A HANDFUL of rare ales that haven't even been brewed, yet are already so coveted that some beer drinkers are shelling out big bucks just for the right to purchase them months from now.
Yes, we're talking about beer futures.
The beers are sold through clubs operated by small breweries known for unusual, limited-edition styles. With names like the Reserve Society and Collected Works, the clubs add another fascinating layer of exclusivity to cult beer.
In July, at Cigar City Brewing, in Tampa., Fla., for example, the newly minted El Catador Club sold out 1,500 memberships at $126 each in less a week. (Five hundred of the memberships were sold online in exactly one minute, according to a company spokesman.)
Members get a T-shirt plus bottles of five barrel-aged beers, only one of which - the highly rated Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, to be released in March - has been identified. There is no time-table for the availability of the other bottles.
Members also get first rights on other beers to be released in the future.
Geiger Powell, Cigar City's media and marketing director, said that the club was created to cut down on the massive crowds that regularly show up at the brewery's doorstep on announced sale dates of certain brands.
In fact, he said, the brewery would prefer that some of its select beers go only to members because "exclusivity is one of the perks of the club."
If all of this sounds like the rarefied world of wine collecting, you get the idea.
In Bordeaux and Burgundy, the finest varieties from famed châteaus are frequently purchased before they're bottled, through so-called wine futures. The pricey vintages are scarfed up and stashed in cellars by wealthy collectors.
Investing in beer futures is far more affordable than grape speculation, naturally. Cigar City's membership, for example, works out to about $25 per 750 ml bottle, the same amount you'd pay in a retail shop. (The brewery also provides members with a 10-percent discount on other purchases.)
Nonetheless, the willingness to pay for beer that hasn't even been brewed yet underscores the near-fanatical obsession for cult beer. Strong and typically barrel-aged, the cherished beers are often traded or resold by collectors who stockpile impressive cellars.
Thanks to limited supplies of some brands, it's not unusual to see prices of $100 or more per bottle on the resale market.
The clubs, then, are a means for breweries to cash in on some of the mania.
* At Vermont's Hill Farmstead Brewery, ranked the world's No. 1 brewery by RateBeer.com, 150 members in the Collected Works club get 12 bottles of various exotic brews. Cost: $350.
* In Everett, Mass., tiny Night Shift Brewery sold 200 memberships in its Barrel Society. Members got 14 corked bottles of various hoppy, sour or flavored ales. Cost: $250.
The proceeds were the equivalent of $50,000 no-interest loans, which the breweries said would go toward equipment purchases and expansion.
Beer futures are not without their pitfalls.
"In order to have a club, you have to have a lot of excitement around new releases," said Tomme Arthur, of California's Lost Abbey/Port Brewing Co. "The challenge is [that] there's an expectation of innovation and exclusivity, or why else buy in?"
Worse, Arthur said, "What if the beer doesn't live up to expectations? What do you do?"
Quality is especially challenging with the barrel-aged or sour beers that are popular club offerings. The flavor of those varieties, which are often blended, depends on time spent in the barrel, wood characteristics and other factors that may be beyond the brewer's control.
The Lost Abbey ended its own club, Sinners and Saints, after three years because of the pressure to meet scheduled release dates, according to Arthur.
Still, it appears that beer futures have a future.
Take Old Redwood Brewing, in Windsor, Calif., where the operating model is based on the exclusivity of its beer club. You can't buy its smoked porter, IPA or any other varieties in retail stores; everything is sold directly from the brewery.
And fully half of its monthly output of about 500 swing-top 750 ml bottles goes to club members.
Interested in buying beer futures? Sale dates vary, so you must either join brewery mailing lists or follow their Facebook posts for advance notice.
Typically, shipping is not included and may not be available. Club members may be permitted to assign "trustees" to fetch their beer at out-of-town breweries. Popular clubs include:
* Cigar City El Catador Club, $126 for 5 bottles.
* Crooked Stave Cellar Reserve, $300 for 20 beers.
* FiftyFifty Brewing Eclipse Futures, price varies.
* Hill Farmstead Collected Works, $350 for 12 bottles.
* Night Shift Brewery, $250 for 14 bottles.
* Old Redwood Brewing, price varies.
* The Bruery Reserve Society, $295 for 10 bottles.