Chasing Whales or: Why the Hops are Always Greener on the Other Side
I’m sitting out on my balcony, as I do most nights, relaxing in a refreshing breeze, watching the sun slip beneath the outline of houses, stretching far off into the distance. This is my time to unwind, to clear my head of all the day’s stresses and, if the mood strikes, to enjoy something bubbly. It’s Spring in Ottawa, and my three year pursuit of one of the craft beer world’s most highly sought after, and difficult to come-by, beers ends with the quick flick of a bottle cap. Unceremoniously, it drains into my glass, glowing amber and forming a thick-as-meringue head. To the untrained eye, it could just as easily be any run-of-the-mill Pale Ale – but I knew this wasn’t just any old beer. This was Pliny the Elder.
The term “trophy beer” is a curious one. It’s most often used to describe a group of hyped-up brews that aren’t widely available. This ever growing category of ‘craft beer whales’ is made up of select one-offs, seasonal releases, and beers with limited distribution.
Fuelled by social media trophy beers take on near mythical status among many enthusiasts. They’ve ‘gone viral’, for lack of a better term. Through some combination of online rating sites, the Twitterverse and Untappd, an app that quite literally gives you trophies for drinking beer, expectations for certain products begin to materialize in places where they otherwise wouldn’t have. Value is perception and the growing out-of-market demand only adds to the allure. Of course, there is a certain implied quality to any beer that is able to garner such a following; drawn from a particular brewery’s reputation, or an excellent review online, for example. But, these are subjective forms of measurement, fraught with personal bias and largely dependent on one’s taste.
Nevertheless, consumers form lines that run for many blocks at a brewery’s door on the day of a major release. They ask their family and friends to look for a laundry list of beers whiles on vacation, only to, unintentionally, have them be ridiculed by beer store employees. They exchange clandestine care packages with friends throughout the world; all this just to get a taste of some of these so called “special” brews; and the Untappd toast that goes with them.
I’m no exception. I’ve spent a lot of time and resources in pursuit of new and exciting taste experiences, often neglecting the ever more impressive selection right here at my fingertips. Why take the cash prize, when you can see what’s behind door number 3? I’ve tracked down Cantillons, Heady Toppers, Speedway Stouts and numerous other examples that would mean little to all but a small subset of the beer drinking population. But of all my adventures, my white whale had always been Pliny the Elder – a beer which to this day I can’t quite explain why I wanted so badly. But want it I did.
Pliny is an Imperial IPA brewed in California, consistently ranked as one of the best, if not THE best, beers in world. There’s no flash to its packaging, there’s no pun for a name, yet in my fridge it seemed to tower over the other beers as I anxiously waited for just the right time to decide once and for all whether it was, in fact, worthy of its reputation.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an excellent beer. The first sip was wonderful. The mouthfeel alone was superb, let alone the flavours. But that was it. One sip. And then I got into dissecting it. Overthinking it. In the blink of an eye it was gone and I was alone on the balcony once more. Unchanged.
It wasn’t the best beer in the world – how could it be? I got so little enjoyment out of it. Isn’t that what beer is supposed to be about, after all?
In my time spent as captain of my own personal craft beer Pequod, I’ve come to find this a common outcome. Some craft beer whales have been memorable and others less so, but rarely, has one ever lived up to its name. It’s a catch-22. Had I not been expecting so much, would I have appreciated them more?
I’ve come to realize that the only prizes you get for drinking beer are the ones on your smartphone. Beyond that, there’s only, good beer and bad beer, good times and bad. And if the beer’s bad you had better, at least, be having a good time. It doesn’t matter if a beer’s rated in the top percentile on RateBeer.com, or not. In my experience, some of the most noteworthy beers are the ones that come easy.