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Are cult beers a thing?

I’ve been reading Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, published in 1981 when the idea of a cult film was quite new and, inevitably, it’s started me thinking about what might qualify as a ‘cult beer’.

Here’s how Mr Peary defines a cult movie in the introduction to the book:

Of the tens of thousands of movies that have been made, only an extremely small number have elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases… Cultists don’t merely enjoy their favorite films; they worship them, seek them out wherever they are playing, catch them in theaters even when they have just played on television, see them repeatedly, and are intent on persuading anyone who will listen that they should be appreciated regardless of what the newspaper or television reviewers thought. Strike up a conversation about movies anywhere in the country and the titles found in this book soon will be flying back and forth in frenetic debate. And as likely as not you’ll end up forcing someone to watch The Late Late Show to see a special favorite of yours or find yourself being dragged to some repertory theater to see a picture your well-meaning abductor has viewed ten, twenty, or a hundred times.

I certainly recognise something of the attitude of the beer geek in that description: “We just need to get a train and a bus, then it’s a short walk through an industrial estate, but trust me, it’ll be worth it…”

There’s also something appealing about the idea of a descriptor that sidesteps all those conversations about ‘craft’.

It’s not about whether a film is well made, says Mr Peary – “often the contrary” – or which studio made it (though many cult films are independent productions). What matters is that it has dedicated, even obsessive fans.

And perhaps also that it’s not readily available everywhere, all the time. You need to put in a little effort to enjoy it, especially if you want to see it on a big screen.

That’s why in Peary’s world, Citizen Kane can sit on the same list as Emanuelle alongside The Warriors a few pages on from Bedtime for Bonzo.

If cult beers exist, if that’s ‘a thing’, we might end up with similarly unlikely bedfellows.

Bass is probably a cult beer – a big name in its day but hard to find in its natural habitat, the pub.

Orval is, surely? Especially with all those instructions about storage and service. In fact, doesn’t Belgium rather specialise in cult beers all round?

Batham’s, too – the way people go on about it!

Schlenkerla Rauchbier, which people either love or hate, feels like a contender.

It would be easy for this to turn into a list of canonical beers, though. What’s not on the list? Anything you can easily find in a pub or bar in most towns, I suppose, which puts Guinness out of contention, even if it has T-shirt wearing fans.

What do you reckon might count as a cult beer? Something you’ve queued for, hunted down or gone well out of your way to drink.

10 replies on “Are cult beers a thing?”

Coors was a cult beer in the 70s. Smokey and the Bandit was only slightly embellished. I’ve talked to a lot of people who would travel several states to bring back cases of the stuff.

I’ve personally picked up cases of Founders Breakfast Stout in a neighboring state while there, but didn’t go out of my way too far to get it. New Glarus as well but I don’t think that’s as widely regarded.

Ballantine Ale was a big one for me — after a bunch of searching I was able to order a six-pack last summer, and greatly enjoyed both the beer and the satisfaction of having finally found the beer. Utica Club was another, although it seems to have gotten a lot easier to find outside of supermarkets over the past year or so.

I guess I feel like I have access to enough locally-brewed or locally-available beer of quality and varying styles to where I don’t really get too fussed about going out of my way to find something ‘legendary’.

The whole of Cantillon seems like something of a cult producer of beers. The couple of times have been to the brewery it’s been like entering a cathedral – everyone staring reverentially at their beers, discussing them in hushed tones as they sip.

Would also suggest some beers brewed once a year can engender cult status as dedicated aficionados wait excitedly for the latest vintage, to seek out, pour over and talk through subtle comparisons with previous vintages – rather like movie cultists analysing and arguing about the differently cut versions of a film across time: the likes of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Samichlaus Classic, Fuller’s Vintage…

Ruddles County was a cult beer in the 1970s. Arguably Jaipur was for a while in the 2000s.

Wylam’s Jakehead was a bit of a cult beer in Newcastle in the first few months after release.

I’d agree with Cantillion, the fact they have their own Zwanze day celebrated all over the world by those in the know.

Closer to home I’d argue Titantic Plum Porter is becoming a more cult cult beer.

Dearly as I love Orval, I don’t think it’s a cult beer. Westvleteren’s are cult beers, but I don’t think any of the other Belgian Trappists can qualify – too widely available. The Batham’s certainly belongs on the list, as do the various Spingos, Middle in particular. Harvey’s HSB perhaps; the Imperial Extra Double Stout, certainly. Annual releases tend to attract a following, e.g. Fuller’s Vintages and Thomas Hardy (but not JW Lees’ Harvest Ale – good quality, limited supply, just not very fashionable). Timothy Taylor’s Ram Tam was a bit of a cult object for a long time – never seen except on draught and very rarely then – but not since they rebadged it as Landlord Dark. (Renamings generally are dreadful for cult status, and label redesigns aren’t great.)

Westvleteren’s hype/scarcity/difficult ordering system helps cement its status as a cult beer, but I reckon Orval definitely qualifies – it’s not particularly easy to find outside the specialist trade, it’s got a certain weirdness, and fans develop a preference for certain aspects, like a certain amount of aging.

Given the way that some (mostly craft) breweries have adopted hype and scarcity as a marketing strategy (brewery collabs, limited editions, etc.), I wonder where the dividing line is between ‘cult’ and ‘hype’. Longevity’s probably part of it, though I’m sure there are cult beers from now-defunct breweries that were only around for a short time.

(Returning – even more – belatedly to this topic)

As mentioned above, seasonal/limited releases have the advantage of built-in scarcity/difficulty in finding them, so Founders KBS? Goose Island Bourbon County? Brooklyn Black Ops?

For real ale types, there’s also the cult appeal of having things on cask that are usually bottle only; as a Londoner-in-exile I’m thinking of the very occasional appearances of 1845 and Golden Pride at selected Fuller’s pubs – sometimes in casks on the bar, only to be dispensed to suitably favoured patrons.

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