As craft beer culture firmly takes hold within the mainstream, there is still a cult-like dedication for some in search for the perfect pour. Expert collectors and cicerones (beer connoisseurs) use a multi-tiered calculation when deciding which craft beers stand apart from the rest — and which ones are worth investing time and money into acquiring.
According to Matt Simpson of BeerSommelier and RateBeer.com, the four essential elements that make a beer a “must drink” (or collect) are: hype, scarcity, locality, and ingredients.
“The biggest of these is hype. This can be generated by what the beer geeks call ‘homers,’ or people who live near a particular brewery,” says Simpson. “And they get together and say, ‘This is the best beer ever, and we want it to be popular!’ Sometimes it actually works.”
But things change as the market grows, he notes. A few years ago if you were able to get your hands on Old Rasputin from North Coast Brewing, for example, you would be considered a rock star. “People would do anything for it… [But] now they’re everywhere, they’re sort of ubiquitous. For that reason, it kind of loses that appeal,” explains Simpson.
On the flipside of that equation, a great beer that has wide distribution can be taken for granted, only to be highly valued once it becomes a rarity. That was the case with Cantillon. “It was what the geeks nowadays would call ‘shelf turds.’ It was everywhere. But Cantillon isn’t on the shelves anywhere anymore, and so what was extremely common 10 or 12 years ago, is now hard to find,” Simpson says, noting that nowadays some people will trade multiple rare beers in order to get their hands on one of them.
Scarcity and locality can make a certain beer the stuff of legends. The farther a beer travels from its local brewery of origin, the rarer it is likely to become. And when you couple the distance factor along with a low production run, it makes certain beers more appealing. Case in point for Simpson? ‘Cable Car’, of Lost Abbey, the kind of beer he considers a one-time get.
“Basically they made this complex sour ale, and it ended up being one of my ‘epiphany beers,’ as we might say in the world’… I tasted it once when I was in San Diego on business, and my friend ordered it from a bar at $60… I don’t know if they will ever make it again, and I don’t know if I will get to try it again if they ever do.”
That leaves us with the final factor — the ingredients and the tastes that go along with them. Unlike wine, which has limitations in the grapes that create them, beer has far more possibilities in flavor.
“It’s similar to wine, but it’s different. Whereas wine has a finite palate, the canvas upon which you paint all the characteristics of a flavor is much larger with beer,” explains Simpson. “You have dozens of kinds of malts, dozens of different kinds of hops, and dozens of different kinds of yeast that you can combine… And this is all before barrel treatments, special conditioning, water treatments, and before special ingredients like fruit or spices, chocolate or vegetables… There are infinite palate characteristics, profiles and complexities. Beer can be as light and simple as you would like it to as rich, big, strong and complex as you would like it.”
‘Dave’ from Hair of the Dog Brewery in Portland, Oregon, is perhaps the most coveted beer of all time, thanks to a perfect blend of all of these factors. Technically it is a barleywine— a dark and strong beer with about 29 percent alcohol content. This small batch released by the brewery last year sold for an estimated $2,000 a bottle.
Another rarity that might be in some random collector’s cellar is ‘M’ by Midnight Sun Brewing Company of Anchorage, Alaska. “I have never heard of as much being offered for a beer than for one of them,” says Simpson. Look at the reviews on RateBeer.com — this thing is priceless at this point. And check out this tribute to the beer in a print that is available to purchase on Etsy from artist Scott Clendaniel. “Great anniversary, or birthday gift for beer enthusiasts and home brewers,” the posting reads.
Utopia by Sam Adams— yes, that Sam Adams— is another connoisseur favorite, and retails for $200 a beer. While the company might be larger than what most craft brewers consider legit, these special 29 percent alcohol beers still give the brand legitimacy within the subculture. Simpson says that they are still a hot commodity: “Any store that gets it might get one bottle. Maybe two. And it’s still pretty hard to find because usually people scoop them up, and only occasionally you will hear about one still sitting on a shelf somewhere.”
While the above beers showcase some of the legends and the big names of the trade, the craft beer economy is just gaining its footing, even as the overall beer market has been on the decline. The Brewer’s Association, a group representing craft brewers from across the country, has made it their mission to see craft brewers make up 20 percent of the domestic beer market by 2020. In 2012, the latest numbers available, the market share was 6.5 percent.
Thirsty yet? Hit up your local brewery for a piece of the pie. Who knows, that beer might be worth a few grand years from now.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.