In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab was so maniacally obsessed with chasing the elusive White Whale that it drove him to his own death. In the beer world, the term "white whale" refers to the rarest, most delicious, hard-to-get beer. The one that has stories written about it. The one that, once sampled, is believed to change the life of the drinker forever. For some beer drinkers and collectors, chasing these white whales becomes a major goal in life, a quest that threatens bank accounts, spare rooms, relationships and sanity.
For some beer drinkers and collectors, chasing these white whales becomes a major goal in life, a quest that threatens bank accounts, spare rooms, relationships and sanity.
Three attributes define the perfect white whale. The beer must be awesome, the beer must be scarce, and the beer must have a kind of mystique. That said, the most well-known of the white whales is Trappist Westvleteren 12. Known colloquially as "Westy 12," this beer has the awesome part covered with its garnet-hued dark, full body (10.2% ABV). It's a creamy Quadrupel that's beautifully balanced with notes of caramel, plums and figs. Secondary flavors of tobacco and leather finish like magic, with the pillowy carbonation lifting off the palate.
Scarcity, check. Mystique, check check. This beer is only brewed by a branch of cloistered and contemplative Cistercian monks called Trappists inside the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Belgium where very few secular people are ever allowed. The brewery is so small that it is run by only five monks (sometimes others help during bottling); and the brewery only produces about 4,000 barrels of beer a year. A scant amount compared to Belgian-style American craft brewer Allagash Brewing Co., which produces over 60,000 barrels a year.
Westvleteren beers can only be obtained two ways. One can drink the beers at the Abbey’s onsite cafe/visitor center and carry a six pack out, or one can reserve a case (only one is allowed) 60 days in advance by calling a beer hotline that literally gets tens of thousands of calls a day. The lucky few that score a case then must drive to the remote Abbey an hour and a half from Brussels to pick it up.
The quest then begins for American beer lovers who want to try the best of the best. Aside from traveling to Belgium, how does one score a Westy 12? Does one have to personally travel to Belgium? The usual answers are through beer trades or spending big bucks on the black market at sites like eBay.
Selling rare brews is a controversial topic in beer circles. There are many purists who believe that beer should be a drink of the people. It should be accessible, readily available and preferably local. These drinkers chafe against what they see as the "wineification" of beer, the idea that beers are being used as commodity focusing on status and price instead of flavor. But, others relish the idea of tasting that rare and delicious white whale. To the hunter, drinking a near extinct beer is exhilarating, and he/she will go to great lengths to find the given beer.
Below, four of the most coveted domestically brewed craft beers. It might not be any easier to find these guys, but at least no passport is needed.
Who: The Alchemist
What: Heady Topper
Where: Waterbury, Vermont
Heady Topper is an American Double India Pale Ale (DIPA) from a small, family run brewery in Vermont. This "Michael Jordan of Double IPAs" is the only beer The Alchemist brews, as owners are dedicated to doing one thing perfectly. Not the hoppiest or the strongest DIPA, Alchemist brewed this 8% ABV beer to showcase their proprietary blend of six hops, which gives the beer notes of tropical fruit, grapefruit rind and resiny pine.
Who: Three Floyds Brewing
What: Zombie Dust
Where: Munster, Indiana
Well known for their other white whale beer named Dark Lord, a 15% ABV Russian Imperial Stout released once a year, Zombie Dust is quickly becoming the brewery’s more coveted beer since its inception in 2011. Zombie is an American Pale Ale (a style not normally seen in white whale circles) that is brewed to showcase the use of Citra hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington. As such, this medium-bodied 6.4% ABV beer has big aromatics of orange blossom and mango, with sweet maltiness providing a perfect balance to this quintessential American Pale Ale.
Who: Founders Brewing Company
What: Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Where: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Called KBS by those in the know, this 11.2% ABV Imperial Stout is brewed with a massive amount of coffee and chocolate. Released only in April, the black beer is cave-aged for a year in oak bourbon barrels in underground gypsum mines, which imparts notes of vanilla, molasses and char.
Who: Hair of the Dog Brewing Company
Where: Portland, Oregon
Though this beer is tough to find, every once in a while a bottle will surface at a tasting or a bottle share. Dave is an English Barley Wine that comes in at a whopping 29% ABV. To make the beer, Hair of the Dog Brewing Company freeze distills 300 gallons of their flagship beer, Adam, a 10% ABV Old World Ale, to create Dave's strength. The resulting beer is a boozy blend of molasses and caramel with notes of chocolate and port wine. A perfect digestif to sip in a snifter by the fire. Beware, however, that in 2010 one 375ml bottle sold for over $1,500 in an online auction.