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click to enlarge GET IN LINE: People lined up nearly 10 hours early to get their membership cards - for Cigar City’s El Catador Club. - Tom Scherberger
Tom Scherberger
GET IN LINE: People lined up nearly 10 hours early to get their membership cards for Cigar City’s El Catador Club.

Cigar City Brewing has created a following so loyal that hundreds turned out in Sunday's sweltering heat to buy barrel-aged beer that hasn’t even been made yet.

The line to join CCB’s new El Catador Club snaked around three sides of an old Sears outlet store across Spruce Street from the brewery. These charter members didn’t know what they were buying or when they would get it. They just knew it would be awesome. And they had to have it, even at $120 for five over-sized bottles. That’s $24 for each bottle and perhaps months of waiting before the bottles are in their possession.

Stephen Hinick, 28, was first in line. He drove three hours from Jupiter and was standing in line by 6:30 a.m., 10 hours early. He wasn’t taking any chances. “I’ve had a lot of barrel-aged beers, but Cigar City definitely does the top of the top,” Hinick said. “I have faith that it’s definitely going to be good.”

Cigar City’s owner and founder Joey Redner resisted a membership club for years. “I’ve always kind of favored the random release,” Redner says. He likes the serendipity of it. But some loyal customers began complaining when they couldn’t get a bottle, or large crowds showed up, overwhelming the brewery and annoying neighbors.

The brewery is “bursting at the seams,” Redner says, and large turnout for special releases has become burdensome.

The success of the new barrel-aged club reflects Cigar City’s towering stature in American craft beer circles — ranks it fourth best in the world, pretty impressive for a four-year-old brewery.

Much of that reputation is based on limited releases, particularly Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout and its barrel-aged variations. “The barrel-aged stuff is important,” Redner says, “but as a percentage it’s much smaller.”

The brewery makes 25,000 barrels annually and will likely double that in the next couple of years. About 55 percent is just Jai Alai IPA, and demand for that is so great shortages are common despite ramped-up production.

Cigar will continue releasing some barrel-aged beers in random ways outside El Catador, which is Spanish for “the taster.” For $120 (cash only) members get five barrel-aged beers, a 10 percent discount at the CCB tasting room, a t-shirt and the chance to buy more limited-release beers before non-members. The beer must be picked up at the brewery but members can designate a “trustee” for pickups. The membership has no time period; it ends 30 days after the last beer is released. You won’t know what you will get, though one will be a “barrel-aged version of Hunahpu’s.”

The club appeals to beer geeks, traders and collectors, as well as CCB, who welcome the fast cash infusion. The most appealing part for customers is guaranteed access to some rare CCB beers. No line, no waiting.

Except for the line to get a membership, of course.

Cigar City planned to limit Sunday’s sign-up to the first 1,000 people, but that stirred so much angst that the cap was removed and memberships were sold until 11 p.m. That made for a pretty laid-back atmosphere, and a packed tasting room where people waited for the line to thin.

By the end of the night, over 800 memberships had been sold. Redner says sales will continue in the tasting room over the next two weeks until they reach 1,000. Then, Redner says an additional 500 memberships will be sold online.

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