Session #38: Cult Beers

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Our 38th Session is hosted by Sean Inman at Beer Search Party, is cult beers; those beers that are in short supply, high demand and often require going to great lengths to acquire.

Here’s Sean’s thoughts on the cult of beers:

I started thinking about what beer or beers that I would get up at 4:00 in the morning, drive across state lines, stand in a long unmoving line in the cold and rain for the chance to taste with a crowd the size of Woodstock.

So here is my question to you (with a couple addenda).

What beer have you tasted recently (say, the last six months or so) that is worthy of their own day in the media sun?

And to add a little extra to it, how does “great” expectations affect your beer drinking enjoyment?

AND If you have attended one of these release parties, stories and anecdotes of your experience will be welcomed too.

So that’s the assignment, so to speak. While I’m not big on actually standing in lines, if anything might so motivate me, it’s the promise of a truly extraordinary beer for my trouble.

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But what makes a cult beer? Scarcity seems to be a factor. An intangible hype also sees to be part of the legend. Of course, Coors was once a cult beer, at least East of the Mississippi. Some people think of PBR as a cult beer even though it’s hardly difficult to find. So beers that were once cult favorites can lose that peculiar appeal to become more pedestrian beers. Years ago Mendocino Brewing’s Eye of the Hawk was considered a cult beer and its biannual release was highly anticipated, but they foolishly decided to make it all year round. As a result, it’s really lost virtually all its cache.

Of course, it better taste good to back up the hype or it’s going to lose its cult status pretty quickly. All but a couple of the beers on my list were pretty damn good. So perhaps the real question is does having to work to get a cult beer to try bias one toward rating it higher, in effect giving it points just for the effort involved? I think that can be a factor. Human nature being what it is, most of us don’t want to admit that all that effort wasn’t worth it. In a sense, like many quests, it’s really the journey that’s important.

Every geeky discipline has it’s holy grails that its most ardent fans will seek out. I also collect View-Master reels and there’s one reel among the early single reels (before packets — never mind, V-M geek talk) that always commands the highest price in auctions. It’s Reel #1305 and the last time it was auctioned, it fetched over $800. I think it’s title will explain, at least in part, why: “President Kennedy’s Visit To Ireland.” And indeed, the late John F. Kennedy is in several of the reel’s seven pictures. View-Master geek that I am, I’ve had the reel for a number of years and while it’s certainly a highly-prized part of my collection, there are countless reels with more stunning 3-D photography that I like to look at far more often.

But one thing you can say about geeks is that they’re never satisfied, always restless and in search of the next thing, big or small. And so cult beers will always be a part of the craft industry. Making too little beer for demand is something small brewers can easily excel at. All they need to do is make sure the demand is high enough, sprinkle some hype around and a quick sell out is all but assured, which in turn makes its cult status only grow. And, naturally, they need to brew a beer that can live up to the hype, something most seem readily able to do.

I frankly think the scarce beers are great for the industry. They provide a creative outlet for the brewers, beers for the most ardent fans and make reputations for the breweries themselves while simultaneously allowing them to concentrate on their core brands that make the majority of their profits for them. The most successful breweries seem to me the ones that can both have a flagship or stable of beers that everybody loves and a few stand-outs that appeal primarily to the beer geeks. That’s real multitasking, brewery style. Think New Belgium’s Fat Tire/La Folie. Deschutes’ Black Butte Porter/The Abyss. New Glarus’ Spotted Cow/Everything Else. Sam Adams Boston Lager/Utopias. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale/Bigfoot, Celebration and quite a lot more. I don’t think it’s an accident those are some of the most successful modern era breweries.

beer-koolaid
Drink the cult beer Kool-aid.

But which beers are cult beers? Which ones belong on a list of cult beers? I’ve made a list below off the top of my head Without putting too much thought into it, these are a few that immediately came to mind.

  • Black Albert (De Struise)
  • Black Tuesday (The Bruery)
  • Cable Car (Lost Abbey)
  • Cuvee de Tomme (Lost Abbey)
  • Dark Lord (Three Floyds)
  • Exponential Hoppiness (Alpine beer)
  • Kate the Great (Portsmouth Brewery)
  • Leviathan Barleywine (Fish Brewing)
  • Local 1 (Brooklyn Brewery)
  • O.B.A. (Anchor Brewery)
  • 120 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head)
  • Pliny the Elder (Russian River Brewing)
  • Pliny the Younger (Russian River Brewing)
  • Poseidon Imperial Stout (Fish Brewing)
  • Raspberry Tart (New Glarus)
  • Sink the Bismarck! (BrewDog)
  • Speedway Stout (AleSmith)
  • Tactical Nuclear Penguin (BrewDog)
  • Toronado 20th Anniversary Ale (Russian River Brewing)
  • Westvleteren Blond, 8 and 12 (Westvleteren)
  • Wisconsin Belgian Red (New Glarus)

These seem like no brainers, for the most part. Of course, I’ve tried all of them. I assume there’s plenty of ones I can’t think of simply because I’ve never tried them, or perhaps even heard of them. What else should be on the list? Anchor’s Christmas Ale? Sierra Nevada Bigfoot?

As it happens, I recently sampled a number of the beers on this list at this year’s Keene Tasting at Brouwer’s Cafe in Seattle. I’ll have my report from that tasting posted shortly and will update it here with a link.

Pliny-the-Younger
The original cult figure Pliny the Younger.

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