The Homeric Quest for Cigar City's California Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu Imperial Stout
Beer geeks have come far and wide, from all corners of this great state, to descend upon Tampa and enter the Cigar City Brewing taproom with a nervous hand and unassuming slip of paper in order to exchange some hard-earned money for a few precious bottles of some of the most-sought-after beer in the country: California Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu Imperial Stout.
Named after a mythological deity from ancient Mesoamerica, the Hunahpu beer is considered by some to be one of the finest brews in existence. Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, currently rated at BeerAdvocate as the number 17 highest-ranking beer with a perfect 100 score. It's in the same company as Founder's Breakfast Stout, Russian River Supplication, and Trappistes Rochefort 10. For many beer enthusiasts, a bottle of Hunahpu is on their bucket list.
But a California brandy barrel aged version? Surely that's something to seek out even doubly.
In the ancient Mayan texts, Hunahpu and his twin, Ixbalanque, were gods who were very skilled in the early ball game of Ulama. They were challenged by the Lords of Hell to various events, which they eventually both succeeded at, completing every task given to them. This conquered the Hell , the two were honored with becoming the sun and the moon.
Acquiring bottles of California Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu (or BBA Hunahpu) is a seemingly similarly epic process. Because of both the demand and the limited production batch, product is scarce. "Hunahpu's production is about 105 barrels [3,255 gallons]," Steve Shanks, one of Cigar City Brewing's most information-rich tour guides says, estimating that the barrel-aged run is about a tenth of that.
Normally, the BBA production is for the locals, but, "we wanted to be fair and get it out to people in the state," Shanks continued.
For that purpose, the team at Cigar City devised a voucher system that would be distributed to local bars and brew pubs across the state to hand out in a way that might emulate the tasks required by Hunahpu by the Lords of Hell. Some created scavenger hunts, others costume contests. It seemed like many in our area stuck to simple raffles and name drawings.
Whichever the case, only a certain few were able to win these vouchers, which offered the holders the opportunity to purchase a bottle or two at the Cigar City taproom.
That's right. These people had to travel for their beer. The parallels to the Homeric epics and of the mythology of Hunahpu and his twin have become even more evident. After every task is completed, another one becomes active, setting the course for what is to come.
Some would ask why such a quest is necessary. Why would one travel hundreds of miles and multiple hours to purchase just one or two bottles of beer? After all, it's just that, isn't it? Beer?
Exclusivity is not just in the markets of expensive sports cars or designer clothes. Part of the appeal of beers such as Hunahpu or in other regional beer releases like Three Floyd's Dark Lord Day (a festival surrounding the release of Dark Lord Imperial Stout from the Munster, Indiana brewer) or the tapping of Pliny the Younger at the Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, California, is that there is a scarcity in product, which, when the product is good, causes a huge upsweep in demand.
But even if the yearly Hunahpu release is considered a go-to event to indulge in a rare beer offering, the addition of an even rarer barrel-aged version of that beer... well, that just throws the geek-o-meter off the scales. This is something that just has to be had.
The process behind this special treatment is pretty straightforward. The barrels come from fine purveyors of American brandy, which is aged for at least four to eight years before being bottled and sold. Then, Cigar City purchases a handful of the used barrels for its needs.
"We use ozone to sterilize the barrels," tour guide Shanks explained. "That way we get into the wood without leaving anything behind." Add in some Peruvian cacao nibs, ancho and pasilla chilies, cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla beans, a couple of gallons of Hunahpu Imperial Stout, and whammo! You've got yourself a beer worthy of the gods!
So for the dozens of people who have made the trek and purchased your bottles, I say to you, 'Congratulations, and drink up'. Hopefully that next celebration will be ever that much better. For those who have vouchers, but have yet to make the trip (of which I saw many still had not picked up), I have to ask, 'What are you waiting for?'
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