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An Epic Ending for Stone Brewing Company Series

Source: Stone Brewing Company

It's the end of era in craft beer.

Dec. 12, 2012, will see the final release of one of the longest running and most ambitious undertakings in craft beer: The Stone Brewing Company Vertical Epic Ale series.

The plan was to brew a special beer each year and release it one year, one month and one day apart, starting on Feb. 2, 2002, and ending with the final beer on Dec. 12, 2012. The idea almost came too late.

"I had the idea literally in just enough time for our team to jump on it and brew the first batch to get it out in time for Stone 02.02.02" said Greg Koch, the CEO and co-founder of California-based Stone Brewing Company, the 11th largest craft brewer in the U.S.

The goal behind the Vertical Epic Ale series wasn't just to release a special beer each year and be done with it. While each beer in the Vertical Epic Ale series can and have been enjoyed immediately following each release, the beers were created so that they could be cellared, allowing the flavors and aromas of the beer to age over time. Consumers could then open all 11 bottles in the series for a tasting on Dec.12, 2012.

"The typical message is all about having your beer fresh, which is of course an important one. But it's not the only thing," Koch said. "The idea was to help demonstrate the power of beer, the range and the flexibility available in the world of great craft and specialty beers."

Ten years and eleven beers after the Vertical Epic Ale series started, the craft beer landscape is remarkably different.

At the end of 2001, the Institute for Brewing and Fermentation Studies counted 994 brewpubs, 420 microbreweries and 44 regional specialty breweries in operation in the United States. Today the Brewers Association estimates there are more than 2,000 breweries in operation and more than 1,300 in the planning stages.

"I envisioned craft beer to grow solidly, but this recent wave, it seems like the last three, maybe four years, for it to have become as large a swell as it has, I wouldn't have been able to foresee that," said Koch.

Koch gives credit to the early craft brewers, like Anchor Brewing (rescued by Fritz Maytag in 1965) and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (founded in 1979) who went off the paved road.

"It was rough and bumpy and they didn't know what was around the next hill or if they would come across something that wasn't passable. But they made the path," he said.

Greg Koch
Source: Stone Brewing Company
Greg Koch

Koch sees companies like Stone Brewing, which was founded in 1996, and Dogfish Head Brewery, which was founded in 1995, and a handful of others as the second wave of breweries who helped take the path established by the earliest craft brewers and pave it. Today, by comparison, the craft beer industry is like a super highway with thousands moving along at high rates of speed.

"There are some people getting on the road saying, 'Hey, look at us, we're going faster…faster than anybody has ever done in their first year of business!'" Koch said. "Well, yeah, it's a very well paved road and we also tuned all the vehicles for you. But hey, more power to you as long as you're not an a--hole driver; I don't mind sharing the road with you!" he laughed.

Of course, with all those travelers on the craft beer highway, there's going to be congestion and the occasional crash.

"Is there going to be a bump in the road? The answer is yes. Because this is life and we're human. There is always a bump in the road," Koch continued. "That's not me being negative. You'll be hard pressed to find somebody that's more positive about craft beer. I suppose I'm just not Pollyannaish about it."

Koch will be sharing the results of the Vertical Epic Ale series at the "Stone Epic Festival: The Final Chapter" on the afternoon of Dec. 12. The event will be held at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens and kicks off at — when else — 12:12 pm Pacific. Festival attendees will have the opportunity to experience all 11 varieties of the Stone Vertical Epic Ale series, in addition to special barrel-aged variations, with food pairings specifically created to pair with each of the vintages.

By Tom Rotunno, CNBC Senior Editor; Follow him https://twitter.com/tomrotunno Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com.

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