9 of the Rarest Beers in the World

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Photo courtesy of Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij

The question of what is the rarest beer in the world actually has a very simple answer. 

Westvleteren 12 (XII) is the rarest beer in the world.

Did we ruin the surprise? Should we have built up with anticipation? Perhaps we could have baited you. We could have made you read this whole blog post before giving away all of beer's greatest secrets.

But, the truth? It's not so much of a secret anymore that beer fanatics and critics alike consider Westvleteren 12 one of the world's rarest and most sought-after beers.

Why? Because this Belgian Quadruple is brewed in extremely small quantities by a group of Trappist monks at The Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij in a small place called Vleteren, Belgium. To even get a taste of Westie 12 (as it's affectionately known), you need a hotline to make an appointment just to purchase the beer, most likely buy a plane ticket, fly to Belgium, rent a car, drive to a tiny town, and line up in your car at the abbey gate on your chosen date to stuff away your prize.

That sense of adventure and the thought that very few people in the world have had the pleasure of tasting this beer have driven Westie 12 to cult stardom.

"Everyone brings up Westie 12 when looking for a whale beer," says Zach Mack, owner of ABC Beer Co., a highly regarded craft beer store and shop in the East Village in Manhattan, NY. (White whale or whale is the lingo used to describe a rare beer.) "It's seared into our memories as the original rare beer."

But, what does it mean to be a rare beer?

Traditionally, rare beer has been defined by three different attributes: 1) Difficulty to produce, 2) Quantity produced, and 3) Availability.

In Westie's case, the Trappist monks have hit two out of the trifecta. They produce such a small quantity that its scarcity turned it into a rare beer.

"The idea that something is rare means it's hard to come by because of a limited production of it," says Mack. "It's this structured constructive rareness that bleeds into generating demand for it. Westie 12 or any of these beers from out of the country make up for a bulk of these white whales because they're in such short supply. They literally create an unlimited demand just from such a small production and distribution footprint."

In America, the world of craft beer has changed drastically over the past ten years.

Here in the U.S., people get excited to try beer like Russian River's Pliny the Younger, The Alchemist's Heady Topper, Toppling Goliath's Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, Tree House's JJJULIUSSS!, and the list goes on. Because we know that these beers are released either in only small quantities, only certain areas, or only once a year.

"This whole idea of rare, as in something I truly can't get my hands on like Westie 12, has become a part of a brewery's business plan because breweries around the country want to create that demand and drive a line to their taproom every week," says Mack.

Today, more and more breweries are creating all this mystery and demand around a small production release that might only be available in a certain part of the country. Breweries like Other Half, Hudson Valley Brewery, or Tree House Brewing Co. by nature generate hype because they only release a certain number of beers per year in small batches that you have to scramble to get just like a shoe release.

"If you don't get the beer, you won't be able to ever try it," says Mack. "These beers are rare, but hype is part of that rareness. They're storied and sought after, which created a demand that made it appear rare. You can go to any gas station in Vermont and buy a flat of Heady Topper, but it's rare for people in Manhattan. Tree House beers are rare for people who can't get to Boston and have to rely on it being sent by friends. People trade this and that to get my Other Half in NYC or Monkish in California."

If you can't physically visit a brewery to buy one of these sought-after beers, you either have to know someone that knows someone that will pick up cans or bottles for you, or alternatively, you can scour the web, trolling through beer trading networks and groups such as The Craft Beer Trading Society, The Beer Exchange, BeerAdvocate's trading forum, and even Reddit to find random people willing to trade you a Pliny the Elder for a Heady Topper.

It's this subculture of craft quietly buzzing along beneath the surface, a whole other world with its own language, that continues to cultivate this idea of rarity.

With all this in mind, here are our picks for some of the most traditional rare beers in the world. To be transparent, we're not using any analytical data to back up this list. We're sticking to our knowledge of the industry and the above criteria: 1) Difficulty to produce, 2) Quantity produced, and 3) Availability. With that in mind, do you see something missing? Is there a new rare beer out there we don't know about? Comment below, so we can add to this list!

Top Rare and Hyped Beers Around the World and How You Can (Or Can't) Get Them

If you're seeking the allure of the world's OG rarest beer, we've put together a list of ones to try. Happy hunting.

