Six men gather around a table on a Sunday night for an event they’ve been looking forward to all year. What could have brought them together and why are they so damn excited? No, it’s not Super Bowl Sunday. It’s their annual “whale share.”
A bottle share is exactly what it sounds like—an event when beer drinkers come together and share beers. Each participant comes with two or three beers, usually bottles that are not locally distributed. Each participant tries a few ounces of each beer, and discussions ensue.
Our group, comprised of all ages and backgrounds, has been meeting every month the past few years to pop bottles with one another. This particular share is different, though. Under normal circumstances a member of the group will put out a feeler the week of and see who’s around for a bottle share. Those shares, while memorable, include a few highlights and then whatever beers people want to bring from their cellars.
The “whale share” is an event where every beer is a highlight. These are beers our group has been collecting over the past year specifically for this day. During the month leading up to this massive event, our chain emails hit triple digits as we geek out about what’s in store, debating about what everyone should bring and whether we should let an outsider into our little fraternity because they have something we desperately want to try.
At this particular whale share, we make an executive decision to tackle lighter sours first, then move on to the heavy hitting stouts, then the barleywines, ending with a total free for fall.
The most important task is to try the highlights first because if we save the best for last, when we do try those, our palates won’t know the difference between something rare and Budweiser’s Pumpkin Peach Ale (sorry Elysian).
The table is covered with growlers of water to wash out snifters as the group moves from beer to beer. We start with a side-by-side comparison of Southampton’s Black Raspberry Lambic against New Glarus’ Very Sour Blackberry (VSB). We line up our glasses and everyone stares like a pack of wolves as our cups are filled for the first time (yes, we fuss, deal with it). Both beers pour a beautiful purple color. The VSB is very tart, tasting like jam with a lemon kick. The Lambic is more subdued with an earthy, almost wine-like taste, providing a very clean and balanced finish.
The group smiles and stares at their two beers, echoing satisfaction, because by tasting our first beer, we’ve confirmed that the wait was worth it. Until that moment, we could only hope that our whales had held up like they should, and that they would live up to the hype and effort we put in to get the beer to our table. The initial nerves have dissipated as we enjoy the taste of our first two contestants.
We switch over to the stouts with a side-by-side of two vanilla bombs, Barrel-aged Vanilla Bean Dark Lord and Bourbon County Vanilla Rye. The unanimous decision is that The Dark Lord is the winner in this face-off, bursting with fresh vanilla-bean flavor, like French vanilla ice cream on a fudge-y brownie, attacking our nostrils, leaving everyone sniffing the glass seconds after the last drop.
Moving on to our barleywine showdown of the night, we broke out Hill Farmstead Aaron, Kuhnhenn Barrel-Aged Barleywine and a ringer, Goose Island Bourbon County Barleywine (2013). With all of the hype surrounding the first two, we were surprised to find that the Bourbon County could hold its own against Hill Farmstead and Kuhnhenn. In fact, we were in agreement that the BC was the winner. The Kuhnhenn was a little too hot since it was fresh; a year on it would have resulted in a completely different narrative. The Aaron was a treat, subdued with a vanilla and burnt sugar taste, but not overly pungent. Despite all this, the one-year-old BC won our hearts.
As our group continues, we move into rapid-fire mode because we are officially too excited (and tipsy) to stop. Out comes the hoppy stuff: Hopslam, Heady Topper, Sip of Sunshine. We clip through beers from all over the country; DeGarde Lucy, Toppling Goliath Assassin, Bourbon County Proprietors, New Glarus Very Sour Peach, Cantillon Iris, Three Brothers Vanilla Resolute, the list goes on and on. And it is a glorious list.
Six hours and countless beers later, we get to the point where we are unable to taste the difference between a sour beer and a stout and just like that, we have to call it a night.
Cue the countdown to next year.