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Have We Hunted the Beer Whale to Extinction?

April 17, 2024

Story: Tony Rehagen

art: Mallory Heyer


Have We Hunted the Beer Whale to Extinction?

April 17, 2024

Story: Tony Rehagen

art: Mallory Heyer

Just a few years ago, brewers could reliably expect hundreds of enthusiasts to swarm their special releases. Today, beer whales—and their attendant hype—are few and far between.

When employees of Other Half Brewing arrived at their Brooklyn headquarters on the morning of Saturday, February 8, 2020, they were greeted by a convoy of beer enthusiasts. Thirsty patrons had started queuing up at the front door the night before, dropping anchor in camping chairs beside their rolling coolers and handcarts, trickling into what, by daybreak, had swelled into an armada of hundreds winding around the block. It was special-release day.

That weekend marked Other Half’s sixth anniversary, and the world-renowned indie brewer was celebrating with the debut of 10 limited-edition beers, including bottles of bourbon barrel–aged Bananaversary Imperial Stout and All 6th Anniversary Everything Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunchee Granola Stout, both highly rated and sought-after beers—or “beer whales,” as aficionados have come to call their great white prey. The staff opened the floodgates at 9 a.m. Even with more than a dozen registers swiping credit cards and cranking out receipts, the onslaught would not subside until well after 3 p.m.

Within a few days, the hunting party was really over.

“The week before the pandemic, there were huge lines, and overnight, they disappeared,” says Andrew Burman, co-founder and COO of Other Half. “It hasn’t come back for the on-premises business. Now, it’s few and far between that a release—stout or IPA or collaboration—sells out instantaneously.”

Other Half is not alone. Brewers and beer professionals across the country say they have witnessed a similar shift in the search for and sale of their most coveted labels. So, did COVID-19 wipe out the Great White Beer Whale? Has the species been hunted to extinction? Not quite, but the pandemic, the resulting economic downturn and pre-COVID changes that were already starting to impact craft beer have combined to alter the way these beers are spawned, released and harpooned by hunters.

Maybe the cellar is full.

For more than a decade, whale hunting was a key part of the business model for dozens of breweries, from Other Half to Tampa, Florida’s Cigar City Brewing to St. Louis’s Side Project to Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, California. Brewers could simply announce a date on social media and comfortably rely on hundreds, if not thousands, of avid Ahabs to sail in and buy up every last drop of their barrel-aged stouts and small-batch IPAs at a premium (sometimes paying more than $2 per ounce). Fans took these trophy bottles home and proudly unveiled them at bottle shares, cellared them, and rated them on Untappd, RateBeer or Beer Advocate. Sometimes, fans even traded or resold them online (often at a hefty markup, sometimes reaching beyond $1,000), which created a secondary “gray” market among far-flung whale hunters that only added to the obsession.

The first effect the pandemic had on the industry was to virtually abolish the taproom line. Breweries limited occupancy or closed altogether; people no longer wanted to pack together on sidewalks and parking lots even if they were allowed to. Desperate to survive, brewers took their sales online. 

Shuttered tasting rooms also pushed most brewers to package, and those who were able to also broadened their distribution and direct-shipping capabilities. Some brewers cut back production of costly imperial stouts to trim their budgets. Others doubled down on them, in hopes of recouping costs. For instance, 3 Floyds’ Zombie Dust Pale Ale, once considered a rare find outside of the Chicago metro area, is now sold in 19 states. Founders’ KBS (Kentucky Bourbon Stout), which debuted in 2003, promptly scored a perfect 100 on RateBeer and Beer Advocate; it had been released only in April, but is now pumped out by the Michigan-based brewer year-round in all 50 states. Boston’s Trillium, which produces some of the most desired IPAs and stouts anywhere, now ships direct to nine states and the District of Columbia. Other Half now distributes to seven states. “Now that you can see our beer in different places,” says Burman, “it lessens the hype.”

And of course, the pandemic shutdowns were followed by economic woes that trickled down like a thick pastry stout to every consumer. Kris Calef owns the Rare Beer Club, an online mail-order service that seeks out hard-to-find beers for clients—a sort of contract whale hunter and the perfect ally for beer nerds without a herd. “We had record years in 2020 and 2021,” says Calef. “Then it started tailing off. Inflation. Every line item increased in cost, and we had to take prices up to keep profitable.” Consumers, meanwhile, have less disposable income to spend on luxury beers.

The belt-tightening seems to have hit the secondary market, too. Phil Wymore, co-founder of Perennial Artisan Ales, says, prior to 2020, up to 700 people would line up outside of the St. Louis taproom for bottles of Barrel-Aged Abraxas and Maman, Perennial’s barrel-aged imperial stout. “If you asked any brewer that made a bottle that had hype around it, I’m sure they’re seeing diminishment,” he says. “We used to hear crazy stories about secondary value for Maman, up to $1,000 at one point.” Maman 2023 is going for little more than $100, compared to a release price of $40. “Maybe everybody’s cellar is full.”

Gen Z isn’t chasing whales.

At the same time, craft beer continues to grapple with a challenge that started to plague the industry years before quarantine and occupancy restrictions: The younger generations don’t drink as much, and when they do, they don’t drink beer. 

“Our demo is 40 to 60 years old now,” says Burman. “When we started 10 years ago, they were 32, with no family. We have a couple of regulars who say they can no longer wait in line because they have to take their two kids to soccer practice. As we’ve grown up, Gen Z isn’t chasing whales.”

Today’s beer drinkers, young and old, are widening their taste profiles. They want new. Plus, the higher-gravity beers that tend to be whales—the 15 percent barrel-aged stouts and 8.5 percent hazy IPAs—have fallen a little out of fashion with drinkers who are more health-conscious or wary of extra calories and who don’t necessarily want to get smashed on one or two drinks.

Still, even though the waters are murky, the whales remain out there.

“I don’t think whale hunting is over, per se, we just made it more convenient,” says Wymore. “Shifting to an online lottery system added convenience for people. It’s easier to explain to your wife that you don’t have to wait in line for hours to buy a beer that costs $50—which sounds absurd now.”

Wymore says that the company no longer focuses solely on one or two barrel-aged whales; instead, Perennial has broadened its portfolio, both in terms of barrel-aged offerings and other styles. But demand for BA Abraxas and Maman is still there. Burman agrees, noting that Other Half’s smaller runs still move quickly. “Some of the super-hyped stuff is still hyped,” says Burman. “It’s a new world and we’re adapting as best we can. We know that when we open on Saturday mornings, there isn’t going to be a line of 500 people. So, we hold the orders and make it as easy as possible.”

While the weekslong window to pick up your prize certainly saves time, it also takes the steam out of the festival-like atmosphere of the first-come, first-serve release events. 3 Floyds has resumed its legendary Dark Lord Day, welcoming thousands to commemorate the one-day-only release of the eponymous Russian stout, complete with metal bands; Side Project still has a street party to launch several of its big labels. But there are fewer and fewer places where like-minded pilgrims can commune, share beers from home or even pop open a bottle they just bought. The whales may not quite be an endangered species, but the big beer release might well be on the brink of extinction. 

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Tagged: beer

Tony Rehagen is a St. Louis-based freelancer who writes about beer for Bloomberg, The Washington Post and Garden & Gun, among other publications.