Pictured Above: Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout
With nearly 20,000 breweries in the world—most of them being small-scale craft brewers—there’s no shortage of options for delicious brewskis. But among the hundreds of thousands of beers that these breweries produce, only a tiny handful achieve truly legendary status.
If you’re bored by browns, apathetic about ales, fatigued by fruit beers, and indifferent to IPAs, it’s time to go even deeper on your beer selections. These 12 beers to try before you die are a roundup of the finest, rarest, and most remarkable brews from across the world. And we hope that one day you’ll be able to try each and every one of them.
Trappist Westvleteren 12 Abbey Ale
Often called “The Holy Grail of Beers,” Westvleteren’s number 12 ale is a product of the Saint Sixtus abbey in Vleteren, Belgium—as in, it’s brewed by honest to God monks. These pious brewsters have been making their incredible ale since 1838, as part of their devotion to the “ora et labora” (work and pray) dictate of their order. To get a bottle of this highly sought after beer, you’ll need to call in an order with the monks, then travel all the way to the gates of the Saint Sixtus monastery and purchase a maximum of two crates of beer. Can the taste possibly make this pilgrimage worth it? According to everyone who has ever drank Westvleteren, yes, yes it absolutely is worth it.
Russian River Brewing Pliny the Elder Double IPA
Gaius Plinius Secundus—better known as Pliny the Elder—was a Roman author, philosopher, and naval and army commander. But for beer fans, he’s known as the moniker for Russian River Brewing’s most exceptional double IPA. First brewed at the start of the new millennium, it’s drawn legions of adoring fans (and a follow-up triple IPA that’s every bit as good) and consistently leads to lines around the brewery on its release day each year. Why the name? According to historical sources, Pliny the Elder may have created the botanical name for hops, humulus lupulus. The beer itself is a big, bold, and beautifully integrated bomb of hops with enough malt balance to make it a favorite of all types of beer drinkers.
Russian River Brewing Pliny the Younger Triple IPA
Succeeding his uncle in Rome, Pliny the Younger took up his family’s intellectual mantle as an author, lawyer, and court magistrate. He’s also the reason that we know about Pliny the Elder, whom he memorialized after the Elder was lost in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Russian River Brewing took inspiration from the younger Pliny’s admiration of his uncle, and brewed an incredibly powerful triple IPA to match their cult classic double IPA. Made with the finest hops from each year’s harvest, it’s brewed to a mind-fuzzing 10 percent ABV or more. Released on the first Friday in February each year, you’ll have to head to the Russian River brewpub if you want to get your hands on a bottle.
Alchemist Brewing Heady Topper Double IPA
In the IPA races, many breweries aim to make the strongest or most bitter versions possible. But Vermont’s Alchemist Brewing Company has a different idea altogether with their Heady Topper Double IPA. Dangerously drinkable and smooth, it’s loaded to the brim with every single aroma and flavor that hop flowers can muster. Wave after wave of hop goodness will roll over your tongue, delighting your senses with each sip. While it was originally only available at the Vermont taproom, Heady Topper has started to make its way into some of the most craft-beer-crazy cities in the U.S.—but since it’s in a can rather than a bottle, it holds onto its fresh hop flavors no matter where you pick it up.
Original Leipziger Gose
You’ve no doubt heard of gose-style beers, as they’re having a comeback as “sour beers” loaded with fruits and flavors. But the original Gose is a totally different animal, and the only German beverage allowed to be called “beer” even though it doesn’t follow the ultra-strict Reinheitsgebot, or Beer Purity Laws. The beer was produced as far back as the year 1000 in the small town of Goslar, but World War II almost put an end to its production for good. Thanks to the remnants of an original recipe for the beer, though, it’s been put back into service and is making a comeback. Original Leipziger Gose follows that recipe to a T, with generous additions of salt and coriander to a tangy wheat beer base. It tastes like a trip back in time.
