Killer Whales

Is the hunt for rare beers hurting the communal spirit?

Killer Whales
Illustration by Dorling Kindersley (Thinkstock) / Jason Stout

I am typing this thought onto the screen of my phone while sitting in my parked car in front of a mega beer outlet on Black Friday. I am waiting for beer.

Actually, beer is waiting for me – and a platoon of similarly minded beer hunters who are willingly waking up from poultry hypnosis to queue in a chilly line for the 10am opening.

When the booze armory finally opens for business, a greeter leads an anticipatory line through the shelves of discounted wine and cocktail setups like the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin, who then hands the group off one by one to a designated store clerk doling out individual four-packs of Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout to each customer, and to those keen enough to inquire of its existence in Austin, a solitary 22-ounce bomber of Goose Island's Vanilla Rye variant of Bourbon County Brand Stout. Both of these highly desired liquid commodities hold a perfect 100 rating on the craft beer fansite, which aggregates crowd-sourced reviews from thousands of worldwide contributors.

Amongst a very devoted community of craft beer admirers is an even more ardent society of collectors who seek out the rarest and most extraordinary beers in a brewery's portfolio. Often, these limited-release libations – colloquially referred to in this subculture of fanatical beer enthusiasts as "whales" – create a feverish hunt that begins on social media and ends when the long-pursued vessel is wrested from the clutches of the open swell – or in the case of BCBS, a beer store in North Austin.

But does this fervent pursuit for exceptionally inaccessible beer fit into the narrative of the craft beer movement as a whole, where the latest challenge is to accept the spate of converted light lager drinkers into its welcoming embrace? Is such a phenomenon so thrilling that it elevates the casual dabbler into full-blown craft beer zealotry?

Eric Kurkowski is a rare-beer collector from Houston who searches for his cache within Texas and while traveling out-of-state. From his experience, he says that "most distribution channels allow for a case or two of rare beers that only reach a small number of stores. Owners usually have a list of regulars who get a single bottle of each release, [and so] beer usually sells out before it even hits the shelf."

Kurkowski adds, "Most casual drinkers are not willing to jump through hoops just to get a taste of the newest rare release. They do not prioritize beer above [other plans]. They do not plan around work schedules, vacation weekends, or consider beer to be a centerpiece of many of their decisions."

Shawn Rocke, another avid collector who hunts for rarities in the San Francisco area, intonates that these limited-release events "are good for craft beer culture in the same way rare wines and rare whiskies are good for those cultures; by keeping a buzz with its most avid fans, but also maintaining a 'local' vibe that suddenly attracts a lot of attention." Rocke goes on to speculate that "[limited-release beers] reaffirm a commitment to a brewery, which continues to pay the bills by inadvertently marketing their more accessible flagship [year-round] beers." Rocke says he has witnessed this trend with hotly pursued California breweries Alpine, Russian River, and Ballast Point.

Such brand devotion has recently created waves of eagerness for rarities from Texas breweries, like Saint Arnold in Houston, who recently released the 15th iteration of their highly anticipated Divine Reserve series, which even prompted a Twitter hashtag, #DR15, so that all of the Captain Ahabs in various Texas cities could limit their frantic lunch hour hunt to only a few specific places.

In February, the Austin area was apportioned with one of the rarest treats of the craft beer world when Founders Brewing Co. from Grand Rapids, Mich., sent four quarter-barrel kegs of their extremely finite Canadian Breakfast Stout, a beer brewed with a blend of coffees and imported chocolates, then aged in spent bourbon barrels that had most recently been aging pure Michigan maple syrup. Like the Goose Island beer, CBS also carries a 100 rating on BeerAdvocate, and before this year's batch, was last brewed in 2011.

I met Myk O'Connor, Founders' brewery rep for much of Central and South Texas, at the Brass Tap in Round Rock for one of these limited tappings of CBS – only the second official tasting to ever be held in the state. He makes the case that rare-beer releases, "while not keeping the lights on for the brewery in terms of profit margins, do reward the effort of their customers who stay familiar with the brewery's endeavors, and [help the] bars who loyally market their brand."  

But a similar CBS event held in January at Dallas' Common Table pub, drew both feverish bewilderment from fans of CBS as well as harsh resentment from those who were excluded from the event due to limited space and product. An owner took to the pub's Facebook page, as one does in the face of criticism, stating, "[W]e absolutely & obviously love beer & the beer business. But we get really worn out by the vocal minority [of] people who complain when a bar they visit 2-3 times/year (only for whales, brah) doesn't set up a system to ensure the non-loyal whale hunters get the rarest of beers (at the expense of the sweet, sincere folks who support our business 52 weeks/year and who we know by name)." Frankly, who doesn't love a good mania in their city?

The Round Rock event was remarkably tame by Dallas standards, and though it did bring what one can only assume was an unusually jovial crowd for a weekday in the suburbs, there was plenty of this whale to go around to those who sought it out. Still, to those inside, there was an air of uncertainty that at any moment, the bubble of CBS secrecy might burst, and with it, a swarm of whale-hunting, stout-thirsty locusts descending on the fruitage with their beards and Instagram photos and cries of "Oh CBS, how your powers are untold!"  

But even after a brisk hour of draining Founders' complex liquid into 10-ounce tulips toward its demise, I suspect that even a few credulous regulars got an unexpected tryst with one of the most coveted beers in the world as an addendum to their Monday evening chicken wrap. In this instance, rare beer had been made entirely approachable.

And while one's expectation of another fortuitous flirt with this particular whale again would be like dialing the French Laundry during dinner service to ask if there is a long wait, it can be determined that, based on the experience, everyone in the bar on that evening will later become a small part of the craft beer PR machine. Even if the craft beer they are championing is tragically common.

"Many beer drinkers never get to try some of the more complex, experimental beers that breweries are starting to make, which leads to feelings of entitlement, anger, or frustration," Kurkowski contemplates, "[but] these types of releases elevate beer into the stratosphere previously held by wine clubs and small-batch whiskies. This kind of exposure is great for any brewery, and the publicity and hype that comes with producing a rare beer can be a major boost. Still, the consumer is the ultimate gatekeeper, and the market has yet to change the minds of the brewers from making them because people keep hunting them."

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whale hunting, Eric Kurkowski, Goose Island, Shawn Rocke, Myk O'Connor, Founders Brewery, Saint Arnold, the Brass Tap

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