Drinking craft beer has become more than just a hobby — it’s a conquest, especially when it comes to limited edition beers that can be as scarce (and as alcoholic) as some wines.
Some of these beers have huge, cult-like followings, with release parties and wait lines that queue up 24 hours in advance. And vintage bottles of the ones that age well can sell at auction for thousands of dollars.
In honour of American Craft Beer Week (May 11-17), we’ve rounded up the 17 most coveted craft beers in America, based on availability, release schedule, and desirability.
Goose Island's 'Bourbon County' series includes the Bourbon County Stout, Coffee Stout, Barleywine, and Proprietor's Stout. Goose Island releases new batches each year, but with variations in recipes. 2014's Vanilla Rye, a new addition to the series, is a boozy, 13.8% alcohol by volume (ABV) stout aged in rye whiskey barrels from four different distilleries.
The Chicago-based brewery distributes to most states, but the seasonal release of the Bourbon County series means bottles can be harder to find, not to mention that the Proprietor's Stout is only available in Chicago, and the Vanilla Rye is a limited edition only sold in 22-ounce bottles.
Nugget Nectar is a seasonal, hoppy amber ale from Pennsylvania-based Troëgs Brewing Company. It's citrusy with a malt backbone, boozy at nearly 8% ABV, and, as Deadspin's Will Gordon notes, would probably be called an 'imperial red IPA' if it hadn't already been released before the huge IPA craze.
It's fairly easy to find if you're in one of the 11 states Troëgs distributes to (and when it's in season), but if you're not, you may be travelling to get ahold of Pennsylvania's best beer.
Utopias is an insane barleywine that Samuel Adams has been experimenting with since 2002. It claims to be one of the first barrel-aged beers and ranges in absurd alcohol contents from year to year, from 24% to 30%. It comes in a unique, kettle-style container reminiscent of a genie lamp, and with only about 15,000 bottles released each season (and usually only on odd-numbered years), they often sell for around $US200 a bottle.
Thirteen different states actually prohibit the sale of such a high-alcohol beer.
Heady Topper is the only beer Vermont-based brewery The Alchemist brews regularly. The brewery isn't open to the public right now, and distribution is so limited that people travel and wait in line for hours to buy it when it hits stores.
Some people call the flowery, citrusy, canned double IPA one of the best in the world. The only thing stopping Heady Topper from being higher on this list is that the brewery reportedly makes 45,000 cans per week -- basically, it's available if you can get to Vermont.
King Sue started as a fun, experimental double IPA from Iowa-based brewery Toppling Goliath in 2014, but became so popular amongst drinkers that the brewery is making more and bottling it for the first time in 2015. The brewery is famous for its American pale ale 'pseudoSue,' so while King Sue is less well-known, it's a lot harder to get.
Toppling Goliath beers are tough to find in general because they're available almost solely in the northern Midwest, and the brewery is only just figuring how to bottle and distribute the wildly popular King Sue.
Firestone Walker's beers draw rave reviews from customers, and Parabola, a complex imperial stout with 14% ABV -- described as having bourbon, tobacco, and espresso aromas with roasted malt, bourbon, and vanilla tastes -- is no different. Craft Loyal calls it a 'slice of heaven,' while users on beer-review app Pintley call it 'perfection in a glass' and 'a beer to have before you die.'
In 2014, the brewery only released 3,500 bottles, and with Firestone's distribution reaching just 19 states, Parabola can be a tough one to find.
Foothills releases its imperial Russian stout once a year in the winter. The release is so popular that the brewery holds a detailed release party the night before. Customers are free to line up outside the brewery at 2 a.m. the night before, wait until the brewery re-opens at 6:30 a.m., go to the pub for Sexual Chocolate on tap at 8 a.m., and buy bottles, which go on sale at 9 a.m.
According to Triad Business Journal, Foothills held an auction this year for a beer goblet, a gift card, and three spots at the front of the line for Sexual Chocolate, with bidding getting close to $US300.
Hopslam is a 10% ABV double IPA made with six different hop varieties, a hearty dose of malt, and a little bit of honey.
The bold IPA only comes out in winter, and with most stores only selling one six pack at a time, and distribution limited to 21 states, purchasing Hopslam can turn into a frantic affair which ends less than a month after the beer's release.
