In the past decade, beer has risen to a level of respect, scrutiny, and hype never before seen in its history. Today, most of us can find delicious, well-made beers locally. And with online shopping trends, it’s easier than ever to source regional or even international beers (at a price).
At its core, the heart of craft beer is built on people and passion. The industry promotes an ethos that focuses on quality but also on locality. Drink fresh! And so it seems ironic and almost counter-productive to focus on the unicorns and white whales of beer.
That’s not to say that most of these beers deserve all the praise and attention they get. These beers have become legendary because they are goddamn delicious, and also difficult for most of us to acquire.
We could compile spreadsheets or use AI to scrape social media/Google to ends of the internet to list the most obscure, niche and beer trader-beloved beers. That may be too granular, and not very useful for the average beer drinker. Instead, we’ll make it easier on everyone and list off some of our favourite rare beers.
In no particular order, here are some of our favourite rare beers. Most of these are actually gettable depending on where you live and how much you are willing to spend. These beers are meant to be drunk. If you are looking for “collectables” then you’ve come to wrong the place.
Some may scoff at referring to one of the founding fathers of the NEIPA movement as “rare”. Founded in Vermont in 2003, Heady Topper was initially slated for occasional release by The Alchemist. This hazy, luminous double India Pale Ale slams hops and yeast straight into the drinker’s face.
Drunk straight from a tall can of unpasteurised goodness, notes of citrus, tropical fruit and pine all make for a stupidly drinkable 8% DIPA. Today the beer is released at the brewery every week where dozens to hundreds queue up regularly for a case of this sweet nectar. For those of us who aren’t local to Vermont, good luck getting a fresh and well-kept can!
Here in the UK, we are some of the lucky ones. In addition to having much better access to Belgium and other European breweries than our mates across the pond, we also have some fantastic niche breweries putting out of some the highest-rated beer in the world. Founded and operated by a husband and wife team, Mills Brewing Co. is near the top of British brewing today.
Based in Berkely, Gloucestershire the brewery spontaneously ferments and barrel ages every batch of beer produced. Their philosophy is low-intervention. They let the beers direct and guide them to every hand-bottled finished product. MIlls also places an emphasis on local expression.
Perhaps this can be seen no better than with the aptly named Dr Jenner’s Muscat Vine. This beer was made with grapes grown on 200-year-old vines preserved at the Jenner Museum, which is just up the road from the brewery. In 2020, one bottle was auctioned for over £160. With only 200 bottles released, you can be sure that the closest you will probably get to this beer will be reading reviews on Untapped.
Today in the US, the amount of breweries that focus solely on barrel ageing and barrel/spontaneously fermented beer is quite staggering. Breweries like De Garde, The Ale Apothecary, Jolly Pumpkin, and The Black Project are just the tip of the iceberg. Side Project Brewing out of Maplewood, Missouri is among the best of the best.
O.W.K was brewed to commemorate the birth of the owners’ son. Always skilfully adept at brewing luscious, robust, big stouts, this beer elevates itself above its peers. This imperial stout was aged for 15 months in hand-selected 15-year-old Willer Family Estate Bourbon (also rare) barrels. After finishing the maturation process, the beer was rested on Ugandan vanilla beans. This once-in-a-lifetime beer is nearly impossible to find.
Russian River Brewing Co. is close to the hearts of many craft beer communities across the world. Always home-brew, Vinnie Cilurzo helped put many beers on the map including the double IPA and the modern American Brown Ale. Pliny the Elder is still one of the best examples of a west coast DIPA around today. Anyone venturing near the brewery in California would do well to get a pint if sighted in the wild.
But it is Pliny the Younger that has carried the torch of rarest beers from Sonoma County brewery. For many years, the golden, 10% triple IPA was released once a year and only available on draft. People would queue up at the Santa Rosa Brewpub like they were heading to a Star Wars Prequel (such disappointments) and battle the crowds of local venues for tickets to their small pour of this remarkable beer.
In recent years, Pliny was released in bottles, albeit in limited supply. If you want to try the beer in 2022, you will have to make it one of Russian River’s two brewpubs. Once it’s gone, it’s gone!
Unless you live in Brussels, Cantillon beers are not always the easiest to get your hands on. The core beers (Gueuze, Kriek, Rose de Gambrinus) are not always so difficult to find here in the UK but expect to sink plenty of your hard-earned money into a purchase. Ask our cousins across the pond about the Lambic producers and you may as well be having a discussion on Big Foot.
The seasonal and annual releases can be daunting for anyone to procure. The ever-changing Zwanze release is among the most rare. However, stepping out of the professional “we”, I am writing this blog. And Fou’Foune is my favourite and it is released once a year. Fou’Foune is a blend of lambics aged 18 to 20 months and finished on Bergeron apricots. It is delicious and I need you to send me some.
While it is debatable which of the Trappist beers is the best, there is no arguing about which is the hardest to get. If you’ve ever been to Belgium, you’ve likely seen this mysterious unlabeled bottle sitting on the shelf of a speciality shop. But scholars of Michael Jackson (no, not that one) and beer hunters around the globe will already know about the 10.2% Westy 12.
The Trappist monks at the Saint-Sixtus Abbey have been making beer for nearly two centuries and their quad is a magnificent example of the style. Technically, this other-worldy brew is not to be resold, yet that is how many of us get our first taste of this legend. Getting your hands on this beer requires patience and determination. First, you must ring the brewery during specific windows of time. If you get through, you are one of the lucky ones.
Now pick a day and collect your two cases of beer the following week. That’s right, you need to physically collect the beer in Belgium. Get those flights booked. We’ve never heard anyone say they regret heading to Wesvleteren.
Here at Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing, our beers are typically meant to be fresh and approachable for everyone. Lager Day Saints and Easy Rinder are simple, straightforward and delicious all while punching in at 0.5% ABV. Our “full-strength” beers like Lumber Jill and Teutonic Knights are inspired by classics and highly drinkable.
But just because we specialise in low ABV beers, it doesn’t mean we can’t dabble in the dark arts of barrel ageing. Most recently, we took our traditional black lager at its humble 2.8% ABV and aged it in Scottish Whisky barrels. The beer is full of coffee, chocolate, crisp, whisky sour and surprisingly rich at the same time. We’re not sure we will brew this again, so get some before it’s too late!
Luckily for drinkers, there’s a diverse range of beer available today. To support a sustainable industry, always look for the best local producers! And when suitable, chase down your white whales with impunity. And always remember the most important thing, beers are meant to be drunk, not collected. If you want to invest in bottled liquid, invest in wine!