My first year out of college, in 2001, I was a clueless 22-year-old living in Hoboken, New Jersey. On Saturday nights my roommate, Kevin, and I would take the PATH train to 14th Street to “pre-game” at Markt. Duvel was our beer of choice; we’d pound snifters of the Belgian strong pale ale before heading off to meet friends at some crummy Meatpacking District nightclub where we’d proceed to drink well vodka-tonics and flounder with women. Those Duvels were always, in retrospect, the best part of the night.
Back then (and unbeknownst to me), Duvel was considered the fourth best beer in the entire world on Beer Advocate’s “Top Beers” list, something you can still access courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
Today, however, Duvel doesn’t even graze the “Top Beers” list. While it’s still well-regarded, by now its acclaim has been buried under a dogpile of state-of-the-art hoppy pale ales, imperial stouts and fruited sour ales. In fact, in the years since I started considering myself a “beer geek” (and the term became part of the lexicon), the craft beer industry has shape-shifted remarkably, especially among the cognoscenti. But how, exactly?
The Wayback Machine is a remarkable tool for measuring trends. Examining these lists—the earliest available dating to December 5, 2001—you can actually see how stylistic diversity faded into a monoculture of IPA obsession, how the beer geeks came to think it impossible that a “top” beer could be readily available at a local market and how beers produced in limited supply from cult breweries in off-the-beaten-path towns came to ultimately rule the roost.
World's No. 1 Beers 2001 - 2016
Victory Storm King Stout
One of the first great, bold (and uniquely American) Russian imperial stouts.
The trappist quadrupel you could only land in Belgium, “Westy” topped the list off and on for nine years.
3 Floyds Dark Lord
The boozy, adjunct-heavy imperial stout briefly ascended to No. 1 after the first Dark Lord Day.
Russian River Pliny the Younger
The first-ever double IPA (actually, a self-proclaimed “triple” IPA) was, on release, only available on tap in California during a week or two in February. (It topped the list again, briefly, in 2015.)
The Alchemist Heady Topper
A cult favorite for a decade, once it got canned, the hazy, New England-style IPA became a sensation.
Tree House Good Morning
Tree House’s highly limited, maple syrup imperial stout has had an ironclad hold on the No. 1 spot for nearly two years now.
ESB to IPA
Back in December of 2001, Storm King Stout from Victory Brewing Co. was the No. 1 beer in the world. Storm King Stout is a non-barrel-aged, sub-ten-percent-ABV stout that can be had for $9.99 (for an entire four-pack) at just about any supermarket on the Eastern Seaboard. But in 2001, Storm King Stout was ahead of its time—a then-sophisticated modern stout with a noticeable hop presence and a robust, coffee-like intensity. In that same year, Beer Advocate co-founder Jason Alstrom even noted on his site that Storm King was “not just one of the greatest Imperial Stouts but . . . one of the greatest beers in the world. As close to perfection as you can get.” To most beer geeks today, it’s laughable to even consider the beer cracking the top 100.
Even more startling about the 2001 list is the sheer number of styles represented in the top 20, many of which are practically endangered among beer geeks today. The No. 3 beer in the world was a doppelbock (Brauerei Aying’s Celebrator), an old-fashioned dark lager style you’d be hard-pressed to find at any hip beer bar today. At No. 5 was a Belgian-style strong ale via Quebec (Unibroue Don de Dieu) a dubbel (Chimay Red); in the teens, there were a couple of low-ABV oatmeal stouts (Rogue Shakespeare Stout at No. 11, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout at No. 13) and an ESB (Fuller’s ESB) at No. 14. If you’re a 20-something American beer drinker, you’ve probably never even heard of an ESB. Nowadays, the “Extra Special Bitter”—a low-ABV, balanced English ale—and these other styles are nowhere to be found in the top 250.
So what currently dominates the top 250? IPAs, imperial stouts and sour ales. While in 2001, only one IPA made the top-20 list—Otter Creek Hop Ottin’ at No. 20—today they account for 96 slots in the top 250 (24 IPAs, 61 double IPAs and 11 hop bombs like 3 Floyds Zombie Dust and Trillium Double Dry Hopped Fort Point Pale Ale, which are “pale ales” in name only). Of the remaining slots, 81 are imperial stouts (including the top three spots) and 26 are sour ales (34 if you include saisons).
What do these all have in common? Extreme flavors. It’s often easier to gravitate to a teeth-rattling IPA or cake-like stout than to see the beauty in a flawless ESB or delicate kölsch. And, it turns out, it’s easier to assume a beer you truly had to slave to acquire is better than one you can buy at any grocery store.
