TAMPA — Thomas Buchanan was out of the house at 5:15 a.m. Saturday to get to Hunahpu Day at Cigar City Brewing.
He skipped class at Full Sail University in Winter Park to be among the elite thousands to try this year's limited-release imperial stout. But Buchanan's early-morning efforts were a drop in the bucket compared to Sarah Marquis, who worked until 5 a.m. Saturday as a bartender in Miami, chugged a Red Bull and hopped a plane to be at the Spruce Street tasting room before the Tampa brewery's beer started selling at noon — a limit of three bottles each to the first 4,000 people in line, $20 for each 22-ounce bottle.
But even Marquis' commitment paled when compared to that of Miami beer distributor Cesar Vazquez, a big guy in a bright yellow Cigar City Brewing T-shirt with the words "The Line Starts Here" on the back. As he has done the past three years, Vazquez was the first in line, setting up his camp chair just outside the tasting room at 4 p.m. Friday. The shirt was a gift from head brewer Wayne Wambles and other Cigar City staffers, but his was far from the only beer T-shirt in the crowd. Beer aficionados from around the world convened in Tampa on Saturday, many shirts emblazoned with their hometown brews or those cult craft beers that have prompted so much fervor in the past couple of years.
By 8:30 a.m., the line snaked from Cigar City's front door a quarter-mile down Spruce Street's sidewalk and back to Dale Mabry Highway, the Home Depot parking lot looking like the tailgate at a Grateful Dead show with coolers, strollers and a whole lot of thirsty-looking people. The showstopper event at this year's Tampa Bay Beer Week, Hunahpu was expected to draw up to 10,000 people.
Scottsdale, Ariz., resident Dakine Beckman has been at every Hunahpu release. He says the first one four years ago drew only a couple of hundred people, with no limit on the number of bottles that could be bought.
So why has Hunahpu gotten so huge?
"We're in the middle of a craft beer revolution," says Beckman. "Joey Redner revolutionized beer for the whole state. In 2008, Florida was a beer wasteland. And Hunahpu is off the wall — you don't expect all this in a beer. It appeals to everyone with its cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate up front, and the chili spiciness on the back part of the palate."
Beckman says limited-release events like this draw beer "mules," people you bring along and equip with cash to ratchet up the number of bottles you can take away. He says until this past year on eBay (which has since curtailed alcohol sales) bottles of Hunahpu imperial stout were being sold for as much as $250.
As with many highly prized commodities, scarcity is key.
"It had to be a special beer to get a draw like this, and imperial stout is a quality beer. But I think the major attraction comes from the fact that it's such a limited quantity (roughly 10,000 bottles were available for purchase on Saturday) — when it's gone, it's gone," said attendee Lauran Cifizzari, who works for Blue Point Brewing Co. in Long Island, N.Y.
For serious craft beer drinkers, Hunahpu Day went on the calendar a year ago, drawing people from Philly, Minneapolis and as far away as Sweden for the chance to take home some rare bottles.
Still, with dozens of other Cigar City beers and guest brews on tap, 10 food trucks and live music, plenty of people were just there for a big party on a gorgeous Tampa spring day.
For Randy Strange and Amy Ritterskamp, both from Kansas City, Mo., the Hunahpu phenomenon is 50 percent merit and 50 percent hype. Strange noted how well the event was publicized in the craft beer community, while Ritterskamp said it was an excuse for a holiday from colder climes.
"He's a craft beer nerd. I wanted to go somewhere warm — I figured I could convince him if it relates to craft beer somehow."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.