The elusive, long-sought-after, white whale of a beer. Do you have one of those on your list? How much would you pay for a can of Heady Topper? A bottle of Westvleteren XII? Would you travel to Indiana for Dark Lord Day? Do you line up to get a sip of Pliny the Younger? Have you ever stopped and asked yourself: Why?
The reference to the white whale is a reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel about an obsessive, self-destructive quest which makes sense only to the one doing the obsessing. I’m seeing people more and more go questing after these beers. If you live in Santa Rosa, maybe the cost isn’t so great to stand in line at Russian River to get samples of Pliny the Younger. But if you live in the midwest and you make the trek, I have to wonder if it’s worth it. I’ve participated in my share of these quests, usually by getting in on group buys. Most recently was my acquisition of a few bottles of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. I can’t believe how much I paid per bottle, and I have to wonder. Why?
Somewhat tied, I believe, to this white whale quest of beer is the Fear of Missing Out. In this world of limited, one-time releases, we now have access to more information than ever before. We can follow our favorite brewery on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and can be notified when they release that rare beer that we’ve been waiting to try. 33 years ago, what would we have done? When Sierra Nevada released their Bigfoot Barleywine in 1983, did they have people from all over the US LINED up to get bottles of it? Did anyone know anything momentous had happened? Were we all just a bunch of unfulfilled fools?
To the contrary, I’ve heard many people say that we used to be satisfied with less as a people. I think we used to be far more content. If people on the east coast had never heard of Sierra Nevada, let alone Bigfoot Barleywine, how could they be missing out? This modern easy access to information, which I LOVE by the way, is contributing to this sense of the FoMO. What will we do if we don’t catch Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout the next time? What about Firestone’s next release of Parabola? If we’re not at this year’s edition of Dark Lord Day? How will we TRULY be negatively impacted?
And we beer nerds really stoke this fire, don’t we? On the Ale Evangelist Show, we’ve mentioned several times that we’ve had the Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. Are we making others drool? Are we contributing to this sense of missing out? The thing is, as I’ve said for a number of years, beer is about the experience. I love trying new beers, but I love even more trying new beers with friends. If beer is about the experience, then there must be something special about the “once in a lifetime” beer, right? It certainly is an experience!
However, I think that seizing the opportunity when it comes to you is a far cry from going out of one’s way to chase the white whale. When Drew called me from Nevada and told me he’d found the 120, and would I like a few bottles, I said “YES!” Absolutely. When a certain local liquor store called me and said they had a few bottles of Cantillon’s Classic Gueuze, and would I like some, I said “YES!” To this day, however, I’ve never had Pliny the Younger. Would I like to? Sure. I have yet to pour from a can of Heady Topper. Am I talking to Mrs. The Scotsman’s Vermont-dwelling cousin to try to score a can? You betcha!
A final aspect of white-whale-chasing is this: What’s so special about these beers? In some cases, there may indeed be a rare ingredient. When Sam Adams released their Chocolate Bock in 2008, made with chocolate from Swiss chocolatier Felchlin, it was a one-time thing. While they have since come up with a version of it for their Winter Pack, it’s just not the same, and neither is the bottle. It was something I was very privileged to get to try, and it’s gone. In most cases, however, these breweries make this beer year after year. Clone recipes abound, and there’s no reason why more breweries or home brewers can’t make their own versions of these sought-after beers.
But at the end of the day, I come back to where we stand in craft beer today. IT’S EVERYWHERE. Maybe you can’t get Westvleteren XII in your hometown. (And chances are, you can’t.) But surely you can find something amazing for a lot less. Crack open a bottle of this more readily available beer with your friends and make an unforgettable, unrepeatable experience with the ones you love. Or, if you’re the enterprising sort, maybe you’ve found an unmet need in your community. Start a brewery! At any rate, I think it’s worth considering that maybe we need to work on being content with the amazing beer that is everywhere these days, and not go searching for the beers which are nearly nowhere.