The concept of white whales evokes mental pictures of Captain Ahab peering through his telescope searching the horizon through the mist looking for that ever-elusive Moby Dick just out of sight and out of reach. In the beer world, white whales are those beers that you read about, the ones that have consistently high scores on apps such as Untappd and Beer Advocate, year after year these beers win awards and continue to define that style in the mind of the general public. For us East Coasters, Pliny The Elder comes to mind as an ever elusive white whale. For anyone who lives anywhere but Vermont, Heady Topper is a beer spoken about with reverence but rarely seen unless you either know a guy or you're willing to pay a premium price.
I've never been one to actively seek white whales. Perhaps that's because I'm fortunate enough to to live in a world-class city and have a wealth of options when it comes to beer choices. My "local" has a rotating draft list of 16 taps and more than 120 rotating bottle and can options with a heavy emphasis on the seasonal and the local. So it's partly for that reason that I've never had to really venture very far to find world class examples of just about any beer style I might want to explore. Whatever the reason, I've never been active on ISO/FT boards and groups. For the uninitiated, ISO/FT stands for "In Search Of/For Trade" and it's used as a shorthand for those who have beer they are "In Search Of" or beer that they would happily send to you "For Trade" via the mail.
So, for the record, shipping alcohol via the United States Postal Service is illegal. The legal argument has a lot to do with alcohol shipping taxes, which might seem like bullshit but remember, they pinned Al Capone for tax evasion. United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express (FedEx) also have regulations against the shipping of alcohol. And you can't really blame them, if you think about it. How can you truly verify that the person on the other end of any beer exchange is even old enough to legally drink?
Beyond the legality of it, you also have to go through the trouble of safely packaging glass containers filled with pressurized liquid for shipment, and pray that the people handling the package aren't drop kicking that package onto the plane. Then there's the horror of having to wait in line at the post office. Where I live, our mail carriers won't even attempt to deliver packages, they just deliver those notes stating that they "missed" us and the package can be picked up at the post office. Anytime I order something online I have to take a day off, grab my ID and be sure I have that scrap piece of paper (that feels oddly like a hall pass) to the post office for an hour-long wait at the unhappiest place on earth. The mere idea of waiting in line at a post office already has me muttering under my breath and sighing heavily. The only other thing that makes me feel similarly angry and anxious is waiting in line at the DMV at Herald Square in Manhattan. No, strike that, the DMV in Atlantic Center in Brooklyn. Yeah, not happening.
Finally, there's the question of freshness of the beers being shipped. Freshness affects taste. Freshness might not be important for a barrel aged barleywine, but it is essential to experiencing an IPA the way the brewer intended. While you could quiz the person on the other side of a beer exchange about dates stamped on the bottles indicating when they were packaged, not all brewers print their bottling dates on every bottle. It can admittedly be a bit of crapshoot, but you can also often get something unique and amazing to share with your friends that can't be found any other way.
So, if you're still reading this, I'm going to assume you've weighed the pros and the cons and are ready to join your fellow brothers and sisters in beer mail. I've found that these fine folks are some of the most knowledgeable and passionate beer consumers out there. Pictures of a basement beer cellar from the Midwest with more space than my whole apartment and stocked full of some of the rarest beer turns me green with envy. These people are serious about their brew. Also, if you happen upon a homebrewer, you might just get their latest brew thrown in with your trade. Allegedly. I've heard. I don't know this from experience. However, if I were to engage in this sort of practice, these are some of the places I would go.
So, if you have a hankering for a beer that you absolutely can't live without, just know that there might be legally-questionable, painstaking, and time-consuming ways to get your fix. And if you're still reading this, please send Pliny.