FOMO Beers, and The Alternatives

January 18, 2018

By Miles Liebtag, January 18, 2018

“Can you imagine standing in line for beer?” I asked a friend recently.

I can’t, at least, not outside the context of a festival or a particularly poorly run bar. I meant more that waiting in line for hours, possibly even overnight, to buy beer strikes me as patently ludicrous. One of the very best things about the American craft beer renaissance is that there’s great beer everywhere – why in holy hell would you want to queue up for an entire day to buy a few particular cans?

Well see there’s this thing called FOMO, I guess, and among the galaxy of other execrable acronyms used by marketing companies to sell services to bewildered aging baby boomers, this one at least indicates something like an actual phenomenon: Fear Of Missing Out describes a condition under which the dead-eyed mindlessly seek out products and experiences they see their peers flacking on social media, so that they might flack themselves. FOMO is the idea that you’re an absolute sucker if you’re not experiencing what everyone else is (or seems to be) experiencing. 

When Garret Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery lately said that the NE IPA is the “first beer style based around Instagram culture,” he was indirectly referencing the FOMO effect in craft beer: hundreds of people lining up for untold hours to buy a scant half dozen cans of inexpertly packaged opaque India Pale Ale, only to post poorly-lit pictures of their “haul” alongside shots of the glowing orange liquid.

The quality of the beer aside, why do people do this? For trade fodder, for the black market, yes, sure, but also to be part of something, to be visibly consuming something that’s desired far and wide. 

They sell every drop they make, typically on the day it’s released.”

Ticking culture has turned potential beer aficionados into mere collectors. Nobody seems to want to learn anything about beer, how it’s made, where it came from, why it matters – they want to check in on Untappd and move on. The Pokemon Go phenomenon from two summers ago was immediately familiar to me: droves of ostensible grownups wandering around in a fugue using an app to chart incremental progress toward imaginary trophies? Sounds like just another Thursday night tasting at the local bottle shop to me. If only Pikachu could getcha drunk, catching him might approximate the rush of laying down $300 for a flat of Tree House cans. 

Anyway, “whalez” have long been a part of the American craft beer experience—hunting them, trying them, boasting about them, deriding them, etc. Below is a selection of beers that have inspired many an intrepid consumer to new heights of self-abasement, as well as potential alternatives for when you just can’t hack another night on the sidewalk in a lawn chair. Please enjoy! 

The Alchemist/Tree House/Trillium/Tired Hands/The Veil/et al. – NEIPA

As suggested above, there’s little in beer more controversial right now than New England (or, sometimes, “North East”) IPA. These low bitterness, highly aromatic, typically turbid (or at least hazy) beers do not resemble any India Pale Ale that’s come before, and the emergent style’s proponents make a very strong case for it being a truly unique American beer innovation. Not simply an IPA recipe adulterated with new additives, the production processes for these beers differ radically from how most IPAs and other beers are made.

There’s arguably nothing hotter in craft beer right now than canned (always canned, for some reason) NE IPA. The breweries listed above represent merely an influential sampling of the ones currently printing money with these beers: they sell every drop they make, typically on the day it’s released. To get your hands on some, you’ll probably have to wait in a long line, pay a steep premium, trade some other trendy beer for them, or some combination of the three.

The combination of rich chocolate, roasty coffee, & maple syrup flavors have made CBS a legend.”

From the Alchemist’s classic Heady Topper, to the juicy, soft and pillowy Tree House Julius, to the iconoclastic pine-bomb of the Veil’s Crucial Taunt, these beers vary widely within a narrow range, if that makes sense. If you (like many) love the soft mouthfeel, intense aromas, and beautiful fruit flavors of these beers, I say: more power to you, friend! May your wait in line be short. If you (like me) enjoy them with some reservations – many of them are, well, gritty, not to mention harsh on the back of the palate – then there are certainly many other ways to experience this style that don’t require sitting overnight in a camping chair.

For a decent approximation of what this style is all about, seek out the increasingly-widely distributed Lord Hobo; their Glorious Galaxy Pale is opaque, juicy, and decently aromatic, and you probably won’t have to wait in line for it.  Sierra Nevada also recently released their own take on the style, Hazy Little Thing, which has far wider distribution but really isn’t much like the beers that made the style famous – still it’s a beautiful, balanced, clean and highly drinkable IPA. If that’s your thing. Mikkeller also has a recent worthy entrant with Murk Tyson, a cloudy, juicy and soft NEIPA that I would 100% buy on the name alone. This style is impetuous.

Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout

What Kentucky Breakfast Stout once was, CBS still is. At least for now. While Founders KBS bourbon barrel-aged coffee stout still brings many man-boys to the yard, it’s dwarfed in desirability and limited-ness but its reclusive cousin CBS, colloquially “Canadian Breakfast Stout."

CBS is, like KBS, based on Founders’ delectable Breakfast Stout recipe (one of my favorite beers of all time), but “imperialized,” that is, cranked up in alcohol and intensity so better to endure its time in used bourbon barrels. The barrels used to age CBS add another layer of complexity and decadence, as these former bourbon barrels were also used to age maple syrup.

The combination of rich chocolate, roasty coffee, and maple syrup flavors have made CBS something of a legend; it was last bottled in 2011, and since then we’ve only seen it at the occasional (and very rare) tapping. Last December, Founders went wide with the release of CBS in 22oz bombers in all 46 states in which the brewery is distributed. Expectations were high, and rightly so – the bottles have a suggested retail of $24.99. 

The merest rumor of a case of Cantillon Gueuze coming to market is enough to make retailers & customers preemptively angry.”

