The Craft Breweries Who Make Them Weigh In: Why White Whales?

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For those who cling to their spears.

With Black Friday drawing closer and closer, many in the craft beer community prepare not for the door buster sales at Target but the release of Goose Island‘s Bourbon County Brand Stout. This thick and luxurious brew seems to transcend the AB InBev stigma carried by GI, drawing beer nerds in from every corner of the world.

BCBS is one of the original white whales, a mythical beast of the beer world, attracting beer drinkers from near and far who go to great lengths to try and catch a sip of the annual release.

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The famed BCBS.

BCBS is not the only whale in the sea, however. Breweries around the world release these ultra-limited brews to an increasingly eager beer-drinking public. And like the fabled Captain Ahab, beer drinkers rejoice in the hunt of not just BCBS but whales of all different styles and fame.

Whether you are the eager enthusiast stalking websites and blogs for when the next whale sighting is going to be or you’re the brewer that got hit by a bolt from the heavens and churned out one of those once-in-a-lifetime creations, these are the beers that create an impact. Ishmael wouldn’t have had anything to write about if the Pequad had only come back with a haul of mackerel and scurvy. So the same goes for beer drinkers and the whales they hunt. Only the biggest and most exclusive beers get the Twitter likes so these zymurgy fueled fisherman make sure to always come home with little bottles of Moby Dick.

But why? Why do brewers and breweries go through the effort of creating, brewing, promoting and distributing beers that are sold in such a small amount that any financial rewards must be minimal at best? Or is that the ticket? Small amounts, high demand and bigger than average prices…does that equal meaningful financial gain?

Well…first a story about a beer Ahab.

Like a veteran fisherman, Jerry Scoppa prepared for days before traveling east to Massachusetts to hunt down a pack of white whales. Hours of Google Maps plotting, social media stalking and website combing went into making sure every minute of his trip would yield as many prized catches as possible.

This wasn’t the first rodeo for the Fairport, NY native, school teacher and seasoned homebrewer. Over the years he has gone to great lengths to chase whales up and down the East Coast. This time around, he had his eyes set on the yields of Boston and the surrounding areas with the end goal of good friends in Plymouth. His first target: Trillium Brewing Company in Canton, Mass. in order to cash in on some ultra fresh Melcher Street IPA.

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Trillium brew.

In total, Scoppa scored a bevy of hard-to-find beers. His biggest hauls came from Trillium where he got fresh-from-the-brewery cases of Melcher and Congress Street IPAs to bring back to the Rochester-area for some of his buddies.

“Since I knew I was going, I had a list of wants from a few buddies,” Scoppa said. “If I am out and about, I usually have been in contact with friends for what they are looking for…I carried that case of pint cans for my buddies but it wasn’t uphill and in the snow and barefoot at least.”

Other notable finds included: fresh-from-the-brewery crowlers of Hoppy Adventure, Leviathan IPA from Harpoon, a 2014 World Wide Stout by Dogfish Head and a pair of Maine Beer Company‘s Lunch that just so happened to be sitting on the shelf of a small bottle shop outside of Boston.

For the consumer, it’s obvious why one would go out and hunt down these limited-release beers. The offerings tend to be some of the brewery’s best work, which are talked about and hyped up for months in advance by the breweries and beer fans alike. But why do the breweries do it? The beers are often sold in such small volume that it’s hard to believe a ton of money is brought in on it, so why bother?

“I think they do the releases to get us hooked,” said Scoppa. “For the fresh stuff from Trillium, you just have to get it ASAP. For the yearly/semi-yearly releases like World Wide Stout, they now we will come back.”

Well, Jerry, you’re not wrong.

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KBS photo courtesy Founders Brewing.

Case in point: Founders Brewing Co. and the Kentucky Breakfast Stout. According to Founders VP of Marketing, Trent McCurren, offerings like the oh-so-famous KBS are nowhere near the volume driver and revenue booster that offerings like All-Day IPA or Dirty Bastard are. Instead, the whale is used to create what McCurren calls a “halo effect.” In short, what this means is people from all over the world have at least heard of KBS, therefore knows it’s an amazing work of zymurgy. The positive vibes surrounding KBS then halos out to Founders’ other offerings and hopefully encourages the consumer to purchase the more widely available products on the notion that if KBS is so good and Founders makes KBS, then other beers from Founders must also be super good.

“People in the know in the beer world hear of KBS know of its high ratings and so forth and the rarity of it so that it creates this halo effect of admiration and fondness of the brand that gives us credibility as a brewery that has a good reputation for making great beer,” McCurren said. “I’d say at the minimum, it does that and you hope that that affinity for KBS then spills over to Founders which then spills over to our other beers.”

Another brewery would second that whales aren’t about the bottom line. Three Floyds, proprietors of the widely praised and highly sought after Dark Lord, see the annual release of the coveted Russian imperial stout not as a time to get in the black but as a time to celebrate great beer and the community craft has created among its drinkers.

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Dark Lord art from 3 Floyds.

“Dark Lord is a limited release beer sold at the brewery only- at a ticketed event,” Three Floyds Director of Sales Dani Hoyler wrote in an email. “At this event, we not only encourage attendees to bring their own beers to trade with other enthusiasts, but also purchase beer from lot of great breweries around the world to serve on tap alongside Three Floyds’ offerings. This specific brand has become a celebration of craft beer.”

Let it be to celebrate beer or to raise awareness as a whole, the juggernauts of white whales seem to be in agreement that, business-wise, whales don’t make all that much money.

