Steve and I started talking about attending the 4 Elf Release Party at Dark Horse Brewery back in October. The party and release of this year’s 4 Elf Winter Ale was set to take place on December 8. As more details continued to be released, we knew we were definitely going to be in attendance at this event. Cases of Bourbon Barrel Plead the 5th were going to be on sale, as well as Bourbon Barrel Monster 29. In addition, the brewery began posting the draft list for the party, 46 Dark Horse beers. So now the question wasn’t, “Were we going?” but, “What time should we leave the house and be in line in order to guarantee purchasing all of the beer that we wanted?”
It was time for my engineer husband to do some calculations. In October 2011, we had traveled to Grand Rapids to attend the CBS release. At 6:00 AM, we were number 80 in line. In March 2012, we once again traveled to Grand Rapids to attend the less rare KBS release. At 5:30 AM, we pulled up to the brewery and shockingly realized that we may not be getting any beer as we were around 530 in line. (Founders reduced the allowable amount to each buyer, which allowed us to purchase half the amount of KBS we had originally planned on. That was fortunate for us, as we would have walked away after a 4 hour drive with nothing. However, people who had slept over were not as happy since their allotments were cut.)
Tickets for the Michigan Brewers’ Guild Winter Beer Festival in February 2013 were scheduled to go on sale on December 1, which was one week before the 4 Elf Party, at midnight. Last year, this festival had sold out in 3 weeks. We planned to order our tickets at midnight, but knew that the major increase in craft beer sales in the past year would make this event sell out much faster. I was predicting a growth of about 3x last year’s sales. That would mean it would sell out in around 7 days. Thank goodness we were finally able to get our purchase to go through at 1:00 AM. The event sold out in 13 hours. For those of you not familiar, this is an outdoor beer festival in Michigan in February. The average temperature at this time of year is around 23 degrees. And yet, 6,000 people spent $40 to stand outside in the potentially freezing cold weather to sample 400 beers from 60 breweries. Clearly craft beer drinkers are a dedicated group of individuals.
Since the Winter Beer Festival showed such tremendous growth and the 4 Elf Party was located in the same state, I began to become concerned. In the past, people had been able to show up after 11:00, which is when Dark Horse begins handing out tokens and still be able to purchase any beer that they wanted. In fact, we knew someone who had shown up at 3:00 last year and was still able to get a ton of beer. Our plan was to leave our house at 4:00 AM, thus getting to the brewery around 7:00 and hoping that we would be in the first 215 people so that we could have an opportunity to buy Bourbon Barrel Plead the 5th. Dark Horse released the exact number of bottled beers that were available for purchase prior to the event. In this way, unless they changed the allowable quantities, people knew whether there should be beer available for purchase once they received their tokens at 11:00 AM. 9 cases of Bbl Pt5 2011 available 1 – 4 pack per person, 432 cases of Bbl Pt5 2012 available 2 cases per person, etc.
We arrived at about 7:00 AM and began to set up camp. As this wasn’t our first beer release, we had brought lounge chairs, extra clothes, beer to drink while waiting in line, glasses, umbrellas, blankets, etc. While Steve was in charge of this, I walked the line. We were about 40. When the tokens were passed out at 11:00, we were 77 and 78. Cutting the line and holding spots is a different story for a different day, but at least we knew at this point that we would be able to purchase much of what we had wanted. Obviously, we weren’t getting the 2011 Pt5, but that was a long-shot anyway. I will be honest that I was nervous that getting there at 7:00 would have a much different result. Thank goodness that it didn’t. But people who got there at 9:00 were definitely shut out.
From 11:00 – 3:00 you no longer had to stand in line. You could leave the premises, go into the bar and have some beer and food, etc. At 3:00, the line reformed for purchasing. All guests were supposed to line up by number and then were allowed to purchase in that order. No one had to stand in line though, at least until it got closer to your number. The party began at 3:00. For $4 each, you could purchase samples for all of the 46 Dark Horse beers on tap. The bands began to play and food started to circulate. I’m honestly not sure why people who were past number 100 lined up this early.
The line was obnoxiously long. In this, their third year of hosting this party, each year has gotten better and changes have been made to fix problems from year’s past. For example, this year there was a guy who was simply checking tokens to make sure that people were purchasing their beer in the correct order.
After over an hour, we were able to buy our beer, which we then immediately carted back to our hotel. We returned to the party and had an amazing time. The beer was exceptional. My favorites were the Eert Dekoorc variations, the Death Star Lover, HomoBourbonSapien, KBE, and especially the Sarsaparilla 66 Stout. While we weren’t really listening to the band, they were at the perfect volume as background music where we were standing. And the food…every 30 minutes, the kitchen sent out another animal for the public to pick at and devour. There was pig, lamp, duck testicles (of which I tried one – it tasted like fried), smoked salmon, brisket, etc. The food was honestly never-ending.
I know that there were a lot of negative reviews on Beer Advocate, but that is simply unfair. Those people were mostly mad that they arrived too late and weren’t able to buy beer or that they had waited in line to buy their beer for over an hour. Both of those things were their own fault and easily rectified.
I do have one suggestion for Dark Horse. Feel free to use it to assist with the long purchase lines. Have pre-printed check-off cards listing all of the beer available for sale. Then people can hand their card and token to the guy checking numbers and the card can be passed on to those guys who were getting boxes together so they could begin that process. The boxes would be prepared and waiting at the cashier. If there was something that wasn’t left, you simply wouldn’t get that added to your box.
In the end, this was a fantastic party that I definitely think we will attend next year. We will just make sure that next year we are even earlier. Anyone feel like a road trip at 1:00AM, let us know.