Westvleteren 12 (XII) is the rarest beer in the world.
Did we ruin the surprise? Should we have built up with anticipation? Perhaps we could have baited you. We could have made you read this whole article before giving away all of beer’s greatest secrets.
But, the truth? It’s not so much of a secret anymore that beer fanatics and critics alike consider Westvleteren 12 one of the world’s rarest and most sought after beers.
What is Westvleteren 12?
Brewed by The Trappist monks of the St. Sixtus abbey at The Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij in Vleteren, Belgium in such small quantities this Belgian Quadrupel ale rose to rare fandom on the sheer dearth of production.
The monks brew Westie 12, as it’s affectionately known in the industry, once a week as a way to make money for their abbey. Sold only once a month either at the door of the monastery or a no-nonsense tavern across the street, Westie 12 vaulted to the top of any craft beer connoisseur’s bucket list simply because of the laundry list of steps and dash of luck you’d need to try a sip from these unmarked bottles. First, you’ll have to call a hotline to make an appointment just to purchase the beer. Afterward, you’ll (most likely) need to buy a plane ticket, fly to Belgium, rent a car, drive to a tiny town, and line up in your car at the abbey gate on your chosen date to stuff away your prize.
That sense of adventure and the thought that very few people in the world have had the pleasure of tasting this beer have driven Westie 12 to cult stardom.
“Everyone brings up Westie 12 when looking for a whale beer,” says Zach Mack, owner of ABC Beer Co., a highly-regarded craft beer store and shop in the East Village in Manhattan, NY. (White whale or whale is the lingo used to describe a rare beer.) “It’s seared into our memories as the original rare beer. But, it’s almost like the term rare doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. What does rare mean [anymore]?”
What Counts As a Rare Beer?
The world of craft beer has changed drastically over the past 10 years, especially in America, a country whose craft beer revolution has spawned a unique culture that likes to curate and collect.
The greatest secret of all is that the traditional, hard-to-find “rare beers” might not really be considered rare anymore. The term itself is evolving, often interchangeable with words like hyped, making way for a new breed of sought after cult favorites.
So, are we asking the wrong question? Maybe we shouldn’t be asking what is the rarest beer in the world, but what truly makes a beer rare? What makes a beer hype? And, what is the difference between the two?
Traditionally rare beer has been defined by three different attributes. 1) Difficulty to produce. 2) Quantity produced. and 3) Availability. (Notice something missing? What about quality? We’ll get to that a bit later.)
In Westie’s case, the Trappist monks have hit two out of the trifecta. They produce such a small quantity that its scarce availability turned it into a rare beer.
“The idea that something is rare means it’s hard to come by because of a limited production of it,” says Mack. “It’s this structured constructive rareness that bleeds into generating demand for it. Westie 12 or any of these beers from out of the country make up for a bulk of these white whales because they’re in such short supply. They literally create an unlimited demand just from such a small production and distribution footprint.”
Therein as the baird would say lies the rub. Has a beer like Westie 12 always been rare or did it only become rare when people started demanding it? Here in the U.S. people get excited to try beer like Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, Toppling Goliath’s Kentucky Bourbon Brunch Stout, Tree House’s Julius. The list goes on. Because we know that these beers are released either in small quantities, in small areas, or only once a year.
“In 2012 rare meant [people coming into my store] from Texas and asking for a Shiner Bock,” says Mack. Why? Because Shiner Bock is unique to Texas and back then unavailable up North. Sure, traveling home to Texas just to drink your favorite state lager can’t quite be held up to par to traveling across the pond to Belgium for a once-a-week brewed Belgian Quad from Trappist monks. But, if you strip away the ornamental details the logic stays the same. X place doesn’t have Y beer, so to get Y beer in X place = rare.
Is This Beer Rare or Is This Beer Hyped?
When Mack first opened ABC Beer Co. eight years ago, the craft community clamored for beers they couldn’t get in New York City like Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, two beers at the time only available in their home states of California and Vermont, respectively. You had to physically travel to each of these specific regions to pick up either of these renowned Double IPAs.
But more and more breweries have tapped into this secret sauce.
“This whole idea of rare as in something I truly can’t get my hands on like Westie 12 has become a part of a breweries’ business plan because breweries around the country want to create that demand and drive a line to their taproom every week,” says Mack.
A shifting industry means we as consumers need to shift our own perceptions of what makes a beer rare. Today, Mack prefers to use the word “hype” to describe exclusive beers that breweries release in small quantities, likening a hyped beer release to a new sneaker launch. Breweries create all this mystery and demand around a small production release that might only be available in a certain part of the country. Breweries like Other Half, Hudson Valley Brewery, or Tree House Brewing Co. by nature generate hype because they only release a certain number of beers per year in small batches that you have to scramble to get just like a shoe release.
“If you don’t get the beer you won’t be able to ever try it,” says Mack. “These beers are rare, but hype is part of that rareness. They’re storied and sought after, which created a demand that made it appear rare. You can go to any gas station in Vermont and buy a flat of Heady Topper, but it’s rare for people in Manhattan. Tree House beers are rare for people who can’t get to Boston and have to rely on it being sent by friends. People trade this and that to get my Other Half in NYC or Monkish in California.”
If you can’t physically visit a brewery to buy one of these sought-after beers you Either have to know someone that knows someone that will pick up cans or bottles for you or alternatively you can scour the web, trolling through beer trading networks and groups such as The Craft Beer Trading Society, The Beer Exchange, BeerAdvocate’s trading forum, and even Reddit to find random people willing to trade you a Pliny the Elder for a Heady Topper.