While CBS itself may be somewhat difficult to approximate, at the end of the day we’re talking about a big, sweet, viscous, barrel aged stout with flavors of chocolate and coffee, among others. One of the very best barrel aged stouts you can buy right off the shelf is Heavy Seas’ Siren Noire, a bourbon barrel aged chocolate imperial stout that’s totally fantastic and criminally overlooked. While lacking the coffee component (though with a good amount of coffee-like flavor from roasted malts), it still satisfies on a lot of the same levels as CBS, and at less than 1/3 the cost per ounce. Historically only in 22oz bombers, Siren Noire was just released in 12 oz bottle 4 packs for the first time

Also worthy of your consideration is the long-venerated Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout, the barrel-aged stout that arguably started it all. Once nearly impossible to find, GI has increased production in recent years, and the plethora of new BA stout options for the consumer has meant that BCBS doesn’t disappear from shelves with the rapidity it once did. BCBS “original” is as good a beer of this type as you’re likely to find, the coffee variant might do for scratching your CBS itch, in a pinch.  

Brasserie Cantillon — Assorted

Having technically sold Cantillon for some years, I’d say it’s possibly the most misunderstood brewery in all of beer geekdom. People ask for it reflexively, without knowing what it is, where it comes from, how it’s made, or even how to pronounce it. NEIPA aside, it is perhaps the epitome of FOMO beer.

Cantillon is a small, family-run brewery in the Cureghem district of Brussels, where the Van Roy family has been brewing lambics and blending gueuzes for four generations. From a base of organic barley and raw wheat, Cantillon creates traditional Belgian lambic beer, which is fermented spontaneously by wild yeast and bacteria in open vessels, and then aged in oak barrels.

Traditional, unblended lambic is still (that is, uncarbonated), delicately balanced between acidity and sourness, and hardly ever leaves Belgium – De Cam Oude Lambiek is one of the few commercial examples that makes its way to the US.

Gueuze is a blend of one-, two- and three-year old lambics refermented in the bottle, and Cantillon’s Gueuze is prized perhaps above all others. It is effervescent, earthy, funky, spicy, oaky, spicy, acidic – in a word, complex. The merest rumor of a case of Cantillon Gueuze coming to market is enough to make retailers and customers preemptively angry, the demand so far outstrips the supply.

Pale Sour is an effervescent golden that balances malt sweetness and lactic tartness.”

Brasserie Cantillon is one of an increasingly small number of breweries whose reverence for and observance of traditional method transcends the noise and buzz of trends and markets – which is why it’s extremely disheartening to see how these beers have become valuable fodder in the oft-moronic world of online beer trading, haul photos, and black marketeering.

After a recent bottle release in Brussels, the brewery despaired on social media that “more or less half [of the beer] was purchased by people who didn't know anything about Lambic and even less about Cantillon. Most of those ‘customers', sent by people trafficking our beers and reselling them online, couldn't even pronounce the name of the brewery or of the beers correctly.” Cantillon beers are amazing and singular, but they share a common trait with all other beers in the world: they’re not worth acting like a jerk to get your hands on them. 

If you’re dying to try a Cantillon but can’t bring yourself to hang out in the lambic trading groups (nor should you), there are plenty of worthy alternatives out there, most of which can easily be found at a good bottle shop. Seek ye out some Boon Geuze Mariage Partfait, an 8% blend of lambics refermented in the bottle and bursting with fine effervescence, lemony tartness, and mushroomy funk – in a good way, I promise. Boon (pronounced “bone”) also recently released a “Discovery Box” of geuzes each matured in a different foeder, which comes with a tasting manual for guiding you through the subtle differences.

If you’d like to try a sour beer at a slightly more accessible price point, look for Ommegang’s new Pale Sour. This mixed-fermentation ale is the product of a collaboration between Brewery Ommegang and Liefman’s, one of the best brewers and blenders of sour beers in the world. Pale Sour is an effervescent golden that balances malt sweetness and lactic tartness, which Ommegang describes as “like a fine white wine.”

Three Floyds Zombie Dust 

Which brings us to perhaps the Number One FOMO Beer of Yesteryear: Zombie Dust is a delicious Citra-heavy pale ale that clocks in at 6% alcohol by volume and has a great balance, body, and finish. It’s lovely when fresh, and falls off quickly, like most beers of this type. That’s about it.

So why does it move so many people to fall all over themselves to get it? It’s a combination of quality (which is undeniable), scarcity (which is real), and cult status (which is earned): Zombie Dust has been at or near the top of lots of online beer rankings for a long time.

In recent years, general supply of Three Floyds beers has increased across much of the Midwest, but Zombie Dust remains relatively rare. It doesn’t bring out the punters like it used to, but it’s still hugely desirable – and desired. I’ve seen grown men (always men, of course) throw literal fits over this beer, when they could have probably had a local pale ale that was, if not just as good, probably fresher. If you see the Dust on tap, absolutely, grab yourself a pint; if you happen to see bottles out in the wild, pick up a six pack! But know, before you go ask your local bottle shop to special order you in a case, that you’ve just joined the ranks of people who ask for Pappy Van Winkle at the grocery store. 

For a good approximation of Zombie Dust, I suggest seeking out the best and freshest Citra-heavy pale ale or IPA made in your home prefecture. The beauty of this beer is really in it balance, high drinkability, and massive hop flavor and aroma, which depend heavily on freshness. Or if the beer in your town sucks, you could always wait around for Revolution’s Citra Hero, a lovely 7.5% IPA sometimes available in cans and mixed variety 12 packs. 

For those in the Mountain West, look for Odell Brewing Company’s Citra IPA, a single-hop beer whose bursting citrus aromas encapsulate what this hop is all about, and at 6.5% ABV clocks in just above Zombie Dust’s relatively modest 6%.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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