“We do not consider it a way to bolster our core sales, rather a way to invite our fans to be part of our world filled with comic books, metal, and whatever else you can think of,” Hoyler wrote.

In fact, in the case of Founders, McCurren argues just the contrary. When KBS hits shelves in April, Curmudgeon Old Ale is already out as that season’s specialty offering from Founders. Citing limited capital and the magnanimous nature of KBS, McCurren hypothesizes that the small infusion of KBS actually cuts into the sale of Curmudgeon instead of bolstering it like many would think.

“The hard part of it is that it’s just not on the shelves very long and I can’t really see a proven correlation of when that hits the shelves in April that I see a big spike in any of our other year-round brands,” McCurren said. “In fact, you could argue, and I couldn’t prove this with the data but … argue maybe you would see a dip in that because people only have so much money to spend so if there’s a KBS on the shelf, they’re probably going to take that over a Curmudgeon but it’s really hard to prove in the numbers. You could make it anecdotal maybe use our gut to say ‘yeah, I could see a consumer doing that’ but numbers wise, it’s hard to prove out.”

“If I’m betting my bottom dollar then I’d say just by people catching wind of KBS or hearing other people talk about KBS it has to have a positive influence on whether they would consider purchasing one of our other beers. So if a consumer has heard of KBS and has heard the hype around it, I think they’re more likely to take a shot,” McCurren continued.

In having a conversation on white whales, it would be nearly insulting to not include one of the most well-known masters of the limited-release: Vermont’s The Alchemist. While most breweries stick to the traditional model of supplying lots of year-round offerings with some specialty releases sprinkled on top, The Alchemist brewery sort of flips that model on its head and ops to release small batches of its world-famous brews only to those willing to visit their tap room and to a short list of some 200 bars and stores, according to co-owner Jen Kimmich.

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Line to get inside the Alchemist.

In the beer world, fanaticism is rampant but few brands and offerings garner as hardcore of a group of fanatics like The Alchemist’s Heady Topper. Sold in its iconic silver pounder can, Heady Topper is widely considered one of the best beers in the world. And few have had the luxury of trying it. But instead of having to go through the release party model every time Kimmich and the gang want to release a batch of Heady, Focal Banger, Crusher, etc., they simply post on their website when it will be available and how much and if you get there in time go buy some, great. If not, there’s always next time.

“We don’t partake in rare/limited release marketing anymore,” Kimmich wrote in an email. “It proved to be too much for us. When you only have 300 bottles of something and 500 people line up to buy it, you have a problem. Now, when we have something limited, it simply shows up on the shelf for sale that day. No hype.”

With no plans to expand distribution beyond current operations, The Alchemist will most likely remain a Moby Dick in the world of limited release beers and having done so on a simple, yet effective platform:

“Make sure it tastes great,” Kimmich wrote. “If you hype up a release, expectations will be high. If it isn’t good, or if it is overpriced, be ready for the social media onslaught.”

The birth of a whale.

Like many of the best creations, many whales are born on accident. Such is the case when, in 2008, Patrick Rue arrived at The Bruery‘s brewhouse to get to work on what he dubbed that day as “the beer from hell.”

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Black Tuesday photo from The Bruery.

That day, he started brewing an imperial stout at 4:30 a.m. but by 10 a.m., he and a part-time brewing assistant had gone through a “hectic but tolerable” day that manly consisted of McGyvering some malfunctioning equipment but as the day went on, the mishaps began mounting.

“The runoff of the Imperial Stout went fine but a bit slow,” Rue wrote in a blog post dated July 2, 2008. “It was a 3 hour transfer that Ben masterfully supervised … It’s now 3 PM and on a typical brewday we’re just about finished at this point. About 6 BBL of the second runnings were in our whirlpool (we didn’t have any place to put the wort) when the mash stuck. After about two hours of Ben and Tyler trying to unstick it, I told them to forget the second runnings batch and lets just empty the mash tun.”

From there the embattled brew crew battled the blugged tank that eventually gave way resulting in a waterfall of “mash and 170 degree water” and “a tidal wave of hot sh*t, all over my arms, legs, in my boots,” according to the 2008 post.

In the end, Rue was so put off by the brew he wanted nothing to do with it for as long as possible.

“I already hate this beer,” Rue wrote. “I’m condemning it to bourbon barrels for over a year and hopefully I’ll forgive it at that point.”

When Rue and The Bruery revisited the condemned spirits, the much loved and highly sought after Black Tuesday was born.

Back to you, Jerry

So, in the end, Jerry was right — sort of. The white whale craft beer does hook the brew enthusiast, but from what we’ve learned from their makers, the brewer’s intent isn’t necessarily to get you geeked out. Although brews like KBS, Dark Lord, World Wide Stout, Pliny the Elder, etc. draw a fanatic devotion to an expensive product, the reality is that breweries use limited releases to celebrate their fans as much as they do to create a buzz about their companies. So, keep that in mind the next time you land a big fish, if you’re lucky enough to do so. You have been rewarded for your curiosity and loyalty in hopes that you will tell your tale and help spread the lore of the rich culture and community that craft beer has created.

*Jerry Scoppa operates his home brew hobby under the name of Scoppa Brewing Co. and writes about his adventures in zymurgy in his blog adventuresinhomebrewing.beer. More on his beers can be found by visiting the Scoppa Brewing Co. page on Untappd or by following Jerry on Untappd at TKE96.

“Nothing fancy in the title but the name of the beers are fun!” – Jerry Scoppa

 

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Born and raised in Northern New York and schooled at the College at Brockport, SUNY. Journalist by trade, beer lover by … well, life.

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