Drink This, Not That: Alternatives to Beer Whales

Drink Lists craft beer
Drink This, Not That: Alternatives to Beer Whales

Though the cost of entry to craft beer remains relatively low when compared to the wine and spirits world (feel free to either spend a couple of hours reading up on Pappy van Winkle and Screaming Eagle, or punch yourself in the taint, repeatedly) it’s getting a little ridiculous. And while a $50 750ml bottle of barrel-aged imperial stout or a $20 4-pack of hazy IPA is occasionally worth the splurge, most of us can’t afford to drink like our life isn’t a complete shambles on the regular.

With that in mind, this is a handy guide for those of us that want the best things in life for a fraction of the cost, without waiting in line or, again, rage-induced taint punching. Here, we offer incredible alternatives to really expensive or hard to get beers.

The Beer You Want: Three Floyds Dark Lord

Let’s begin at the beginning. If we disregard the early, more bubble-enclosed frenzy for beers like Westvleteren 12—foreshadowing alert!—and Cantillon, Dark Lord and its titular release day can be credited/blamed for kickstarting the decade-long series of events that led to this article. To be fair, the beer itself gets an undue measure of hate, most likely due to the absolute nightmare of trying to get it. The annual release days are a hassle, and that’s assuming you can even make the seconds-long window to buy tickets online.

Still, it’s a very good beer, if a bit of an unwieldy monster: a 15% ABV imperial stout with vanilla, coffee, and molasses, it is massively sweet but with a matching complexity. The choice is yours: have a six-ounce pour and enjoy an episode of Jessica Jones, or drink the whole bottle while bingeing Iron Fist.

The Beer You Should Drink: Oskar Blues Ten FIDY

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This poor beer. It seems to sell out every year when it hits shelves, but it takes a stupidly long time to do so. Maybe because it’s in a can, which beer chasers have apparently designated as the exclusive vessel for IPA #whalezbro. Maybe the $14.99 price tag for a four-pack? I don’t know. I don’t get it.

Ten FIDY is probably one of the five best non-barrel-aged imperial stouts in the country, and evokes all the flavors of the most trade-baity adjuncts without actually including them: there’s a big, fruity espresso note, a hint of vanilla, massive bitter chocolate, and a viscosity that suggests molasses.

The Beer You Want: The Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze

Again, a caveat: DDG is a world-class beer. Perhaps more so than any other American interpretation of the blended lambic style, it is authentic. Tart, juicy, funky, with a tightly woven juxtaposition of earthiness and bright citrus that fires on all cylinders. But it also A) costs about $40 per bottle, B) has an impossibly narrow online buying window, and C) is released at the brewery in California, so you’re probably not going to be there anyway. What’s a millennial with an inflated sense of self but minus the disposable income to do?

The Beer You Should Drink: The Bruery Rueuze

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If The Bruery just made this, Black Tuesday, Tonnellerie Rue, and brought back Humulus Lager, I’d be perfectly happy. It’s a testament to the process knowledge and palates of the brewing and blending team that Rueuze—a blend of sour golden ales aged on oak barrels—tastes as phenomenal as it does, year in and year out.

It’s also one of the closest approximations of a traditional Belgian gueuze you’re likely to find in the States. Earthy and deep, with plenty of funk, it is also distinctly American, with a bright citrusy note and a hint of vanilla. At around $22/bottle, it’s not cheap enough to be an everyday drinker for most of us, but it beats top-shelf import markups.

The Beer You Want: Goose Island King Henry

This beer was much-coveted upon its one and only release, and now enjoys a rank among old-school baller-status trade gets like Cantillon Blabaer and Double Barrel Hunahpu. Why? It’s a huge English-style barleywine aged in the Pappy van Winkle bourbon barrels that were used to age the original batch of Bourbon County Rare. And since it was pre-AB InBev buyout, you don’t have to finish the whole bottle before you’ve justified it to yourself.
Again—and this is obviously a thread that runs through the whole list—King Henry is a phenomenal beer. It’s a brown sugar-toffee-vanilla bean bomb, and deserves its near-mythological status.

The Beer You Should Drink: Pelican Mother of All Storms

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In the interest of full disclosure, you can’t just go out and buy this. The Pelican Brewery and Pub is located in Pacific City on the Oregon coast, and they don’t distribute very far; even then, you’re only likely to find their more basic, but still tasty, offerings. What I’m saying is, if you don’t trade, now would be a good time to start.

In that context, Mother of All Storms is not difficult to land, but what it lacks in hype it more than compensates for in quality and value. The base barleywine is every bit as well-crafted as any other American iteration, and holds up perfectly to the bourbon character. As expected, there’s a massive vanilla presence, hinting at crème brulee, underscored by a gentle dark fruit flavor once the sweetness settles in.

The Beer You Want: Founders KBS

KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout, natch) is a hell of a lot easier to get these days than it used to be. At this point, you basically just have to be passing acquaintances with whoever buys the beer at your local bottle shop, and you’re likely to score at least a bottle, if not a four-pack. Still, it’s a testament to the quality and the legacy of KBS that, during an era in which one out of every five breweries has a bourbon barrel-aged imperial coffee stout, the beer continues to sell out within 24 hours of its release. Also, maybe you and bottle-shop guy have a blood feud, or you farted in his presence once. That’s going to make it harder to land this.