The Rise of Rarity
In April of 2010, I traveled down to Munster with a few beer bloggers I’d never met IRL for Dark Lord Day, 3 Floyds’ annual release of their then-vaunted imperial stout. The first batch of Dark Lord was brewed in late 2002 as a tap-only offering. Its recipe may sound pedestrian in 2016, but, back then, a 13-percent-ABV, Russian-style imperial stout brewed with Mexican vanilla beans, Indian sugar and coffee was sui generis, even if rumors swirled that the first batch used Starbucks. It was an immediate sensation among the few locals who got to try it. In April 2004, 3 Floyds bottled Dark Lord—dipping the bottlenecks in a gorgeous red wax—and by August 15 it was the No. 1 beer in the world.
Dark Lord changed everything. If you look at the top 50 from April 1, 2004—the final list the Wayback Machine archives before the Dark Lord era begins—you’ll see a list composed mostly of easily accessible beers. Good stuff like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, but then, as now, these were beers that could be found in your supermarket.
By August 28, 2005, the top 100 list had become a compendium of early “whales.” The No. 1 beer in the world was Trappist Westvleteren 12, a label-less, Belgian quadruple one could only access by calling a usually-busy hotline to make an appointment to line up at a country monastery in Vleteren, Belgium, on an assigned weekday. No. 2 was Kuhnhenn’s Raspberry Eisbock, only available at the Michigan brewery and comically expensive for the time ($10 per 6.3-ounce bottle). Dark Lord had settled in firmly at No. 3, while the fourth spot was owned by Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, a triple IPA available exclusively on tap in select West Coast bars during a single week in February.
This marks the beginning of the rarity era: When people began lining up for beers and then immediately trading most of them across the country for other rare beers that other people had lined up for. Compare a video from the first Dark Lord Day in 2005, to one from last year. The first shows a few dozen dudes quietly hanging out in a garage; the latter looks like an all-day music festival, complete with metal barriers and security.
No beer better represented this new rarity paradigm than Westvleteren 12, which would have a stranglehold on the No. 1 slot for much of the next decade. That ended on December 12, 2012, when the Saint-Sixtus Abbey, desperate for a little cash flow to repair and renovate their monastery, decided to release “Westy 12” for the first time on American soil. That one-time-only release injected 90,000 bottles into 22 U.S. states. It also prompted the beer to drop out of the top ten.
Back in 2010, when I attended my first dark Lord Day, it was difficult, but accomplishable, to drink the whole top 100 (I made it up to 99 at one point). However, Dark Lord was already becoming passé by then, having slipped to No. 12. Online commenters would claim the stout was suddenly tasting “soy sauce-y” and falling off in quality, but its recipe hadn’t changed. What had changed, however, was Dark Lord’s release size, which jumped from a few hundred to nearly 30,000 bottles per year.
The greatness of rare beer became self-fulfilling. Drive all the way across the country to Munster, Indiana, or queue up for hours in Vermont to land some Heady Topper, and how could the resulting beer not be stellar? Fetishization quickly became a fast-track to the top.
Meanwhile, once-celebrated pioneers like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Dogfish Head, Victory, Ommegang, Brooklyn, Rogue and dozens of other top-50 craft breweries don’t have a single beer in the top 250 any more. And if you brought, say, Ommegang Hennepin (No. 2 in 2001), Rogue Shakespeare Stout (No. 4 in 2002) or Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (No. 25 in 2004) to a bottle share these days, you’d be laughed out of the room. Yet those are still good, if not great beers. The problem is their breweries are too big and the beers too commonplace. Bluntly put: There’s nothing “cool” about them—no remote brewery to travel to, no can release to line up for, no rarely-seen, iconoclastic brewer to idolize.
So where do we go from here? The idea of standing in lines every weekend, FedEx-ing cans and bottles back and forth, talking my wife into vacationing in Decorah, Iowa, is not something I want to do any more. Even if I did, many of these beers have simply become too hard to acquire. Today’s top ten includes beers like Toppling Goliath’s KBBS, which is released in 500-bottle quantities once a year or so, involves winning an online lottery and currently sells for around $1500 on the black market. Is it great? Sure, probably, who knows—you’ll never try it.
That’s OK, though, because history shows that by this time next year, many of the current “great” beers will be forgotten, and new ones, from new breweries, will have replaced them. And five years from now, today’s most sought-after breweries, like Tree House and Trillium, might be getting the same cruel treatment Victory and Rogue receive from beer geeks. As for me, I’ve realized that after a decade-plus of chasing the hottest new beer, nothing has tasted quite as good as that first Duvel.