In Memoriam: The Great Beer Whales of Yore

Why did these seven coveted beers fade into obscurity?

One beer was so improbably born it could never be repeated; another was a super collaboration with tricky logistics that would prevent it from coming to fruition ever again. One stout was from a brewery everyone now considers beneath them, while an imperial porter was from a brewery most had never even heard of. The thing they all had in common was that each of them were flavor profiles and breweries the modern beer drinker simply quit caring about.

Flaming Fury, Black Cherry Bomb, Peconic Reserve, Yellow Bus: these were just some of the beers that began appearing earlier this year on the TalkBeer thread, “Let’s Remember Some Beers (In Memoriam: Old Whales).” Currently spanning nearly 50 pages and growing, the list is primarily the work of older forum members—like, in their 30s—who recall the many once-coveted beers (better known as “whales”) that faded into obscurity.

Stylistically, these beers cover a number of categories that predated today’s wait-in-line New England-style IPAs, which have become the reining industry favorite. Bring, say, an Isabelle Proximus to a bottle share and most younger beer geeks would move it out of the way to reach for something canned and double dry-hopped.

But that doesn’t mean the whales of yore aren’t worth remembering. Here, a trip down memory lane with seven former beer-world hits.

Struise Dirty Horse

Year: 1983
ABV: 7 percent
Country: Belgium
Style: Lambic

A whale that was actually equine, but seemed more like a mythical creature. In 1978, Urbain Coutteau, a self-taught teenage homebrewer, added cherries to the wort in his homemade coolship, thinking the sweet skins would attract “atmospherical fungus” and, thus, spontaneously ferment in the four wooden wine barrels where he placed his creation. Returning from work overseas in 1983, he “discovered” these forgotten barrels and finally bottled them. Upon opening his own brewery on an ostrich farm in 2005, he could finally sell this by then 22-year-old oddity, which was met with praise from the online community: “The most anticipated beer for most of us popped with a slight hiss with ever so slight ghostly smoke that crept out of the neck [sic],” wrote one commenter on BeerAdvocate. “Dirty horse is moby fuckin dick [sic],” wrote another, perhaps less poetically. That same year, Coutteau brewed a batch that also gained whale status and was often re-blended with the previous batch. He has never again attempted to brew this legendary beer.

Hair of the Dog Dave

Year: 1994
ABV: 29 percent
Country: United States (Oregon)
Style: Barleywine

In 1994, Hair of the Dog owner Alan Sprints freeze-distilled his flagship old ale, Adam, until it had concentrated to an astounding 29 percent ABV. At $8 for a 375 mL (then a hefty price) in the mid-1990s, the boozy beer sat on shelves. Over time, as its heat calmed down and it aged in bottle, it slowly started gaining buzz—and value. Bottles still exist, and can fetch as much as $5,000 each.

Magic Hat Thumbsucker

Year: 2003
ABV: 7.8 percent
Country: United States (Vermont)
Style: Russian imperial stout

If there’s any way to show how much the industry—and beer geek mentalities—have changed in the last two decades, look to the fact that a Magic Hat offering was once a whale. Would a modern “hazeboy” deign to drink any Magic Hat? Has he ever even heard of their once-ubiquitous No. 9? This bourbon barrel-aged stout became red hot even as mid-2000s drinkers were moving onto more ballyhooed breweries. “Beer geeks hated [ No. 9] and hated the people who drank it even more,” claims Joe Carroll, who served Thumbsucker at a 2006 “Rare and Obscure” event at his Brooklyn bar, Spuyten Duyvil. “[Thumbsucker] and others from this series were taken seriously because they were well-made and often unusual offerings at a time when finding good craft beer was still a small challenge, especially if you lived anywhere outside of the West Coast.”

Midnight Sun M

Year: 2005
ABV: 11.6 percent
Country: United States (Alaska)
Style: American barleywine

Produced to celebrate the Alaskan brewery’s 10th anniversary and 1000th batch of beer, this so-called Belgian-style barleywine (aged in bourbon barrels) was considered incredibly boozy at the time of its release. So legendary by now, it’s been written about in books like Bill Howell’s Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun: “Only a single batch was produced, and at first there was little reaction in the wider beer community; but eventually word began to circulate that M was something truly extraordinary.” In no time, bottles were trading rabidly on beer forums. (Gage Siegel of BeerMenus.com jokes that the beer must have been incredible if people were willing to wait for Alaskan trade partners to ship it to them.) As recently as 2012, back when eBay still allowed alcohol sales, a bottle sold for more than $1,500. 

Flossmoor Station Wooden Hell

Year: 2007
ABV: 9.5 percent
Country: United States (Illinois)
Style: English barleywine

The mid-aughts were an era when a relatively obscure brewery could inadvertently release a white whale into the wild. Such was the case with this brewpub in the Chicago suburbs that rocked beer geeks with a limited, bourbon barrel-aged barleywine. “I had never purchased a beer on the secondary market so I was super hesitant, but I figured I would never get the chance again, and I split it with a friend,” claims Jason Stein, a beer writer who ponied up $400 for a bottle in 2016. “And then a month after that, Flossmoor announced they were re-brewing it. Fucking joke.” Wooden Hell 2.0 hardly got any buzz, as whale chasers had already moved onto dessert-inspired stouts. 

Lost Abbey Isabelle Proximus

Year: 2008
ABV: 7 percent
Country: United States (California)
Style: Wild ale

In 2006, the so-called “Brett Pack” of American sour brewers from Lost Abbey, Russian River, Allagash, Dogfish Head and Avery toured Pajottenland, Belgium, to learn about lambic. When they returned to the U.S., they brewed their own attempt at the style. The 1,800-bottle release was a massive hit in an era when America had few examples of wild ales. “A bar in my neighborhood used to keep an empty bottle of Isabelle Proximus as a display in the bathroom,” recalls Siegel of BeerMenus.com. “And knowing I’d never actually taste it, I spent a lot more time admiring a beer bottle atop a toilet than I’m proud to admit.”

Närke Kaagen! Stormaktsporter

Year: 2005
ABV: 9 percent
Country: Sweden
Style: Imperial porter

Some of the top whales in the early aughts were beers only available at a specific location, often outside of America. This barrel-aged, heather honey-based porter from Närke Kulturbryggeri was almost exclusively available to drink at a Stockholm beer bar called Akkurat. For years, it was famous for perpetually topping RateBeer’s list of top 50 beers, even besting Westy 12. The beer is still occasionally brewed these days, but with a fairly low ABV by modern stout-drinker standards. Beer geeks have all but forgotten about it.

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