The Beer You Should Drink: Epic Big Bad Baptist

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This thing, however, sits around on shelves for months at roughly $14/22oz bottle, and is every bit as good. Seriously: every bit. If you want to get persnickety about it, KBS miiiiiiight have the edge in fullness and body, but even that is nearly a wash.

Epic uses different coffee roasts for every batch, so that profile is variable, but they always manage to dial it in perfectly: a deeper, more sensuous French roast? A lighter, snappier South American varietal? The beer they brew and the barrel character imparted by their aging process works with them all. The body is silky smooth, rich, and just light enough to not wear out its welcome. Baptist is a sweet beer, but not cloying, and you would be hard-pressed to not finish the bottle yourself.

The Beer You Want: Russian River Pliny the Younger

Okay, look: this is the only beer on the list that I haven’t had. It’s draft-only, released primarily in California every year around February, with a scant few kegs sent to a handful of other states, the closest to me of which is Pennsylvania. I have better ways to spend my birthday. Not many, but I do.

In any case—FROM WHAT I HAVE HEARD—this beer is ridiculous. Inspiring the “triple IPA” debate, Younger clocks in at 11% ABV, with truckloads of traditional West Coast hops. While a tad hot, it manages to come across as fairly dry, with a flavor profile of pine cones, tangerine, grapefruit, and a hint of nuts.

The Beer You Should Drink: Surly Abrasive

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Living in Wisconsin, I can get this beer fairly regularly, though the $18/4-pack price point makes it a little hard to pull the trigger sometimes. But man oh man. I never do regret it.
To be fair, Abrasive is about a notch lower on the ABV scale than Younger at 9% on the dot. Considering that still-formidable strength, however, Abrasive hides the alcohol content remarkably well, remaining dry, bright, and dangerously easy to drink. It’s just where I like my double IPAs in terms of the SRM scale, sitting at just a shade above gold, and is a riot of lightly sweetened citrus fruit, orange zest, and a bit of sweet malt.

Again, Surly only distributes to a few states outside Minnesota, but this is easy to get if you just ask, and it holds up remarkably well to time.

The Beer You Want: Side Project Tete de Cuvee

Oh boy. Ooooooooh boy. Okay. Side Project.

For those of you without Red Hot Cheeto dust in your mutton chops, Side Project began as the (har dee har har) you-know-what that kept Cory King occupied when he wasn’t absolutely slaying everything over at Perennial. Mostly barrel-fermentation, all barrel-aging, usually saisons, sometimes not, whatever. Approximately 99.9% of it is Eclipse-class Star Destroyer-level farmhouse ales, and you will have an opportunity to drink MAYBE the remaining 0.1%. If you’re good. And you know a guy. Which you don’t. And neither do I.

Tete de Cuvee is a Voltron blend of Oude Fermier, Oude du Ble, and various other saisons. If you know what the first two-thirds of that blend means, you’re Tommy Wiseau screaming “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” on the Beer Advocate trade forums. Cory King is Shao Khan, and this is his Shang Tsung.

Is it good? Yes. Yes, this beer is good.

The Beer You Should Drink: Side Project Grisette

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Ha. Gotcha.

No no, for real: if Side Project had the equivalent of a “shelf turd,” this would be it. It’s every bit as good as every other Side Project farmhouse offering, if a bit more simplistic. And that’s the point. But because it’s just 4% ABV and nobody knows what a grisette is, you can just pop by the Side Project Cellar/tied house/tasting room/neckbeard speakeasy and grab 30 bottles of this.

Okay, the beer. So good. Light, spritzy, with a palate of white wine grape, juicy cider apples, pears, and a bit of gruyere cheese rind, you’ll kill this bottle the morning of your marathon and still post a PR.

The Beer You Want: Westvleteren XII

We’re a few generations—read, three years, tops—from this beer as the most sought-after beverage in the world. Still, resulting from a combination of scarcity, sheer legacy, and legitimate world-class quality, it remains a legendary beer.

This is the Cliff’s Notes version: the Sint Sixtus monastery, where Westvleteren is located, has been around since 1814. Brewing commenced in 1831, and continued, with various fits and starts—usually due to war in the region—throughout the next century. In 1946, the St. Bernardus brewery was granted a license to produce beer under the Westvleteren name; that agreement ended in 1992, and Westvleteren once again began producing its own ales.

As for the beer, it is glorious. Truly. I had it during lunch at the café across from the monastery last August, and its rich, figgy, caramel-laden malt profile was both familiar and surprisingly new at the same time.

The Beer You Should Drink: St. Bernardus Abt 12

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In case you didn’t catch the foreshadowing, here we are. Though St. Bernardus is not itself a Trappist monastery, it is a decidedly abbey-style brewery, in the same vein as countrymen Gouden Carolus, Abbaye du Val-Dieu, and others. It is also the finest among them, and produced Westvleteren’s beers until 1992. So.

No doubt the beers are different. The alcohol content is indicative of that, with Abt 12 coming in at 10.5% ABV, and Westvleteren at an even 12%. Westvleteren also just ekes out an advantage in texture and richness. But only just.

St. Bernardus Abt 12 is phenomenal. Just a consistently fantastic quad, and one that you can most likely get in at least one bar or bottle shop in every state.

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