HAVE YOU WANDERED through a store with well-stocked beer shelves recently? If you haven't, do it soon. You're in for a shock. The American beer world is changing rapidly, becoming more sophisticated, more interesting, with dark corners and twists and turns, and tons of strange elixirs. What's more, beer is becoming collectible. There are beers being made today that fans wait for with great anticipation, then buy a case or two, put them in a cool basement or in a refrigerator dedicated to beer and store them for years, opening a bottle or two on special occasions.

Sound preposterous? Consider Stone Vertical Epic. This is an annual release from Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido in San Diego County, the craft brewer famous for Arrogant Bastard.

A new Vertical Epic is released each year when the month, day and year align. The first was on Feb. 2, 2002. Each is quite strong, designed to age in the bottle for at least a dozen years.

The latest version came out this month on July 7. Vertical Epic 07.07.07 (HH1/2) is our Beer of the Week. We often refer to some of today's stronger, hoppier India pale ales these days as "hop bombs." Well, this year's Vertical Epic is a "spice bomb." It's a throwback to ancient days. Before hops were commonly used to bitter beer, brewers used wallops of spices to balance the sweetness of barley malt. From the aroma to the follow, spice dominates this beer. It's a hazy, cloudy copper, 8.4 percent alcohol by volume.

It's a blend of four barley malts; hops are mild Glacier for bittering, and mildly spicy, flowery Crystal. The yeast, Stone's founder Greg Koch says, is Belgian. The beer has a huge spicy nose. The taste is peppery and hot: heat from the ginger and from the alcohol. The saving grace is the beer's substantial malt sweetness, which balances -- barely -- the spice hit. There's a long, dry, hot spicy finish.

Whew. This is a beer that needs to age. Only time can take the edge off the ferocious spice attack. By next year or the year after, this one should be approaching four-star beer. About $5.25 for a 22-ounce bottle.

Last note: After I sampled 07.07.07, I cracked the cap on a 06.06.06. No, I wasn't smart enough to keep a bottle from last year; I paid $13 at one of my favorite beer stores for a bottle. Like good wine, this is a beer that increases in value. It was worth the money.

What a treat. Vertical Epic 06.06.06 (HHHH) is a dark brown with a toffee, vanilla nose. Taste has a bit of spicy heat from alcohol. A perfect after-dinner drink. This is a beer with legs; it well may be quite a sipper in 2012. By the way, if you're a home brewer, the recipes for each of these beers has been posted by Stone on the Web at http://www.stonebrew.com/epic/index.php. Oh yes, one more interesting note: Stone's head brewer is Mitch Steele. Who's he? Steele was the guy at Anheuser-Busch in charge of special projects -- until he signed on with Stone. I must say, 07.07.07 is about as far from Bud as it's possible to get.

Ho, ho, hot: Eons ago, between high school, the U.S. Navy and college, I worked one summer in Yellowstone Park. On July 25, park employees had an annual bash: Christmas in July. The argument was that at Christmas, Yellowstone would be buried in snow and no one would be around. So, we celebrated the holiday in midsummer.

Well, Barclays, the superb pub at 5940 College Ave. in Oakland, 510-654-1650, has the same idea. This week they're celebrating Christmas big time. Manager Ryan Westerman says they're hauling out a number of kegs of holiday beer they've been saving for the past seven months.

Beers on tap include Drake's barrel-aged Jolly Roger, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Deschutes Jubelale and Pyramid Snow Cap Ale. What's more, Barclay's dinner menu will include prime rib and roast turkey, two traditional American holiday meals.

Getting a jump on Christmas in July, the beers go on tap starting Sunday, Westerman says.

Another spot that usually celebrates craft beer Christmas in July is Porky's Pizza Palace, down the pike from Oakland at 1221 Manor Blvd. in San Leandro, 510-357-4323.

Proprietor Gary Valenziano says he won't be breaking out any Christmas kegs this year. But this is a pizza parlor with an impressive beer list that includes HopTown DUIPA, Trumer Pils, Anderson Valley Boont Amber, Green Flash IPA, Pyramid Hefeweizen, Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Drake's Blonde, New Belgium 1554 Brussels Style Black Ale, Widmer W'07 Pale Ale and Anchor Steam.

The pizza's excellent, too.

Going to Ale A? Check out "The Beer Guppy's Guide to Southern California," by one of the Southland's resident beer gurus, Jay Sheveck. In this labor of love, Sheveck provides details about brewerys, brewpubs and festivals from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border. He has listings of pubs serving real ale and lists the best bottle shops. At $9.95, it's a great deal. Info at http://www.beerguppy.com.

Correction: On the subject of addresses ... In last week's column, I mentioned Lucy Saunders' very excellent "Grilling With Beer," but I neglected to mention where to buy it. E-mail Saunders at grillingwithbeer@yahoo.com or order from her Web site: http://www.grillingwithbeer.com.

Calendar

  • Saturday, noon-5 p.m., seventh annual Microbreweries Battling Breast Cancer Brewfest, Marin Brewing Co., 1809 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. They call this "the breast fest." It's a very worthy benefit for the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic, Oakland, and brewers from all over the Bay Area bring special beers to the event. Cost: $20 in advance. Tickets, info: 415-461-4677 or http://www.marinbrewing.com.

  • Aug. 1, Meet Me at the Arch -- Celebrating the 75th birthday of the Pleasanton Arch in downtown Pleasanton. 6-9 p.m. Besides some home-grown stuff like a Pooch Parade, there will be a beer and wine garden on Main Street, featuring wines from the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association and beer from a number of local breweries: Main Street, Trumer and Anheuser-Busch.

  • Aug. 11, Bistro 10th annual IPA Festival, the Bistro, 1001 B. St., Hayward. Beers from more than 50 breweries, live music, barbecue. Professional judging, People's Choice Award. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Cost to be announced. Info: http://www.the-bistro.org, 510-886-8525. If you live for India pale ale, this is one festival you shouldn't miss. Great beer, lots of fun. B Street will be closed for the festival.

    Reach William Brand at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net or call 510-915-1180 and ask for his 2007 Retail Beer Store List. Read more by Brand at http://www.beernewsletter.com/blog.