Joe Sixpack: Big-bottle trend: Beer that looks like wine

Posted: November 07, 2008

THE STRANGEST bottle to fall into my hands this season is Gratitude, a barleywine from tiny East End Brewing, in Pittsburgh. It's a large bottle wrapped in brown paper that's been hand-printed with a delicate drawing of a canary feeding its young.

Autographed by the brewer, hand-numbered in ink and sealed with yellow wax, it cost me 22 bucks.

I don't know whether to crack it open or put it on the mantle next to my bowling trophy.

Whichever, it's part of a growing big-bottle trend, the next stage in the evolution of beer from an everyday six-pack habit to a specialty product that increasingly is sold like wine.

Yes, I know, big bottles have been around for years - and not just those familiar 40s of malt liquor. Rogue and Stoudt's, to name two craft breweries, made their mark 20 years ago with oversized bottles.

But take a look at your friendly takeout store and you'll find even more space is being devoted to the big boys - 22-ounce bombers and 750 ml bottles seemingly more fit for Champagne. Some are boxed, many are corked and more than a few cost something north of $15.

In most cases, they are the brewer's best ales and lagers.

Vermont's Otter Creek, for example, produces a decent line of classic styles in 12-ounce bottles - an amber ale, a porter, the usual suspects. But its World Tour series, a collection of unique one-offs representing unusual styles from around the globe, cranks it up two or three notches.

Its current offering, Sphinx, is a complex, refreshing golden ale made with honey, chamomile and no fewer than six different grains. Next in line: the Belgian abbey-inspired Otter's Dubbel.

The same goes at New Hampshire's Smuttynose, whose seasonal release of Big Beers is one of the highlights of my calendar. (Admittedly, the only other thing circled on my calendar this month is the opening of "Quantum of Solace.") S'muttonator double bock and Wheat Wine Ale are permanent favorites.

The trend is remarkable because most breweries are not equipped to produce large packages. Often, these bottles must be filled, capped and labeled by hand.

Moreover, they are intended to be sold as singles - a daunting obstacle in Pennsylvania, where most beer is sold in cases of 24 or 30. Some distributors flatly refuse to handle large bottles because a case can run $100 or more.

Not all big bottles, however, are pricey.

PranQster, the superb Belgian golden ale from California's North Coast Brewing, is a steal at as little as $7 in Jersey for a 750 ml bottle. Legacy Hoptimus Prime, from Reading, Pa., is just $7 in Philly for a 22-ounce bottle.

Six bucks will get you a 22-ounce bottle of the beautifully hopped Bear Republic Racer 5. For a little less than that, you can grab a lip-smacking Rogue Chocolate Stout. And maybe the best deal of 'em all: $5 for a 22-ounce bottle of Southampton Imperial Porter.

As for that bottle of Gratitude, East End brewer Scott Smith said that the special packaging was his way of saying "thank you" to his customers and his large group of volunteers.

Each bottle was washed, filled and capped by hand. The brown-paper bag labels were hand-printed at a local letter press and then pasted separately onto each bottle. It took a large crew of helpers about three hours to do the job.

"I guess there's something a bit odd about thanking your volunteers by getting them to work all those hours to package up these bottles," Smith said. "But they were happy to pitch in, and I think the beer is worth the effort."

Big 'n' special

Forget the merlot. Grab one of these large bottles before heading out to your local BYOB. (For details on where to find these and more, visit my Web site, www.joesixpack.net.)

_ Saint Somewhere Saison Athene ($12) could be the best beer made in Florida. That's not saying much, so I'll go one better: It's one of the three best saisons made in America.

_ Troegs Mad Elf, the big favorite from Harrisburg, is available for the first time this season in 22-ouncers.

_ Southern Tier has produced a Cuvee Series of barrel-aged ales in 22-ounce bottles in individual boxes. Expect to pay at least $15.

_ The Brewmaster Signature Series from SBS-Imports continues to impress me. This novel line is a collaboration between brewers from America (Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing, Jason Perkins of Allagash) and Belgian brewing genius Dirk Naudts of De Proefbrouwerij. Packaged in hefty, 750 ml corked bottles, the ales I've tasted marvelously balanced a big splash of citric hop bitterness with the sour funk of wild yeast.

The beers from Elysian, a small Seattle brewpub chain, had been hard-to-find cult favorites - until it hooked up with New Belgium Brewing, in Fort Collins, Colo., to begin packaging its brands in 22-ouncers. A half-dozen varieties have made their way to Philly, including Avatar Jasmine IPA, spiced with Amarillo hops and, yes, dried jasmine flowers.

Chocolate-flavored Dogfish Head Theobroma, whose recipe is based on chemical analysis of 3,000-year-old pottery fragments found in Honduras, is bottled nicely in a 750. Richly flavored Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock is found in a unique 750 decorated with an embossed-pewter label. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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