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If you spend enough time in the craft beer community, you'll eventually start to hear people talk about "whales" when referencing certain beers (and maybe you've seen the playful hashtag #whalezbro floating around online). But what exactly is a whale in the world of craft beer?
In short, a whale is any beer an individual has been looking to find and try for a long time. Whales are usually some combination of the following:
The phrase pays homage to Captain Ahab's quest to hunt down the great white whale in Herman Melville's infamous 1851 novel titled Moby-Dick, also known as, The Whale. The phrase "white whale" is often used generally to describe something a person obsess over to the point that it nearly or completely destroys you. Craft beer aficionados simply adopted the phrase to describe a beer he or she is actively hunting down to try.
There is no specific set of criteria that make a beer a whale, but there are some common themes. It's important to keep in mind that whether or not a beer is a whale is completely dependent on the individual.
For example, someone who lives on the East Coast who is just getting in craft beer may consider Pliny The Elder from Russian River Brewing a whale. However, to someone who has been drinking craft beer for years, or simply someone who lives near Russian River Brewing, may consider it a casual shelf beer.
It's often when a beer is one, or some combination of, the following:
Let's break that down...
I'm one of those people who doesn't rate beer or puts a lot of stock in reviews, however, there's no doubt that when you see consistently high ratings over a long period of time, it usually means the beer is solid. Just taking a look at some of Untappd's highest rated beers is a good spot check.
You get the idea... So yes more often than not, whales are highly rated, but that's not always the case. I've had a few "whales" on my personal list that many people don't particular enjoy and have relatively low ratings.
Rarity and exclusivity are very common trademarks of whales. Obviously there's the standard argument that if anyone can get the beer, it's not that special. Personally I don't believe that at all, however, there is something to be said about some of the top beers being limited or small batches. There are a number of factors that might make a beer hard to find:
Very often breweries will release a beer one time and never make it again. This is common with one-off collaborations or beers that mark special occasions.
Sometimes it's a specific beer, other times it's some kind of variant of a beer they make often (for example, Westbrook Brewing's barrel-aged variants of Mexican Cake). Regardless, these beers are often highly sought after because once it's gone, that's it.
The same goes for vintages. For example, I have a few older bottles of Black Tuesday in my cellar I'm aging. Sure The Bruery is going to make it each year, and it will probably taste the same or similar, but that doesn't change the fact that a finite number of bottles remain in existence.
The trifecta of highly rated, hard to find, and no longer in production is an extremely common combination for beers people consider whales. In fact, some beer drinkers will have a separate bucket list of what they call "white whales" - beers that are so hard to find that they aren't even sure they could track them down if they tried.
Sometimes a brewery will make a beer that achieves notoriety, and then they decide to ramp up production. In these cases, it's not uncommon for the beer to lose some cache when it's more widely available to everyone. This happens a lot and is simply the nature of craft beer. A good example is Founder's Canadian Breakfast Stout.
There are so many amazing beers getting made by breweries throughout the US and the world. Yes, some are undoubtedly better than others and are worth seeking out. However, just because a beer is highly rated and "rare" doesn't mean it's good, and doesn't mean you will (or have) to like it. Conversely, just because a beer isn't on someone else's list doesn't mean it can't be on yours.
Drink what you like, and remember, no one beer is going to change your life. Cheers!