Beer may be the everyman’s drink, but there are some ultra-premium brews priced like fine Bordeaux.
By Roger Grody
Budweiser is the “King of Beers” and rival Miller Brewing Company dubs its flagship product “High Life,” so the concept of elitism has long pervaded the mass-production market. But a new breed of brewmasters is transforming the beer drinking experience through exotic ingredients, elaborate packaging and price tags that would make a sommelier blush.
Craft brewing, a dominant trend in the industry, has fostered diversity, innovation and a focus on high quality artisanal ingredients. Also emerging are small-batch, ultra-premium beers with price points more akin to fine wines than budget-friendly, old-school labels like Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Leading beer authority Stephen Beaumont — his 13 books include The World Atlas of Beer and Premium Beer Drinker’s Guide — reports plenty of media interest in super-expensive beers but does not believe their hype represents a major shift in the industry. “It’s not so much a trend but an attention-grabber,” he says, conceding that whenever a beer sells for $800, people naturally take notice. He suggests that standing in line for the chance to buy a limited-release beer is part of an experience that transcends the palate, and points to 3 Floyds Brewing Co.’s Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout as a prime example. On Dark Lord Day (most recently on May 19, 2018), fans make the pilgrimage to Munster, Indiana to score some of the scarce bottles.
Many high-priced beers are one-off events rather than regularly available products, and their stratospheric price tags are often attributed to extremely limited production. Sapporo, the massive Japanese brewery, introduced Space Barley in 2009, made with barley from seeds that were kept alive in the International Space Station by Japanese and Russian scientists. The grain’s exotic provenance made this one of the most unique beers ever produced — facetiously referred to as “out of this world” — and a six-pack retailed for $110.
photos courtesy the Boston Beer Company
Samuel Adams’ Jim Koch
From 2008 through 2014, Australia’s Crown Beverages produced a vintage beer called Crown Ambassador Ale, a limited-production beverage designed to cellar for a decade.
The handsome 750ml wine-like bottles were originally priced at about $90 but now command in excess of $1,000 on auction sites. The brewer suggests serving it in a red wine glass and reports it pairs well with pungent cheeses, wild game and desserts.
Samuel Adams, the brand that introduced craft brewing techniques to a mass market, has offered 10 vintages of a limited-edition beer called Utopias, a blend of batches aged up to 24 years.
At 28 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) — as opposed to the typical 4 to 6 percent — this beer is more akin to a Port or Cognac. Aging in a variety of wine and spirit barrels (the 2017 vintage included a stint in Scandinavian aquavit barrels) further invites such comparisons.
“My original idea for Utopias was to push the boundaries of craft beer by brewing an extreme beer that was unlike anything any brewer had conceived,” reports Samuel Adams Founder Jim Koch. “We’ve continued to stretch the boundaries in brewing with the release of our 10th vintage and I’m proud to present to drinkers this lunatic fringe of extreme beer worthy of the Utopias name,” says Koch of the 2017 vintage. Only 13,000 ceramic bottles resembling copper brewing kettles were released, with a suggested retail price of $199 per bottle. Commentators like Beaumont praise Utopias, suggesting its character and complexity warrants the high price.
BrewDog is a funky Scottish craft brewery (Beaumont calls the company, not necessarily disparagingly, “an unapologetic attention-seeker”) that produces highly rated beers with product names like Elvis Juice, Clockwork Tangerine and Tactical Nuclear Penguin. One of its most celebrated products was Sink the Bismark!, a 41 percent ABV ale that retailed at approximately $75 when released in 2011. If you can find the high-octane brew today, you’ll pay north of $200 for a 330ml bottle.
End of History is a BrewDog beer with a staggering 55 percent ABV. Only a dozen bottles were produced for its first release in 2010, so prices skyrocketed to $750 or more. The beer is now brewed at BrewDog’s Columbus, Ohio facility, legal in the Buckeye State only after a 12 percent ABV cap was lifted in 2016. Despite its American Heartland production, the beer is fermented with juniper berries and nettles from the Scottish Highlands. To raise money for the company’s American expansion, $20,000 bottles were offered to investors. And for packaging that could be viewed as either cool or creepy, each End of History bottle is inserted into a taxidermied squirrel, with the neck of the bottle extending through the mouth of the sacrificial critter.
