In literature, the white whale was the beast that taunted Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. In the craft beer community, the term "white whale" refers to beers that are limited by production quantity, geography or high sale price. They're the hard-to-get beers that certain people will spend years hunting.
If you're here in Wisconsin, and the beer you're hunting doesn't come 'round these parts, how do you quench that thirst? What substitutes for white whale?
Wisconsin has plenty of beers that are well worth the attention. Here are some great beers not available in the state, paired with a great Wisconsin beer that bears at least more than a passing resemblance.
Surly Coffee Bender = Furthermore Oscura
Surly Brewing Company from Brooklyn Center, Minn., is our neighbor to the west's answer to New Glarus Brewing. Distributed only in its home state, yet trumpeted by devoted fans across the country, Surly's beers are the kind people hop borders for. Yours truly has done it many times, and one of the best beers Surly makes year-round is Coffee Bender, a brown ale that in recent productions has been less sweet and more darkly bracing. I like the evolution of the flavor profile.
There are a lot of beers with coffee or coffee notes, but most are deep, dark, heavy stouts. But like Coffee Bender, Furthermore Beer's Oscura is a beer that can better allow for a second round. It's a beer of mixed ancestry (as Furthermore is wont to do), a Mexican lager crossed with a California steam beer, infused with flavor from beans via Madison's own Just Coffee.
Oscura is a crisp lager, almost as hoppy as Coffee Bender. Coffee is added via a cold extraction process, which leaves that bitterness out of the picture. It's easy-drinking enough to please a diverse crowd; it was my beer of choice for my wedding reception. Furthermore has increased production on this seasonal since its introduction, making it a pretty easy find at your favorite quality beer retailer.
Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale = One Barrel No. 2 Strong Ale or New Glarus Brewing 20th Anniversary Ale
There's almost nothing worse than letting the big one get away. And as the calendar turned from 2010 to 2011, that's exactly what happened with Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, Calif. The brewer suspended distribution to Wisconsin and started it in Minnesota instead -- insult to injury. Fans of the West Coast brewer's assertive, hoppy style have been left hanging: no more Vertical Epic, no more Anniversary, and not even the otherwise-ubiquitous Arrogant Bastard Ale.
Here in the Midwest, strong ales (the style to which Arrogant Bastard most closely hews) tend to be sweeter, richer and less hoppy. They're big, yes, but more balanced. New Glarus released a subtle strong ale to celebrate its 20th anniversary as a brewery in late spring of 2013, but by now, retail supplies have likely been exhausted. More attainable is the No. 2 Strong Ale from One Barrel Brewing, right here in Madison.
The No. 2 Strong is one of the bigger beers in One Barrel's lineup. It features the style's dark, toffee-like flavors, with a through-line of stone-fruit sweetness. You'll have to hit the One Barrel taproom to try it.
The New Glarus Brewing 20th Anniversary Ale, if you can find a bottle, is more delicate. In keeping with New Glarus' overall style, it's a technically sound, otherwise demure beer. When you take away Stone's hoppy braggadocio, you're left with two solid beers that are "Wisconsin nice."
Dogfish Head Aprihop = Lake Louie Apricot Goddess or Lakefront 25th Anniversary Belgian-Style Apricot Ale
2011 was a rough year for Wisconsin beer fans. Not only did Stone Brewing Company leave, but so did Dogfish Head of Milton, Del., brewer of everything from big India pale ales to sophisticated interpretations of archeological beer recipes from Egypt, Finland and Honduras. Every spring, one of my favorite seasonal releases was Dogfish Head's Aprihop, a crisp, apricot-laced IPA. And all of a sudden it was gone, taunting me from its closest distribution point across the Illinois border.
In the last few years, apricot's popularity as a beer ingredient has grown significantly. Two 2013 releases prove that Wisconsin is on board with apricot. Lakefront of Milwaukee released a Belgian-style apricot ale as the second in its 25th Anniversary series, but before that, Lake Louie put out an amber ale called Apricot Goddess.
The former tends to rate higher on beer review sites, but I like Apricot Goddess for the rich, deep apricot flavor that is relatively unimpeded by other notes, like Lakefront's funky Belgian yeasts. The Goddess is a counterpoint to the bitterness of Aprihop, but hopefully we can enjoy both side-by-side next spring. Dogfish Head recently announced that it plans to return to Wisconsin by the end of 2013.
Cigar City Big Sound Scotch Ale = Central Waters Slainte Scotch Ale
The southern tier of the country doesn't get a lot of credit for craft beer production. But of my personal white whales, there are few higher on the list than Big Sound Scotch Ale from Cigar City Brewing of Tampa, Fla.
Big Sound sits in 10th place on RateBeer.com's list of its best-rated Scotch ales, and the bourbon barrel-aged version is even better, in the six spot. I pinged a number of potential sources for this beer and came up short. Turns out its September retail window is very narrow, and narrower than usual this year due to decreased production. Fortunately, we have a Scotch ale in Wisconsin that rates nearly as well.
Scotch ales tend to favor the cooler months, and winter is the season for Central Waters' Slainte Scotch Ale. It rates a 99 against the style on RateBeer, and this year it got even bigger.
Though its summer release was unusual, the Brewer's Reserve Bourbon Barrel-Aged Scotch Ale from Central Waters is a true knockout. It is coconutty and warm, without being oppressively boozy. It may not last on shelves until winter, but as with the rest of the Brewer's Reserve series, I expect this will come back around in 2014.
Russian River Pliny the Elder = Karben4 Fantasy Factory or Black Husky Sproose Joose or Ale Asylum Satisfaction Jacksin
There may be no beer of year-round production that generates as much national conversation and outright beer lust as Pliny the Elder. Even its name feels legendary. This beer is the flagship of Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, Calif., and it is routinely listed as one of the best beers in the world.
My last exposure to Pliny the Elder was in San Francisco, at the Toronado Pub. Pliny is listed as a double IPA, but it's as polite a hop bomb as you'll find. It's juicy, pleasantly resiny, with enough malty sweetness to keep your eyes from watering. And to ask any other IPA, double IPA, imperial IPA, anything, to keep pace with this beer is asking quite a bit. But there are a few I think are worth mentioning.
Karben4's new Fantasy Factory IPA features Citra hops and is a current favorite of mine. Little upstart Black Husky from Pembine, Wis., offers the piney wallop of its Sproose Joose double IPA, but it's hard to find around Madison.
For big, killing-me-softly double IPAs, though, you can't do much better than a fresh Satisfaction Jacksin from Ale Asylum.
Ale Asylum, easily Madison's highest-profile brewer, is as close to a West Coast-style operation as you'll find in Wisconsin. Satisfaction Jacksin is the biggest of the brewery's four IPAs, with an unflinching hops flavor somewhere between floral and citrus peel.