Hardcore enthusiasts like bigger beers, often preferring something with higher ABV or barrel-aged for added complexity. Seasonal releases and rarity play into the game, and while the beers below may be hard to find, they are definitely worth the hunt.
Russian River Pliny the Younger
A world-class Imperial IPA whose reputation is only exceeded by its taste, this beer is released once a year (usually early Feb.) by Russian River brewery in Santa Rosa, CA. Since it’s draft-only, you may be lucky enough to try it at your local brewery when it’s released, but your best bet is to make the pilgrimage and stand in line to try it at the brewery itself. 11% ABV is completely hidden in this beer, which is a deliciously dangerous mix of smooth, substantial malt and a pine, grapefruit and tropical fruit hops. Perfectly balanced and rarely matched, Younger sets the standard for triple IPAs. (Notable alternatives: Hill Farmstead Ephraim, Boneyard Notorious, Alpine Exponential Hoppiness or Three Floyds Permanent Funeral.) russianriverbrewing.com
Cantillon Fou Foune
The pinnacle of fruit Lambics, Fou Foune strikes a balance between sweet apricot jam, wild yeast funk, a spicy backbone and a dry, mouth-puckering sour finish. Brewed by Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium, Fou Foune is a seasonal beer that comes in at 5% ABV. What’s surprising about this fantastic beer is that it’s spontaneously fermented with wild yeast; after the brewing process is completed, the unfermented beer (wort) is left to rest in large, open-air cooling tanks (coolships) until environmental yeast and souring bacteria fall into the beer and begin the fermentation process. The fermenting beer is then left to rest in oak barrels for 2 years to age and develop a deliciously sour and funky profile before the brewers add 1,200 kgs of Bordeaux-grown Bergeron Apricots to the barrels. This beer is available at the Cantillon brewery and occasionally sees distribution in the United States, although supplies are extremely limited. (Notable alternatives: Anything Cantillon, Allagash Coolship series, Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek or Upland Lambics.) www.cantillon.be
Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
Josh Martino is trying the sampler at Half Moon Bay Brewing, CA.
Currently available in multiple varieties (including regular, Coffee, Backyard Rye and Coconut Proprietor’s Reserve), Goose Island’s Bourbon County line of imperial stouts are part of the largest (and one of the oldest) barrel aging programs in the country. Based in Chicago, IL, Goose Island brews its Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) at a whopping 14.5% ABV. Chocolate, vanilla, caramel, charred oak and rich bourbon flavor are imparted as this beer spends 8 to 12 months aging in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels. Imagine taking campfire-roasted s’mores and dunking the corner in a warm glass of bourbon – that’s what it’s like to drink this beer. The brewers at Goose Island like to experiment with the BCBS line, currently offering a version with coffee roasted from Chicago-local Intelligensia Coffee and one aged in Templeton Rye barrels with fresh mulberries, marionberries and boysenberries added. Their current most sought-after (and smallest batch) edition of BCBS is the Proprietor’s Reserve which was also aged in Templeton Rye barrels with large amounts of toasted coconut added. BCBS and some of its variants will see national distribution, although supplies are limited and will sell out quickly. Older versions that are no longer produced (Rare, Cherry Rye or Vanilla) have become very desirable and are still drinking incredibly well. (Notable alternatives: The Bruery Black Tuesday, Alesmith Barrel Aged Speedway, Founders Kentucky Breakfast, Cigar City Hunaphu or Deschutes Abyss.) www.gooseisland.com
Westvleteren 12 (XII)
Often referred to as “the best beer in the world”, Westvleteren 12 is a Belgian Quadrupel brewed by monks at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in northwest Belgium. Nicknamed “Westy 12,” the 10.2% ABV beer is brewed in small batches and until recently was only available for purchase at the brewery itself (the beer came in wooden crates). Recent monastery renovations have pushed the monks to sell the beer in limited distribution around Belgium and it even made a one-time appearance in the United States courtesy of a partnership between the abbey and US-based distributor Shelton Brothers. Westy 12 features flavors of rich figs, raisins, dark cherries, a malty caramel backbone, brandy, rum and brown sugar. It’s bottle-conditioned and ages very well, mellowing out the alcohol-heavy finish and blending all of the fruity characteristics. This is a very hard beer to find in the US, but it’s still available via online vendors and shipped from Belgium. A definite “must-try” for any enthusiast who appreciates the complexities of strong Belgian dark ales steeped in history. (Notable alternatives: St. Bernadus Abt 12, Trappistes Rochefort 12, De Struise Pannepot, Boulevard The Sixth Glass or Ommegang Three Philosophers.) www.sintsixtus.be/eng/brouwerij.htm
Pelican Pub & Brewery Mother of All Storms
Nestled on the picturesque Oregon coast in the small town of Pacific City, Pelican Pub and Brewery produces one of the most sought-after beers in the country. Every year this brewery produces a limited batch of Mother of All Storms (MoAS), an English Barleywine aged in bourbon barrels and topping out at 14% ABV. MoAS is a multiple-award winner (available in bottles) that is delicious fresh or with a few years of age. It’s a rich, complex gem with flavors of toasted malt, caramel, coffee, vanilla, tobacoo, spice and oak, showing a depth rarely matched in the arena of BA Barleywines. As an annual release, most of the bottles are sold directly at the pub, although some may see limited distribution throughout the Pacific Northwest. The annual release of MoAS is a great reason to go visit the rugged, beautiful Oregon coastline, one of the few places in the world where pristine beauty meets unparalleled beer. (Notable alternatives: Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywine, Firestone Walker Sucaba, Weyerbacher Insanity, Kuhnhenn Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine or Midnight Sun Arctic Devil.) www.yourlittlebeachtown.com/pelican