Denmark-based Carlsberg Group is best known for its eminently affordable Carlsberg label, but offers more than 500 different brands from Uzbekistan to Laos and periodically experiments with high-end beers. Released from 2008 to 2010 is its Carlsberg Jacobsen Vintage, which was originally priced near $400. It can still be cellared until 2059 and remaining bottles are considered precious. “It’s quite a flavorful beer with lots of character and complexity,” notes Beaumont. This year, the company introduced new cask-conditioned beers in conjunction with Nordic Food Lab at the University of Copenhagen.
“The starting point was a curiosity about whether we could brew beers of sufficiently high quality to match Denmark’s elite gastronomy,” says Jacobsen Brewmaster Morten Ibsen, who notes, “We succeeded.” A limited allocation of Jacobsen’s Chanterelle Lager was provided to Michelin-starred Restaurant Tri Trin Ned in Fredericia, Denmark, where dishes on the multi-course tasting menu were carefully crafted to complement the beer’s unique character. The launch reinforces the concept of fine beer assuming the stature of wine in the highest echelons of the culinary world.
Perhaps no craft brewery in America is as dedicated to the art of “culinary brewing” as Chicago-based Moody Tongue Brewing Company, whose mission is to develop flavor profiles that pair well with fine cuisine. Founding Brewmaster Jared Rouben, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and an alum of Michelin three-star Per Se in New York, approaches brewing beer as he would a savory dish in the kitchen. “It’s about sourcing the best ingredients, handling them with care and knowing where, when and why to incorporate them,” he says, adding, “The finished product just hits a glass instead of a plate.”
Moody Tongue Brewing’s Jared Rouben
Photos courtesy Moody Tongue Brewing Company
Moody Tongue’s Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner (about $120 for a 22-ounce bottle) is a beer designed to complement rack of lamb as effectively as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Several acclaimed restaurants have placed it on their lists, including New York heavyweights Per Se and Blue Hill. Part of Rouben’s inspiration for founding Moody Tongue in 2014 was his frustration with seeing the beer selection relegated to the last page of restaurants’ beverage lists, with few choices that could elevate the dining experience.
“My inspiration comes from the ingredients,” says the chef/brewmaster, insisting he is not motivated by price. “As soon as truffles go down in price, so will the beer,” he quips.
Stepehn Beaumont / Photo by Micha Dahan
Shelton Brothers, Inc. is a prominent Massachusetts-based importer currently offering more than 800 labels, including those of Cantillon, a Belgian brewery whose traditionally fermented Lambic beers command high prices. Commenting on the current crop of headline-grabbing beers, Co-Founder Dan Shelton, states, “American craft brewers have figured out a lot of ways of getting people to spend more money: higher alcohol levels, novel ingredients, creating the impression of scarcity by limiting access, and using what are purported to be innovative techniques.”
“Most of this is just gimmickry,” insists Shelton, who believes the trend toward exotic food additives is cresting. Unimpressed by truffle-infused beer, he says, “I sincerely hope that what comes next is a renewed interest in what I think of as just ‘good beer’ — beer made in the traditional, painstaking way that actually tastes like beer.”
BrewDog • Scotland/Ohio • www.brewdog.com
Cantillon Brewery • Belgium • www.cantillon.be
Crown Ambassador Reserve • Australia • www.crownlager.com.au
Carlsberg Group • Denmark • www.carlsberggroup.com
Moody Tongue Brewing Company • Chicago • www.moodytongue.com
Samuel Adams • Boston • www.samueladams.com
Sapporo • Japan • www.sapporobeer.com
3 Floyds Brewing Co. • Indiana • www.3floyds.com
Shelton Brothers, Inc. • www.sheltonbrothers.com
Stephen Beaumont • www.beaumontdrinks.com