As I type these words, I have before me a glass of Stone-Maui-Ken Schmidt Kona Coffee, Macadamia, Coconut Porter. Aside from being quite tasty – sweetish, coconutty coffee with hints of dark chocolate on the nose; a complex and creamy body with loads of dark chocolate and mocha notes, some hints of sweet, nutty caramel and bracing alcohol, mild to moderate hop bitterness and toasted coconut in the finish – and boasting about the longest name of any beer I can think of, it is also, from what I understand, at least, quite rare.
This might make it expensive – I haven’t checked eBay for bottles, but it’s probably there – but it does not make it innovative. Collaboration beers are great, but a dime a dozen these days, and surely the idea of adding coffee or coconut or some sort of table nut to a beer has been done not quite to death. It’s still a good beer, remember, extremely good, in fact, just not innovative.
In contrast, a couple of weeks ago I sampled with some friends the 2009 Stone Vertical Epic. It was also quite tasty – burnt wood, faint smoke, vanilla and dark, dried fruit on the nose; the body a roasty-smoky-spicy mix that kicks some hoppy, roasty bitterness and warming alcohol in the finish – but in contrast to the Stone-Maui-Schmidt, it is innovative. Just not in the way you might think it is.
If you’re not familiar with what the Vertical Epic is all about, check it out here. To put it in brief, however, it is a series of one-off brews released every year on the day the dates of day, month and year line up, as in 09/09/09 (September 9, 2009). This began on 02/02/02 and is scheduled to continue until 12/12/12, at which time collectors of the whole series will be able to hold a vertical tasting of the entire range. What’s more, Stone is publishing the recipe for every beer on the brewery website and even sponsoring a Vertical Epic Clone homebrew competition each year.
So far as I am aware, none of the eight “Epic” beers released have been the product of any great innovation in the brewery. However, taken together, as a project, they are a true marketing innovation in that they form a neat and original concept that enables the brewery to involve and connect with their customers in several very different and very real ways.
Does it make any of the individual “Epic” beers a great beer? No. Does it further the science of brewing in any way? No. Will it lead to a better beer world for us all? Maybe, but probably not.
What it most definitely does accomplish, though, is the formation of a close, almost intimate bond between the brewery and the beer drinker (and homebrewer), which is the Vertical Epic’s ultimate innovation. Because drinking beer is only rarely all about what’s in the glass. Rather, most often it concerns the beverage, the person drinking, the people surrounding her, the locale of the consumption, the food, the weather, the time of day, and even the sentiment of the imbiber towards the brewery that created the beer. Alter that dynamic and you change the beer drinking experience.