Westvleteren 12 (XII) - The Brouwerij De Sint-Sixtusabdij — Vleteren, Belgium

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This is the grandaddy of rare beers. If you need to check one rare beer off your bucket list, this is it. While we've waxed poetic on its scarcity, the beer itself is also poetry. Much like a Belgian Quad, Westie 12 boasts notes of dried fruit and brown sugar. But, you don't have to take our word for it. @beerwithabackdrop calls this beer the best Belgian Quad he's ever tried. Hear why it's one of his favorite beers in the world on our newest episode of Stocked Up

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Zwanze - Brassier Cantillon - Anderlecht, Belgium

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First brewed in 2008 by the Brasserie Cantillon in Belgium, this limited-edition beer is one of the most sought-after Lambics in the world. The brewery changes the recipe every year. In 2021 Parasol will be the special release. A blend of lambic and citrus, mostly oranges, this Zwanze recipe comes from one brewed 70 years ago by Paul Cantillon, the brewer of Cantillon in the 1950s. Each year the annual Zwanze beer is released on one special day in limited quantities around the world. Known as Zwanze Day, this annual special release takes place in late September. Due to the global pandemic, we're honestly not sure what Zwanze Day 2021 will look like. We suppose this could make Cantillon's most recent version of Zwanze even rarer.

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Heady Topper - The Alchemist Beer — Stowe, VT

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An icon in the craft beer world, Heady Topper holds a special place on this list. "This beer still comes into my head as a rare beer because people see this as hard to get, which makes up a huge part of its identity and drives a lot of sales," says Mack "Honestly, Vermont has become like the Bordeaux of the beer world. If it's from there, people think it's good." Today, it's a bit easier to find Heady Topper, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a damn good version of a Double IPA.

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Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger - Russian River Brewing Co. — Santa Rosa, CA

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"As a New Yorker, [Pliny the Elder] is a beer that when people travel they make time out of their schedule to go and get it because you can't get it unless you go to the brewery," says Mack. "It has such a tiny footprint. It's widely available in California, but not outside of that market." Pliny the Younger is even rarer. One of the most sought-after American rarities, this limited-edition Triple IPA clocks in at over 10% and can only be found on draft at the brewery once a year. You need to purchase nearly unattainable tickets just to get a sip.

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JJJULIUSSS! - Tree House Brewing Co. — Charlton, MA

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Like the Russian River Pliny the Elder of the East Coast, JJJULIUSSS is only available for purchase at the Massachusetts-based brewery. For this reason, this IPA and many more from Tree House have an absolute cult following. On Untappd JJJULIUSSS is the Top-Rated American IPA in the entire country in 2021

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Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout - Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. — Decorah, IA

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Toppling Goliath only releases 300 to 400 bottles a year of this barrel-aged stout, making KBBS a true collector's beer. 

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O.W.K - Side Project Brewing — St. Louis, MO

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Side Project founder Cory King created this beer to celebrate their son, Owen King. The beer sat for 15 months in a 15-year-old Willett Family Estate Bourbon barrel before resting on Ugandan Vanilla Beans. This might be a once-in-a-lifetime beer.

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Dark Lord - Three Floyds Brewing Co. — Munster, IN

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Released once a year in non-COVID years during a special holiday called Dark Lord Day, Three Floyd's 15% ABV Russian Imperial Stout with molasses and vanilla defines exclusivity. You'll need to go directly to Three Floyd's home in Munster, IN, to get a bottle. But, traders rampantly offer all different aged versions of this beer online.

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Barrel-Aged Abraxas - Perennial Artisan Ale — St. Louis, MO

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Limited, that's the name of the game with Barrel-Aged Abraxas from this St. Louis, MO, brewery. Locals can make a reservation to buy the bottle while out-of-towners need to go a step further, entering an online lottery just for the hope and prayer of getting their own bottle. The Imperial stout aged in rye barrels with chiles, cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, and cacao nibs registers at 11% ABV.

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Rare beers are crazy beers. But if you're craving a crazy beer that you might have a better chance of getting your hands on, check out these ones the Hop Culture team and our friends try each week. On each episode of The Craziest Beer I Had This Week, we drop a new crazy beer we've cracked. Watch the latest episode and don't forget to subscribe to Hop Culture's YouTube channel so you never miss a beat on the wild beer we drink next!   

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