Hunting for unicorns: Across the Vegas Valley, collectors are filling up fridges with rare beers

Lee’s Discount Liquor is a haven for rare beer hunters.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a beer? Ten dollars at a Strip casino, $15 if you’re trapped inside a concert venue? How does $200 for a single bottle sound? Crazy? Not for a dedicated band of collectors who scour the Valley for quaffable unicorns.

“It’s a vibrant community,” says Scott Hanning, vice president of Lee’s Discount Liquor. “People who are interested in beers which are really fringe products.”

Niche beers have existed for years, but such specialty selections have become more available in Nevada, which has upgraded its microbrewery distribution network. And new varieties are being released far more frequently. “Nowadays, it seems like there’s a new release almost every week—a new seasonal from somebody or a new brewery coming to town,” Hannigan says. “It used to be that Sam Adams’ Utopias would be released at 21 percent ABV [alcohol-by-volume] every other year; now, every couple of weeks we’re getting a 13, 14, 17 percent beer coming out.”

Once, collectors flocked to beers that have become relatively mainstream: Stone’s Old Guardian barleywine and Double Bastard American strong ale; Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot barleywine and Celebration Ale; and Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome Ale. But times and trends change. The most sought-after brews today are typically high in ABV, they’re often barrel-aged, and many feature obscure ingredients or are less common styles of beer. In some cases, it’s all of the above.

Among the rarest are the Utopias, of which only 15,000 bottles are brewed every other year. First released in 2002, the high-ABV beer blends a series of barrel-aged ales that varies with every release; the last vintage in 2015 weighed in at 28 percent and utilized beer that had been aged in Buffalo Trace whiskey barrels, along with beer aged in Madeira, Carcavelos, cognac and Armagnac barrels. Two Franklins—yes, it costs $200—gets you 24 ounces of an alcohol-forward and highly complex yet extremely drinkable blend in a collectable copper-coated bottle.

Another much-coveted rarity is the Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner from Chicago brewery Moody Tongue. The earthiness of the Australian truffles—hand-shaven by chef-cum-brewer Jared Rouben himself—is surprisingly sedate, complementing the mild pilsner without overwhelming it. Price tag? Just $120 a bottle.

On the more affordable end of the spectrum sit special releases from California’s Firestone Walker, which, Hanning says, have drawn a crowd since their early days. Their popularity hasn’t waned. “Anything Firestone puts their name on, people just run to,” says Dominic Gallegos, general manager of the Lee’s on Warm Springs. Gallegos himself has gathered quite a collection of Firestone Walker beers, along with Goose Island Bourbon County stouts.

Unless you had your ear to the ground, you likely missed out on the single case of Firestone Walker’s Stickee Monkee each Lee’s location received a couple weeks back; the sweet, toeing-the-line-of-cloying-without-stepping-over-it, barrel-aged quad sold out everywhere in less than a day. At $10 for a 12-ounce bottle, it’s expensive, but not prohibitively so. The March release of Parabola, Firestone Walker’s Russian imperial stout, similarly disappeared on release day.

For Las Vegan Roland Szumada, a chance encounter with a Stone IPA—consumed during a House of Blues concert six years ago—birthed an obsession, and he has since amassed an impressive collection of one-off and seasonal rarities, including the past four Utopias. “I enjoy drinking something that someone’s taken the time to make,” Szumuda says. “You can taste the love you don’t get from a Bud.”

Some of the most popular special releases come from the godfather of edgy brews, Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head. Most famous is the comically hopped-up Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, which has hops continually added to its boil for—you guessed it­—two hours. At 15-20 percent ABV, the self-proclaimed “holy grail for hopheads” lives up to its billing with an onslaught of hoppy bitterness. If you’re not a hop fanatic, you might want to cellar it—the hops wane over time to reveal something more like a remarkable barleywine. (I once aged a bottle of my own for more than seven years.)

As with wine, cellaring rarities is a key component for beer collectors, who might store different vintages in a cool, dark place for some future celebration, and compare the ways beers age as time progresses. (Szumuda stores more than 40 cases under his stairs.) Others are in it for the thrill of the hunt, seeking out rarities, downing them and documenting with an app like Untappd.

If it sounds appealing, you can find kindred spirits in the Las Vegas Beer & Breweries Facebook group, where members keep one another informed on beers’ availability throughout the Valley (both in bottles and on tap). Bottoms up!

Tags: Featured, Beer
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