In some circles of the craft beer community, there’s a belief that the more rare, limited-release, low-bottle-count beers (otherwise known as “white whales,” “whales,” or, more pejoratively, “walesbro”) are the end-all be-all of beer. Rarities such as Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze, Three Floyd’s Bourbon Vanilla Dark Lord, or any of Hill Farmstead’s limited barrel-aged releases (seriously, pick any of them) are the Holy Grail in many a beer geek’s eyes—a prized commodity that’s to be cherished. Some people don’t even drink these beers. They simply collect them.
Personally, I think that’s a huge load of bullshit. Beer isn’t meant to be hoarded; it’s meant to be opened, savored, and enjoyed, preferably with the company of friends. Despite low bottle counts, inconvenient methods of acquisition, and eye-gougingly exorbitant prices, 95% of these “whales” simply aren’t worth it. They may be good, they may be great, but they’re not “stand in the pouring rain at 2am for a chance to get a lottery ticket for a chance to win a bottle” great.
The benefits of ditching your family and loved ones to hunt for glamorized, fermented bread juice decreases all the more when you realize that there are equivalent beers out there that are easier to find, cheaper to buy, and, in most cases, just as good in your snifter. That’s right—there are widely available “shelf turds” out there that are just as good, if not better, in quality and taste than your Midwest imperial stouts aged in hype barrels with absurd amounts of bizarre adjuncts.
These are five acceptable, more common substitutes for some of craft beer’s most contentious, overhyped releases.
Brasserie Fantome, Soy, Belgium
Better than: 90% of American saisons
Everybody’s trading away their entire cellar to get their hands on a bottle of Hill Farmstead Ann or Sante Adairius Artisan Ales’ Cellarman saisons. But meanwhile, I can walk into any decent bottle shop to find cases of Brasserie Fantome’s deliciously complex, perfectly tart, funky farmhouse ale warming shelves and fridges. Can’t find it in your area? You can order it online, no hassle required.
Cascade Brewing, Portland, Ore.
A solid alternative for: Nearly every hyped stone-fruit sour ale
Peaches, apricots, nectarines, and other peculiar stone-fruits seem to be liquid gold, with beers such as Side Project’s Fuzzy, Alpine’s Chez Monus, and Cantillon’s Fou Foune trading for a veritable king’s ransom these days. While these are solid beers, reviews mention that they can be too acetic (vinegary), too simple, and lack the heavy fruit character you’d expect from such a revered beer. The Apricot Ale from the Portland-based Cascade Brewery provides a balanced wallop of apricot in every sip—it’s just like drinking an apricot that’ll get you tossed.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Chico, Calif.
Just as good as: The Alchemist Heady Topper, Russian River Pliny the Elder
Everyone who’s been around the beer block more than a few times knows the legends of Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder from The Alchemist Brewery and Russian River Brewing Company, respectively. Fresh, clean, and infinitely drinkable, these two IPAs are arguably perfect representations of the hoppy style, but they’re also not worth the immense amounts of trouble and time it takes to find cans and bottles of them. Sierra Nevada’s newest addition to its hoppy lineup, Hop Hunter IPA, is a near-flawless beer, with a clean hop flavor profile and a creamy mouthfeel that’s more addictive and thirst-quenching than syrupy and cloying.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Paso Robles, Calif.
Not too far off from: Anchorage Brewing A Deal With the Devil
Aged in used cognac barrels, Anchorage Brewing’s A Deal With the Devil is arguably the best American barleywine available—if you can find it. It’s an admittedly delicious, dangerously drinkable high gravity ale, but the suspiciously elusive stock and hefty $30+ price tag make the hunt for it a frustrating ordeal. Firestone Walker’s Sucaba barrel-aged barleywine is also a limited seasonal release, but it’s much more widely distributed, and in some regions, it’s readily available on shelves for months at half the price. And it easily stands toe-to-toe with Anchorage’s 17.3% ABV beast.
Goose Island Beer Co, Chicago, Ill.
At this point, exponentially better than: 2013 Goose Island Proprietor’s Bourbon County Brand Stout
There is perhaps no other whale on this list that’s been given more mainstream attention than Goose Island’s Bourbon County lineup. The most rare of these variants is the Proprietor’s stout (known in the inner circle as Prop), a Chicago-only release that alters its formula yearly. While the 2014 vintage was a solid horchata-esque barrel-aged stout, the 2013 remains the most sought-after version, a coconut bomb on the palate with a deceptively drinkable, silky smooth mouthfeel. Unfortunately, coconut flavors fade quickly, and with more than a year under its sleeve, 2013 Prop is entering the twilight of its shelf life. Don’t spend an arm and a leg trading for one of these past-its-prime bottles—make some yourself instead. If you have a French press, it’s as easy as pressing some of the much more commonly found BCBS with some toasted shredded coconut. It’ll take some time, but I guarantee it’ll be far and away better than any old dusty bottle of Prop coming your way.