The house of Gingerbread Stout: The whens and hows of Hardywood’s holiday favorite

Hardywood’s sought-after holiday milk stout has been copied many times since it was first released in 2011. Small distribution changes this year may have made it seem less exclusive, but really it’s just as special as it ever was—a 9.7% jewel among brews.

In December 2013, a friend of mine gifted me a bottle of Hardywood’s Gingerbread Stout. I was all, “Oh…beer! Thanks?” Not being a beer drinker, I did not GET that this was HARDYWOOD’S GINGERBREAD STOUT. His resulting sputters and scoffs indicated that he may as well have handed me a Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the original Butcher Cover.

OK, Hardywood’s holiday limited release isn’t worth the dough that a good copy of Yesterday and Today brings in on eBay, but it is a thing that people have stood in line for since it began in 2011. This year, though, it felt like you could trot right into Kroger and leave with a bottle smartly wedged beneath one arm.

Where’s the tipping point between keeping something exclusive with a high perceived value in its limited production and giving more people a popular item that will sell because it is good?

“When we released Hardywood Gingerbread Stout in November 2011, it was the first commercially brewed gingerbread stout, so we had no idea what to expect,” says Eric McKay, Hardywood’s president and co-founder. “Glowing consumer reviews, a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup in San Diego, and a rare perfect 100 rating in BeerAdvocate later, and Hardywood GBS had earned the attention of beer enthusiasts all over the country by early 2012.”

By the end of that year, interpretations of gingerbread stout was becoming A Thing in lots of other brewers’ tasting rooms. McKay feels that consumers still view the original as the gold standard. The BeerAdvocate community gives Gingerbread Stout a 94 (based on an average of 146 reviews), and the Bros (BA’s staff of experts) are weighing in at 100.

500 pounds of Casselmonte Farm baby white ginger and nearly a ton of Bearer Farms honey1 went into this year’s GBS production. “This year, we had our biggest turnout yet for our Gingerbread Stout release weekend,” says McKay, who welcomed more than 5,000 visitors between November 6th and November 9th. Because their distribution of this particular brew is almost entirely limited to Virginia, it’s a “pretty sought-after beer on trading websites,” he says.

That said, our best customers reported being out of stock within two days, and the majority of our retailers have sold their entire shipment.

McKay says production has been constrained due to production capacity, as well as the ability to procure so much local ginger and honey. This year, though, they’ve upped their production levels across the board by 25%, and GBS accounts for 8% of their annual beer production. However, they’re still dodging offers from more widespread distributors, preferring instead to limit their footprint to Virginia, D.C., and eastern Pennsylvania.

“The biggest shift this year is that we’ve delivered all of our distributors orders in advance of our release,” says McKay. “Whereas in past years, we’ve been shipping as fast as we could package. Our wholesalers delivered everything we brewed this year the week of November 9th, giving the appearance of wide availability. That said, our best customers reported being out of stock within two days, and the majority of our retailers have sold their entire shipment.”

In other words, the appearance of more widespread availability is really just a more streamlined ordering system. The “get it while you can” urgency should still be there, and next year, as people realize there are no more orders coming after that first push, it may sell out even faster.

“We’ve often been asked by financially driven folks why we don’t outsource production and sell Hardywood Gingerbread Stout nationwide in response to apparent demand,” he comments. “While that could be a very lucrative endeavor in the short run, it goes against our core philosophies, as we’re a lot more interested in building a company on the values of integrity, appreciation for brewing heritage, and the inspired creation of extraordinary beers.”

McKay and his colleagues want GBS to become a special holiday tradition–the Nutcracker, the Grand Illumination, or the Legendary Santa, only for beer lovers, you know? But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan ahead and snap up the festive bottles whenever you see them. Like the holidays, the Gingerbread Stout season is over too quickly.

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Gingerbread Stout fan? Hardywood fan? Beer fan? Alcohol fan in general? You will almost certainly enjoy RVANews Live #005: RVABooze on December 5th at 5:30 PM at Coalition Theatre (8 W. Broad Street). Join panelists from both the production end and the tending-bar end of the alcohol spectrum–we’ll be talking about all sorts of things. Free samples of Hardywood, Blue Bee Cider, and Belle Isle Moonshine will be flowing as well as other brews and wines to purchase (and a ton of snacks from Relay Foods to line the ol’ stomach). Tickets are $15.

Want to read more about local booze? Here’s a bunch of content!

Want to just buy a ticket and dream about swimming in oceans of cider instead of reading about stuff? Go for it!

  1. We did the math, and that works out to about 180 gallons of honey, in case you’re interested. 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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