Treehouse Brewing Julius IPA
Massachusetts-based Treehouse Brewing is a relative newcomer to the cult beer club. Which when you think about it is kind of great, since it means that you’ll be able to get their immaculately detailed and hop-forward Julius IPA without standing in the cold for hours or booking a trip to Belgium. In most cases, you’ll still need to head to the brewery to try this soft, juicy, pillowy IPA; it’s fresher and better that way, anyway. This beer is the epitome of hazy New England style IPA, and well worth the trip the next time you’re on the east coast.
Cantillon Zwanze Lambic
There are very few beers that inspire such zeal and ardor in drinkers that they become the subject of their own holiday. But that’s exactly what Cantillon Brewing’s Zwanze has done, and it’s now the object of a yearly Zwanze Day, where the beer is distributed to select locations around the world. Originally created on a lark (Zwanze actually translates to “joke”), Cantillon’s sour and funky lambic beers continue to be a favorite of dedicated beer drinkers and newcomers alike. Keep a close eye on social media for when the next Zwanze day will occur, and where you can get this unique beer near you.
Alesmith Brewing Company Old Numbskull Barleywine
When ales get into the territory of 10 percent ABV and above, they’re often renamed as barleywine. But in opposition to the hop-forward flavors of India Pale Ales, barleywine ales focus on flavors of bread, caramel, honey, molasses, and toffee that come from malt. San Diego’s Alesmith Brewing Company makes perhaps the most sought after modern example of Barleywine, Old Numbskull. Bottled at 11 percent ABV after spending up to a year in ex-bourbon barrels, it’s a rich and thick ale with an incredibly intense and complex flavor profile. Sip lightly on this one, as it will continue to develop new flavors and aromas as it comes closer to room temperature.
Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout
BeerAdvocate is an aggregator site for beer ratings, provided by beer drinkers around the world. So it’s really saying something that Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.’s Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout has consistently held the top ranking among all of their beers for quite some time. It’s a barrel-aged stout that’s bottled at around 12 percent ABV each year, with a significant presence of bourbon barrel aging in each batch. Intensely roasty and caramelized, it offers dense and unfolding flavors of coffee, chocolate, and maple syrup that only get better as they’re exposed to a little bit of air.
3 Floyds Brewing Dark Lord Imperial Stout
Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing Company has been giving beer geeks a reason to travel to The Hoosier State since its founding in 1996. But among their many, many delicious beer offerings, the Dark Lord Imperial Stout really stands out. Bottled at a gigantic 15 percent ABV, it’s spiked with coffee, Mexican vanilla, and Indian sugar for a truly sumptuous and outstanding drinking experience. Each year, the brewery releases a handful of variants on the style on Dark Lord Day, the only day you can pick up bottles directly from the brewery. And if you’re going for the original, why not pick up one of the yearly variations as well?
Avery Brewing Co. Samael’s Oak Aged Ale
As part of Avery Brewing’s “Demons of Ale” series, Samael’s Oak Aged Ale is an unabashedly intense brew. Made with Westmalle Belgian ale yeast, it ferments to an incredible 16.3 percent ABV—that’s more than many red wines, and the equivalent of drinking nearly a six pack of light beers. Named after the biblical Prince of Demons, it’s one of the most powerfully flavored beers you’ll ever try. Rich stewed fruits and astringent oak are complemented by a strong alcohol warmth reminiscent of a fine bourbon or aged rum. Strongly recommended to find a friend to share this one with.
Sam Adams Utopias
With a tiny amount released every other year, Sam Adams’ Utopias may well be the rarest beer on this list. But beer purists may even argue against its inclusion, as this beverage really pushes the boundaries of what can be considered “beer.” Brewed to a record-setting 28 percent ABV, it was the beer that set off the “strong beer arms race.” And while it’s since been surpassed in alcohol content, Utopias is still one of the most wonderfully drinkable of all extreme beers. Sip it like a fine spirit, and you’ll find a rich drink that seamlessly blends the vanilla and oak flavors of whiskey with the sweet and complex fruitiness of fermented malt.