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East End is grateful for volunteers. We’re grateful for barleywine.

And everyone is grateful for Gratitude. Especially on Gratitude Day.

East End’s mostly-annual release of its Gratitude barleywine started more than a decade ago, as a way for the then-young brewery to thank its customers.

These days, Gratitude release day is a full-fledged Pittsburgh beer holiday, the first day of its kind around here, with the possible exception of the yearly release of Penn’s St. Nikolaus Bock.Customers line up for bottles of the fresh Gratitude, to both drink now and to stow away for a few years. And they also show up to get their hands on vintage bottles that have been stashed away by the brewery for special occasions.

What’s the big deal? Like other barleywines, Gratitude is a big beer, and because of its ingredients and its alcohol, it ages extremely well; after a few years, some of the flavors that are more prominent in the younger versions — especially the hops that are easy to find when Gratitude is fresh — drop away, revealing a complex liquid that often reminds me of a rich brandy. East End owner Scott Smith said his favorite versions of the beer come in two varieties — as fresh as possible or aged four or more years.

But the production that is Gratitude Day doesn’t come without some extra work. When the beer is ready — it is bottle conditioned, on top of spending a lot of extra time in fermentation tanks — a team of volunteers show up at the brewery to label the bottles and dip them in a colored wax — green this year — specific to the vintage.

And this year, there was a new twist: a return to a few of the paper-labeled 750 ml bottles that were a hallmark of Gratitude releases past. That meant that this year’s volunteers got some first-hand experience with the sloppy wheat paste used to make that paper stick.

It’s not all bad, though — they get a pizza lunch for their trouble and, besides the folks who actually work at the brewery, they get the first tastes of the brand-new vintage. And that’s definitely something to be thankful for.

This year’s Gratitude Day is Saturday, March 24, at the brewery in Larimer. Both styles of bottles of the new barleywine will be available, as well as verticals, barrel-aged Gratitude in 16-ounce cans and flights on tap. Details are available here.

Big thanks to my friends at Stewards of Beer for the photos of the volunteers prepping Gratitude bottles.

A smaller package, but a huge change

Cases and 12-packs sit together on the shelves at Beer Express in Robinson.

Cases and 12-packs sit together on the shelves at Beer Express in Robinson.

It sort of came out of the blue a year ago. First, there was word that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board might issue an opinion that would change the legal definition of a package — as it pertains to the sales of beer — and that the change would allow distributors to sell 12-packs, for the first time ever in the state.

The following day, it was official, and the ruling set off a scramble on the part of distributors that wanted to take advantage of the newfound flexibility … and on the part of breweries that wanted to get the smaller packages into the hands of consumers.

The change came about largely because of an effort here, a push by Pistella Beer Distributors, Save-Mor Beer, Rivertowne Brewing, and the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania. And the smaller packages have made a difference here as well, from the distributors that sell to the distributors — think the Vecenie Distributing warehouse in Millvale — and the distributors we visit when we want to take home some beer — think Beer Express in Robinson.

Tony Knipling, who manages a long list of craft beer brands for Vecenie, says that in the last year, he’s seen breweries step up to make new packages available to customers in Pennsylvania, even occasionally making special arrangements for mixed 12-packs that other states don’t get to enjoy.

Ryan Federbusch, the owner of Beer Express, has noticed the same thing from the breweries he carries. But he also sees the advantage to the smaller packages from the standpoint of the consumer: more variety, less expense … and a fewer stray bottles or cans from cases we grew tired of filling the beer fridge.

What they say is true: good things come in small(er) packages.

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