaba Barleywine, Stone Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA and Green Flash Palate Wrecker IPA. Don’t worry — it’s (mostly) not your fault.

There are many filters between you and the rare beer you seek. First, the brewery makes a limited quantity of the stuff, creating a shortage from the outset. Then these precious beers are divvied up amongst distributors across many states, who then decide which of their accounts will be blessed with a small allocation, sometimes as few as six bottles. These retailers then carefully dole out their supply to customers, many of whom have put their names on a waiting list. The party’s usually over by the time you walk into the beer store.

“Most people will never see the really limited items on the shelves,” explained John Hoyos from Hunterdon Brewing, one of New Jersey’s leading craft beer distributors.  “The Internet has made information more available, so the stores and consumers know much more,” he says of the ever-increasing demand.

But let’s say that your mom was right, and you are indeed a very special snowflake, one who deserves the opportunity to buy a bottle of a highly sought after beer — such as the remarkable Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, a massively flavorful dark ale that’s brewed with chocolate and coffee, and then “cave aged” in bourbon barrels for an entire year. Where do you start?

Fish where the fish are

First, shop at the right places, which are the places that sell the most craft beer.

“The struggle is to become important enough to your distributors, by garnering a lot of sales, to then be on their short list of accounts that even get a chance to bring the limited release beers in,” said Graham Haverfield, the beer director at Springfield, New Jersey’s Wine Library.

Hoyos confirms this from his vantage point as a distributor, stating that Hunterdon Brewing will “typically focus on stores that are supporting the brewery and our company as a whole.” So if you want any chance of scoring a bottle of Kentucky Breakfast Stout, start by targeting a store that sells a lot of craft beer and stocks the full line of Founders products.

Be a regular customer

“Often times these stores don't put out the rare beers on the shelf, you have to know when the beer is being released and ask for it,” advised Peter Kennedy, an experienced craft beer chaser who writes the website Simply Beer. “The trick here is cultivating a good relationship with the beer managers at these stores.”

These gatekeepers can put you on a waiting list for the beer you want and will sometimes even keep stuff stashed in the back for good customers.

Hoyos also recommends that you concentrate your spending to a couple of stores so you’re viewed as a regular there. “Just as we reward our good customers, stores reward their good customers too,” he said.

Be needy

Sometimes the customers a beer manager remembers most are the ones who ask for help selecting a beer and then — and this is important — act on the answers. Ask for help finding a good IPA, talk it over with the beer manager and then try out the recommendation. On your next visit, ask for the beer manager by name and tell them what you thought of the beer. This dialogue will help you build the relationship without you having to spend your paycheck to become a V.I.P. 

Just make sure you’re talking with the beer manager — you can even go as far to ask, “who chooses the beers you sell here?” If it’s not the person you’re speaking with, chances are you’re barking up the wrong tree. 

Ask what’s coming out

The best way to get your hands on a rare beer is to ask for it before it hits the store. Inquire what interesting beers are on the way.  If you’ve built a good relationship, the beer manager will happily share this info and even put you on the waiting list. If they really like you, they might tell you what’s coming up before you even ask. 

If you’re looking for something specific and you know when it’s going to be released, ask the beer manager if their store will be receiving it and if you can get on the waiting list. They may not be sure — just because they’ve requested it from the distributor doesn’t mean they’ll get it – but an experienced beer manager should be able to gauge their chances with a fair amount of accuracy.  And remember, it doesn’t hurt to be on the list in more than one place.

Trade away

You can get as friendly with your local beer buyer as you want, but if a beer isn’t distributed in your state, they really can’t help you.  This is where beer trading comes in.

“If there are beers in one part of the country I want, then I'm sure there are beers here that others want,” said Kennedy, who is an old hand at trading beers.  

Want a bottle of Pliny the Elder and have a lovely Captain Lawrence Imperial IPA laying around? Hit up the beer trading boards on Rate Beer, Beer Advocate or Reddit and find someone to swap with. It’s a great way to make contacts across the country who can get you other interesting beers from their region.

In a nutshell, getting the beers you want comes through building relationships with the people who have access to it. Along the way, you’ll learn more about beer and might even make a friend or two. 

Just don’t go crazy trying to score a bottle of Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout like some obsessive beer geeks do. 

“We have heard of rather overzealous consumers following our delivery trucks around trying to buy it as it lands,” Hoyos recalled. “We do NOT recommend this, by the way.”

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter.  

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