Cult beers

I am a cult beer. I am a beer you will scrape and save and queue and turn blue for; I am a beer for which anticipation, impatience, hysteria and fear mix and match within the soul when thought of. I am a beer you will swoon over, fall in love with and give out signals to the universe that this is why you drink beer.

I have many names — Cantillon Zwanze, Dark Lord, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, various manifestations of Bourbon County Stout, Pliny the Younger, Unhuman Cannonball, DIPA v11, Born To Die, Surly Darkness. Maybe once in a while I am also a special release blended and bonded and aged and hounded and brought forth into the world. Tonight as I write I am Wild Beer’s The Blend Summer 2015, gueuze-like in my spritziness, sweet and sour, citrus on the edge of ruin, but bought back to make the palate jump with joy. I was only available last summer and those of you who want to drink me will have to wait until the weather is more benign.

At the start of April I am Founders Kentucky Bourbon Stout and ready to be drunk in a patchwork of US states. I’m a lusciously endowed monster of an imperial stout, but you’re only allowed two bottles of me at any one time. My base beer is Founders’ Breakfast Stout, a mere foundling of a beer when compared to what I am, though fair to say it has a statement all of its own, but when I go on to spend a year slumbering and snoozing within the wooden womb of bourbon barrels, I emerge as a sublime and august beer. I am a cult beer.

"These beers are great beers, robust, full flavoured and complex. We want to see the concept of beer stretched."

At least I am available across this patchwork, which is not the case when I become Three Floyds Dark Lord. When I am this magnificent and imperious imperial stout, a beast of 13%, I am released into the world at this Michigan brewery’s lively and crowded taproom over one day towards the end of April. It is here I see grown men and women, many eager to un-tap their reactions to this year’s brew on their smart-phones, standing in the queue waiting for that magical ration of two bottles. Loud music shakes the air and adds to the chaos. And when I am in the glass I hear people say it’s like Christmas has come, though I do recall a few years ago frowns and surly looks being directed at those who went straight to Ebay with the beer. That is not what a cult beer is about.

I still have a story to tell and it’s not just in the USA that I am a cult beer. In the UK, I am Magic Rock’s triple IPA Unhuman Cannonball, lemon-gold in colour, juicy, bracingly bitter, forward facing in its grapefruit character according to a man with a notebook I overheard in 2015. And then I also become BrewDog’s Born to Die, where I am a bracing and boisterous West Coast IPA released twice a year. Though in the case of the latter, especially given the beer’s availability in BrewDog’s bars and online, sometimes I feel my cult beer essence wavering and turning me into the kind of seasonal beer that exists in the less rarefied airs of micro-breweries who do not seek cult status.

As a cult beer I want to understand what this behaviour all means and I asked a writer who wrote back: ‘If this cult-like behaviour is reminiscent of anything it’s either the Boxing Day sales, where people sleep on the pavement outside Harrods, or the race to get tickets for Glastonbury. It’s about one-upmanship, about the thrill of the chase, about the long hunt for the great white whale, about being part of something that incidentally is also about flavour, which could be easily forgotten in the queue to grab your brace of Dark Lord bottles.

‘These beers are great beers, robust, full flavoured and complex, while brewers will answer criticisms about the annual release by saying how hard they are to make, how disruptive they are in the day-to-day brewing process and how it also enables them to see what happens when this ingredient goes with that and how time spent in a barrel changes the taste. After all, we want to see the concept of beer as stretched as far as it can be.’

I am a cult beer. I was Magic Rock’s Unhuman Cannonball at its London release last year, which was held at Islington’s Craft Beer Co. Earlier in the day the queues were there but later in the evening I was more relaxed and nearly at the end. I saw the same writer again and asked him what he thought.

This is what he said: ‘I certainly wanted to try the beer and make some notes on it, but I was also intrigued in jotting down my thoughts on the mood and atmosphere of such an event, even after the hysteria had died down. There was a lot of earnestness, a fair smattering of phones being tapped, but also a sense of enjoyment, that people had actually come to enjoy the beer, which was rapidly running out — in fact Magic Rock’s head brewer Stuart Ross was sipping a glass of tequila barrel-aged Salty Kiss as we spoke.’

I could have told him that. As a cult beer I am rather delicious. I am all three versions of Cloudwater’s DIPA; I am also Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout which my writer friend described as ‘fiery, creamy, and full of Chardonnay-like butteriness and oaky notes; there is also vanilla, bourbon, a hint of sticky toffee pudding and milky mocha coffee’.

And if there’s one cult beer that I haven’t been for a long time, which I once was in a different age and don’t expect to be anymore it’s Sam Adams Triple Bock, which I recall being an immense 15.2% with my home being a stylish blue-coloured nip of a bottle. I was a rich, elegant, dense, complex beer that would easily be swapped for port at the end of a meal. I was not that brewery’s Utopias that night, where I am too sweet and alcoholic but that night I was a beer that even I would have stood in a queue to taste, an action that goes back to the whole point of my being.

I am a cult beer and I taste good and yes there are other beers that don’t have the kudos but are just as good, but I am a fine example of how far the culture and consideration and cravings that surround beer has travelled in the last few years.

I am a cult beer and with that in mind would you really want me to go back to a time when beer was treated and dismissed with disdain and tasted like a drain? Of course you wouldn’t. I am a cult beer and for that give thanks.

Four fine beers that could be cults but you don’t have to queue for


Stone / Ruination Double IPA 2.0 / 8.5%

Stone craft this big, bold and hugely aromatic West Coast style double IPA to celebrate all characteristics of the hop — its beauty and poetry, its boldness and might. Using modern methods of dry hopping and hop bursting, they squeeze every last drop of piney, citrusy, tropical essence from the hops that give Stone Ruination Double IPA its incredible character.

Thornbridge / Halcyon / 7.4%

This imperial IPA is a stunning beer from Thronbridge. They describe it as "pouring an opaque honey hue and produces a huge rich tropical fruit and aroma. Chewy, juicy, biscuity malts and intense pineapple fruit flavours and citrus hoppiness combine with a hint of tangerine and pear drops". We couldn't have put it better.

Harviestoun / Ola Dubh Special Reserve 12 yr old / 8%

Ola Dubh (‘Black Oil’) is the unique lovechild of Harviestoun Brewery and Highland Park distillery and a development of their Engine Oil Porter, this deliciously rich, dark, 8% a.b.v. beer is the first beer to be aged in malt whisky casks from a named distillery. Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 year old won United Kingdom's Best Wood Aged Beer at the World Beer Awards 2015.

Hitachino / Espresso Stout / 7%

Espresso stouts are everywhere; it’s true. Yet a good one doesn’t try to hide its flaws with big flavours. Instead, each note is highlighted in what seems to be a choreographed dance. The Japanese Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout is one of the good ones. Espresso beans are added during the brewing process so its intense coffee flavours and aromas are to be expected. Vanilla, dark fruits and chocolate round out the stout’s complex taste. Its rich and smooth mouthfeel make this beer truly indulgent.

Adrian Tierney-Jones