Before dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, the crowds line up early, excited for doors to open and their chance to nab something available only in limited quantities and for a short time.
These hearty souls are not waiting for a new television, deep discounts on clothing or toys to put under the tree. No, they are waiting for beer.
Black Friday has become a day of competitive sport in retail commerce, and breweries, eager for fans, kick off the holiday season with their own special releases. The day will shape up differently this year in the shadow the novel coronavirus pandemic, but breweries across the country still mark the day with limited-release bottles, usually imperial, barrel-aged stouts.
Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout is largely credited with turning Black Friday into a beer day. The Chicago brewer, now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing company, has been making Bourbon County Stout since the 1990s. It started releasing the imperial, barrel-aged stout on Black Friday a decade ago.
Goose Island has added variants to the Bourbon County Stout lineup each year. Some are aged in specific, highly sought-after Bourbon barrels, and others have adjuncts like coffee, tea and spices. Previous releases in Chicago have been documented by local news helicopters as release lines at local shops and the brewery snaked along for blocks.
This year, the brewery is releasing seven different Bourbon County Stouts nationwide, with some of the smaller batches only going to select cities like New York and Philadelphia. Chicago will still be home to the largest release, but the long lines and big gatherings will be gone in the wake of the pandemic. Instead, Goose Island will have lottery systems, pre-purchasing and select pick-up times.
Due to its size and marketing capabilities, Goose Island still gets the lion’s share of attention, but smaller breweries around the country have gotten into the act and are now doing their best to either take away some of the big brewer’s thunder or capture the customer lightening of the day.
“Overall, it will be a big week for us as we will have a few new beers in 16–ounce cans that week as well,” says Brett Smith, owner and brewer. “Normally we would throw a big party and we’d show up the morning of the release to find a line wrapped around the building. But, as with all of our releases during Covid, this will primarily happen on our webstore, and we will see our patrons as they trickle in throughout the day to pick up their allotment.
“Crazy times we are in, but we are really lucky to have an incredibly supportive fanbase.”
Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee will keep up its barrel-aged tradition and release four different beers. This year’s will be stouts and barleywines all named Black Friday, including one imperial stout that has spent nearly six years in Bourbon and brandy barrels. They will only be available at retail locations, foregoing a party at the brewery.
John Trogner, cofounder and brewmaster of Tröegs, noted that the brewery in Hershey is near a lot of retail outlets that traditionally see crowds eager for doorbuster deals.
“What we didn’t want to do was add to the stress of Black Friday, so we brew enough that it’s not super-limited,” he says. “You don’t have to line up in the morning to get it. You can go and do your thing, and then come to Tröegs for your trophy afterward. So, for us, releasing Bourbon Barrel-Aged Impending Descent was more about giving those people a way to celebrate after their adventure. They can come in and kick back with a big beer. It’s kind of the icing on the cake to their whole day.”
Most breweries stick to stouts and heartier, heavier, boozier styles, but there are other releases as well.
Nick Armatage, the owner and brewer of Peculiar Ales in Colorado, says his brewery will release a pistachio pudding sour, a peach pie à la mode sour, a Helles lager and “hopefully a walnut brownie stout.” The styles, he admits, are “all over the place.”
Brewers note the anticipation that typically builds in the days up to Black Friday releases is muted this year, but with safety restrictions in place and customers practicing common sense, there is still a lot of fun to be had.
“It garners a feeling of normalcy and coming together that hasn’t been present in past months,” says George Burton, sales manager of Maryland’s Black Flag Brewing Co., which plans to release a barrel–aged barleywine cuvée. “Needless to say, it’s going to be a nice treat for a long year. I don’t really know if it is a short–term hype train or a long–term marketing strategy, but I do know that as long as someone gets a little bit of joy out of drinking a beer we brewed with friends from our community, then I’m damn happy.”