It’s this subculture of craft quietly buzzing along beneath the surface, a whole other world with its own language, that continues to cultivate this idea of rarity.
How a Rare Pandemic Is Making The Concept of Rare Beer Even Rarer
Today, breweries have shifted their distribution models significantly. The Alchemist now ships to New York City regularly. (At ABC Beer Co. Mack said he receives about 15 cases a week, an amount Mack wouldn’t have imagined possible just a year and a half ago.) But even 10 years later, people are still clamoring for it. “We blew through our drop the other day,” says Mack.
Especially amid a global-wide pandemic that forced many breweries to close their taproom doors and consumers to quarantine themselves at home, brewers are sending more of the good stuff out to reignite the excitement.
Beyond that delivery services like Tavour, Bevv, and TapRm are making beers once available in only a certain region of the country accessible everywhere. And not just accessible, but with the option to deliver right to your front door.
“Honestly I think COVID 19 just put us in the express lane to what we’re doing anyway,” says Mack. “I always make this joke, you know an industry is messed up if Jeff Bezos isn’t trying to sell it. Beer wine and spirit have been a murky gray area of online sales with the last remaining bastions of brick and mortar being dominant.”
But, Mother nature, shifting consumer demands, and now online e-commerce has changed the game. As more people become comfortable with purchasing beer online and more breweries are willing to ship their beer across state lines the future of rarity looks fuzzy. When you can just go online and score a rare pair of sneakers, when Michelin-starred restaurants offer their food for home delivery, and when breweries commit to shipping regionally exclusive beers across state lines you lose that je ne sais quoi that made the beer hyped in the first place. At the same time “those in the pie early will stand to benefit,” says Mack. “The genie is out of the bottle.”
And although genies themselves are pretty rare, it’s unclear whether rare beer will really stay rare anymore.
Top Rare and Hyped Beers Around the World and How You Can Get Them
Perhaps Mack hit the nail on the head when he said that starting to use words like hype will become the new norm. Whether you’re seeking the allure of the world’s OG rarest beer or some of the new kid on the block hype beers we’ve put together a list of ones to try. Happy hunting.
Westvleteren 12 (XII)
The Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij — Vleteren, Belgium
This is the grandaddy of rare beers. If you need to check one rare beer off your bucket list this is it. While we’ve waxed poetic on its scarce availability, the beer itself is also poetry. Much like a Belgian Quad Westie 12 boasts notes of dried fruit and brown sugar.
Brasserie Cantillon — Anderlecht, Belgium
First brewed in 2008 by the Brasserie Cantillon in Belgium, this limited-edition beer is one of the most sought-after Lambics in the world. The brewery changes the recipe every year and releases the beer on one special day in limited quantities around the world. Known as Zwanze Day, this annual special release takes place in late September. Due to the global pandemic, we’re honestly not sure what Zwanze Day 2020 will look like and couldn’t find any current updates for you at this time. We suppose this could make Cantillon’s next version of Zwanze even rarer.
The Alchemist Beer — Stowe, VT
An icon in the craft beer world, Heady Topper holds a special place on this list. “This beer still comes into my head as a rare beer because people see this as hard to get, which makes up a huge part of its identity and drives a lot of sales,” says Mack “Honestly, Vermont has become like the Bordeaux of the beer world. If it’s from there, people think it’s good.” Today, it’s a bit easier to find Heady Topper, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a damn good version of a Double IPA.
Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger
Russian River Brewing Co. — Santa Rosa, CA
“As a New Yorker, [Pliny the Elder] is a beer that when people travel they make time out of their schedule to go and get because you can’t get it unless you go to the brewery,” says Mack. “It has such a tiny footprint. It’s widely available in California, but not outside of that market.” Pliny the Younger is even rarer. One of the most sought after American rarities, this limited-edition Triple IPA clocks in at over 10% and can only be found on draft at the brewery once a year. You need to purchase nearly unattainable tickets just to get a sip.
Tree House Brewing Co. — Charlton, MA
Like the Russian River Pliny the Elder of the East Coast, Julius is only available for purchase at the Massachusetts-based brewery. This IPA has an absolute cult following.
Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout
Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. — Decorah, IA
TG only releases 300 to 400 bottles a year of this barreled-aged stout, making KBBS a true collector’s beer.
Side Project Brewing — St. Louis, MO
Side Project founder Cory King created this beer to celebrate their son, Owen King. The beer sat for 15 months in a 15-year-old Willett Family Estate Bourbon barrel before resting on Ugandan Vanilla Beans. This might be a once-in-lifetime beer.
Three Floyds Brewing Co. — Munster, IN
Released once a year in during a special holiday Three Floyds has dubbed Dark Lord Day, this 15% Russian Imperial Stout with molasses and vanilla defines exclusivity. You’ll need to go directly to Three Floyd’s home in Munster, IN to get a bottle. But, traders rampantly offer all different aged versions of this beer online.
Perennial Artisan Ale — St. Louis, MO
Limited, that’s the name of the game with Barrel-Aged Abraxas from this St. Louis, MO brewery. Locals can make a reservation to buy the bottle while out-of-towners need to go a step further, entering an online lottery just for the hope and prayer of getting their own bottle. The Imperial stout aged in rye barrels with chiles, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, and cacao nibs registers at 11% ABV.
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