Just thirty minutes into the opening session of the Great American Beer Festival last week, Neil Fisher knew he was in trouble. A line had formed at his booth in section U almost immediately — and it was getting longer. “We had a decent crowd last year, but nothing like what we saw this time. There were a hundred people in line, and it just stayed that way. We had three people pouring at all times,” he says.
Many were there to sample Juicy Bits, one of the hottest New England-style IPAs in Colorado, and it’s cousin, double dry-hopped Juicy Bits. But the beer-loving masses had also queued up for pours of Medianoche, a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout. This rare and special beer has garnered many emotional and expressive fans over the past few months, so many that when Weldwerks had held an online sale two weeks earlier for the chance to buy bottles of the beer, tickets sold out within a single tick of a watch. That’s not an exaggeration. “Five hundred tickets literally disappeared into people’s online shopping carts in one second,“ Fisher says.
The sale left fans and customers angry. In particular, they were mad at Weldwerks for scheduling the pick-up dates during GABF, when thousands of people from other states flock to Colorado, providing a horde of competition for tickets. They told the brewery as much in online comments; one commentor who didn’t get a ticket bemoaned the fact that the sale was open “to 60,000 cunts who have never spent a dime at Weldwerks before today. GABF release only served to fuck over locals.”
Fisher responded on the Weldwerks Facebook page, saying he was sorry that locals felt “slighted” by the decision to schedule the release during GABF week, but that it “was made for a number of reasons...most importantly because we are not just focused on selling beer, we are actively working to make our city and community a better place. As part of that goal, we look for ways to encourage more people to visit Greeley and see all that our community has to offer, especially in our neighborhood of Downtown Greeley, and a beer release has proven to be an effective way to drive traffic to Greeley.”
But on his personal Facebook page, Fisher showed some emotion himself: “What a bittersweet evening,” he wrote. “On a positive note, the demand for our beer is beyond anything I could have ever possibly imagined. But I guess the cost of such success is that it brings out entitlement and the worst in people when they are not able to get said beer. I never thought I'd be personally attacked on the brewery's Facebook page (I believe the exact comment was, ‘Fuck Neil for releasing these beers during GABF’), but I'll just chalk it up to the ‘Internet.’ At the end of the day, I've been incredibly encouraged by responses from those who continue to support us, and those messages really mean a lot tonight.”
The irony, he tells Westword, is that Medianoche remained on tap throughout GABF week for anyone who wanted to try it. It was only the bottles that were sold out.
Still, by the time GABF started, the pent-up demand for Medianoche was beginning to boil over, and as the Thursday night line got longer and longer, those queuing up might have wondered if the beer had already won a gold medal. It hadn’t. That would happen two days later at the GABF awards ceremony, though, when Weldwerks beat out more than 150 breweries across the country in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout category.
It was a special moment for Fisher and his family. “It’s a super-competitive category, and the one I have wanted to win the most,” he says. “I won’t ever win a medal for a category I love more.”
But the win means that the crazy demand for Medianoche, and the drama around it, will only get more intense — in the same way that it has for a few other famous beers around the country, like 3 Floyds Brewing Dark Lord, Cigar City Brewing Hunahpu and Russian River Pliny the Younger.
That’s something Fisher is a little worried about, but also something he plans to use to help drive business and attention to Greeley, a city that has typically been the butt of jokes in Colorado.
“More people will want the beer now, and that will be frustrating to some people, and I get that. But we're trying to come up with a sound strategy so that if you want to drink the beer, you can drink it in the taproom,” he says. That means Medianoche and its variants will be available more often in the taproom on draft, maybe even as often as once a month. “We are committed to making sure locals have access to it.”
But the word “locals” means something a little different to Fisher than it does to other people.
“I consider a local to be someone who supports Greeley, either by spending time here or money supporting another small business, or by supporting a nonprofit we like. It’s not just dollars,” he explains. “A lot of people come up here to buy beer for other people, but they aren’t necessarily interested in Greeley. But you might have a tourist from South Carolina who comes out here for a release, spends the night in a hotel and eats dinner and breakfast here. That’s just as important as a person who buys a bottle and leaves.”
He points to the example set by Toppling Goliath Brewing, which is located, frankly, in the middle of nowhere in Decorah, Iowa, a town of 8,000 people. The little brewery makes some of the most sought-after IPAs in the country, and people travel there from all over to attend its releases. In September, the brewery posted a graphic on Facebook, in which it estimated that its release days had generated $1 million in revenue for businesses located in Decorah. That includes $265,000 on hotels and $150,000 at restaurants. Toppling Goliath is now building a huge, 100-barrel brewery, taproom, store, restaurant and events center that will provide a significant number of jobs in the town.
“Beer is sexy, and people like connecting with a brewery,” Fisher explains. “Because of that, we have a cool voice and a different platform than other businesses in Greeley. Our core ethos is making an impact here. We aren’t the only ones driving change in Greeley, but we feel like our beer can be a vehicle for change.”
To help do that, Weldwerks is going to change the way it handles the release of its gold-medal winner — starting today.
Between 10 a.m. Friday and 10 p.m. on Saturday, people can register for a lottery for a chance to buy a single 22-ounce bottle of Vanilla Medianoche for a whopping $55. That’s an almost unheard of price for a single bottle, and at least $20-$25 higher than any similar beer would go for. But Fisher doesn’t care. Here is his rationale:
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We understand this is an extremely high price to pay for a single bottle of beer and is likely well beyond the budget of many of our customers. If that is the case for you, we encourage you to skip this release. We brew a multitude of styles across a wide range of prices, so while we know that not every beer we produce will cater to our entire customer base, we take pride in the fact that we usually have something for everyone.
But our brewing philosophy has always been to produce the beers we want to make (and drink), regardless of cost, rather than producing beers that fit a specific price point. In this case, it meant adding incredibly expensive vanilla beans to an already costly beer, which is why the price for Vanilla Medianoche is so high. Could we have used less vanilla or aged the beer a shorter amount of time to produce a more affordable beer? Absolutely. But we do not believe we could have produced a beer of this quality, probably the best beer we have made, without the time and ingredients used in Vanilla Medianoche.
Additionally, we have heard a lot of comments recently regarding expectations for how we should accommodate our "local" customers. We are incredibly grateful for the amazing support we have received from our local Greeley community, but we know that our loyal customer base extends well beyond Greeley city limits. So we consider "locals" as anyone willing to invest in or support our community. That might mean spending money here at WeldWerks or at other local businesses, supporting initiatives that help the community, donating to local nonprofit organizations, or even just spending time in Greeley. Those who engage in our local Weld County (get it, "WeldWerks") community are the people that we consider local, regardless of where they live.
To that end, we have decided to donate $10 from every ticket for Vanilla Medianoche to the Weld Food Bank. In 2017, the Weld Food Bank donated nearly 14 million pounds of food to those in need, and we are proud to support WFB to help them continue to serve our community.
In the future, he plans to make Medianoche releases into “experiential” events like weekend packages that would include beer dinners, parties and seminars. He is also planning to host a barrel-aged festival, or invitational, event next summer to coincide with the release; for that, he would invite some of the best brewers around the country to participate and pour beer — in Greeley.
“People see that medal and it gives us clout. It gives us the traction to pull off something like an invitational. We could help make Greeley a national destination,” Fisher says.
And the money raised? Fisher says he would donate 100 percent of it to a Greeley nonprofit organization. “If we could help to put Greeley on the map, it could leave a lasting legacy on this community.”