Chocolate Ale Craze Strains, Entertains KC-Area Vendors

Boulevard's seasonal Chocolate Ale will hit taps on Feb. 3 and will be on store shelves Feb. 4. | Photo courtesy of Bouelvard Brewing
Boulevard's seasonal Chocolate Ale is back this year after a hiatus in 2013, and the Kansas City brewer doubled production of the popular beer. | Photo courtesy of Bouelvard Brewing

Boulevard Brewing Co.’s beloved Chocolate Ale returned to the shelves of Kansas City-area stores Thursday after a one-year hiatus. The Kansas City brewer’s delivery schedule for the limited-edition beer was delayed by snow in Kansas City.

More than 25 people eager to buy Chocolate Ale were waiting in line when Rimann Liquors opened Thursday morning, employee Carly Jones told KMBC. They were  “freezing their bottoms off,” she said.

Earlier this week, as his stores prepared for the release of Chocolate Ale, Berbiglia Wine & Spirits owner Jack Bondon said he was looking forward to some laughs. Bondon said he would make sure each of  his 10 stores in the Kansas City area was adequately staffed and ready for the swarms of beer enthusiasts, but he conceded a little ridiculousness is inevitable. After all, Bondon said, he hasn’t seen any beer but Chocolate Ale inspire elderly women to come to his stores at 10 a.m. to buy bottles for grown sons who are stuck at work.

Such is the craze for Chocolate Ale, a collaboration between Boulevard brewmaster Steven Pauwels and Kansas City chocolatier Chris Elbow that’s part of Boulevard’s premium Smokestack Series. Chocolate Ale was first made in 2011 to appeal to a small contingent of craft beer enthusiasts, but Kansas Citians quickly developed what Boulevard marketing communications manager Julie Weeks calls a “love affair” with the beer.

“Chocolate ale attracts the kind of people who aren’t big beer drinkers, which makes it much more appealing and in demand,” said John Couture, owner of brewpub and craft beer seller Bier Station.

And that widespread demand has led to more than a few Kansas Citians going to extreme lengths to get their hands on a 750 ml. bottle of the brew. Boulevard produced 9,200 cases (containing 110,400 bottles) and 2,800 one-sixth barrel kegs for this year’s release. That’s twice as much as the brewer made in 2012, the last year it released Chocolate Ale.

In order to ensure everyone has a decent chance to try the beer, Berbiglia stores impose a limit of one bottle per customer. Lukas Liquor Superstore in Overland Park, Kan., allowed customers to sign up to reserve one bottle apiece in advance, but the store also planned to have 40 cases available to the general public with a limit of two bottles per person.

In the past, that kind of demand has prompted several stores to raise the price of the prized ale from the normal level for Smokestack Series beers,  a practice Boulevard condemned in 2012. According to KC Beer Blog, the sale price for a typical Smokestack Series bottle is $7-10, but for Chocolate Ale retailers will hike it up to $10-15.

Bondon points out that some people try to sell the beer at far more extreme markups. “The problems are the ones that want more than one or two bottles,” he said. “They’re the ones trying to sell it on Ebay and Craigslist for $30 the next day.” Indeed, once the supply of Chocolate Ale ran out in 2012, bottles sold online for as much as $100.

This year, there is already a seller on Craigslist willing to part with bottles saved from 2011 for the price of $60. While customers go wild, Couture takes a more relaxed approach to what he calls the “Beanie Baby beer” because it’s become such a collectible. Instead of taking names and reservations, he plans to hold back on immediate sales and stock Bier Station’s coolers at random to let people come in and find it.

“I think that democratizes the process a little bit,” he said. “We’d like to be the place that surprises people when they find it, not the place where people just rush in.”

Whatever approach retailers take to selling it, Boulevard says it hopes the increased volume of Chocolate Ale means there’s enough to keep customers happy this year.

“Each year we’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by the demand this beer has created,” Weeks said in an email. “We truly hope this year there is enough Chocolate Ale to go around.” Chocolate Ale will also hit shelves in Columbia Friday, and St. Louis and Chicago “later this week and early next week,” Weeks said in an email Wednesday.

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