Dogfish Head 120 Minute is the ultimate IPA: It's hopped continuously every minute for 120 minutes straight. It's so hoppy that it's not even hoppy anymore; unlike other IPAs, it's not that bitter, just really flavorful and very strong (it can reach about 20% ABV).
The brewery says it releases the beer a few times a year, but many fans only see it once a year, maybe, depending on where they live. The beer is expensive, and very tricky, to make because of how hopped and alcoholic it is -- it's so strong that the Milton, Delaware-based brewery has has incidences of bottles exploding.
Founders devotes an entire week a year (this year it was March 9-14) to celebrating the release of its most popular limited release beer, Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS). The beer is aged for a year in Kentucky bourbon barrels, hence its once-a-year release.
Only 15 lucky Grand Rapids-area bars that serve Founders beer get a keg of the stout to tap during KBS Week. The beer can be had there, or can be found in bottles at the brewery, but only if you bought a ticket to reserve one in advance.
Released on Hunahpu's Day which, this year, was March 14, Hunahpu's Imperial Stout gives lovers of beer and warm weather another reason to head down to Florida. On Hunahpu's Day, people have to buy tickets to the big bash, at which the beer is released and the party goes on all night. Tampa Bay Times created a survival guide to the event -- apparently it's madness.
The ticketed event is $US200 per person, and it usually sells out immediately. May the odds be ever in your favour next year.
Last August, Maine Beer Co. sold Dinner (a beer, not a meal) in bottles, with a four-bottle limit per customer. Last summer was the third time in 2014 that the brewery has released the beer, and 'each release has caused a stir among fans,' according to Maine Today.
The double IPA is about 8.2% ABV, hopped twice for a strong floral aroma and flavour. The beer is sold on a first-come-first-served basis, with a limit of one case of beer per customer. Most people buying the beer at the brewery head straight to the taproom and open one (or two) up right on the spot.
A dark and sultry imperial stout aged for 12 months in Rittenhouse rye barrels, Barrel-Aged Abraxas is released once a year in late summer. The beer clocks in at about 11% ABV, and is brewed with exotic additives like cacao nibs, vanilla bean, ancho chiles, and cinnamon.
Last year's release was a first-come-first-served event at the St. Louis brewery. Some bottles were also available for purchase online after the release event, but only for those whose lottery tickets were drawn. This year the brewery amped up production of Abraxas by 50 per cent to meet the high demands of the beer's numerous fans.
Last year The Bruery held a lottery drawing to decide who could purchase this annual October release. People scrambled to get a lotto ticket this year, and only if their numbers were drawn were they deemed worthy of purchasing the 19% ABV bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout.
The drawing was followed by an extended purchase period, during which those whose tickets were not drawn could purchase one of the $US30 bottles of beer, if there were any left. In 2012, 3,000 bottles of the beer sold in 10 minutes, according to OC Weekly. The Weekly reported that, in response to this news on The Bruery's Facebook page, one commenter wrote, 'No worries, 2,700 of them will be on eBay in about 15 minutes.'
Pliny the Younger is like its cousin, Pliny the Elder, in that it's an IPA, only Younger has a higher alcohol by volume and is even harder to get than Elder.
Elder is only found year-round in California and parts of the north- and southwest -- the brewery refuses to export the beer elsewhere so that they don't compromise the integrity of the delicate hops -- but Younger is only available on draft at the Santa Rosa, California brew pub until it runs out (usually the same day it's released).
Younger is a triple IPA, with an alcohol percentage of about 10.25% and seven different kinds of hops.
If you're waiting for the next time Hair of the Dog releases Dave, the 29% ABV barleywine named after craft beer bar The Toronado's owner, Dave Keene, you better make yourself comfortable. The last time Dave was released -- just a dozen bottles -- was in September 2013. The going rate was about $US2,000 apiece, and even at that price they sold out within a matter of hours.
What makes the beer so desirable is the fact that it's been ageing in barrels for nearly 20 years, which is longer than some wines age. Word has it the Portland, Oregon, brewery still has some Dave left in its reserves, but there's no word yet on if or when the brewer will release another round.
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