I had my first taste of Goose Island’s iconic Bourbon County Stout more than a decade ago, before I was of legal drinking age. It was an overwhelming experience for an underdeveloped palate. The intense cacao and coconut notes weren’t necessarily lost on me, but rather subsumed by a foreign gravity. My friends and I likened the viscosity of barrel-aged imperial stouts to moose blood.
Still, our first bottle of Bourbon County felt like a rite of passage. We were young and broke, yet found access to something coveted, beloved, culturally significant—and, most importantly, rare. What we did not know was that Goose Island had recently been purchased by AB InBev, which would increase its distribution nationally. While we felt like we’d struck gold when the clerk emerged with the store’s last bottle, veteran beermongers would have already seen it for what it was: a bona fide shelf turd.
“[‘Shelf turd’] was used to malign, like, Bourbon County. That was probably in, like, 2011 because that would have been the Bourbon County releases that didn’t fly off the shelf anymore,” Alex Kidd, the cult-favorite beer blogger and host of the “Malt Couture” podcast, tells me. In other words, Goose Island’s mainstream moment helped shape the term, one that both encapsulates and lampoons the collector mentality that has dominated the modern booze industry. “It’s this idea of something that is accessible and has implicitly lower value,” says Kidd.
I’m often in search of origin points, of through lines in time that can help weave a cultural etymology of terms that define the drinks industry. The ubiquity of “smooth,” for instance, is easily traced back to American magazine ads of the 1950s, which were obsessed with the all-encompassing term. In the case of “shelf turd,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that one of the most emblematic words in beer (and whiskey) over the past decade was shit pulled out of thin air.
The earliest instances that turned up through search inquiries—a few blog posts, a stray hashtag in an Untappd review—date the term to 2012. But in each of those cases, “shelf turd” was used self-evidently, as though it had already been in circulation. Kidd traces the term back to the BeerAdvocate trade boards around 2010 or 2011, the contents of which were wiped from the internet after the influential beer community migrated to a new platform in 2013. “BeerAdvocate’s review database is still intact, but a lot of its forum information is kind of lost to the sands of time,” he says. What we know for sure is that “shelf turd,” which appeared to be a niche, insider term in 2012, grew exponentially alongside social media. By 2015, it was named one of the “most overused” terms by beer nerds.
Perhaps the actual genesis of the term reveals less than what it was born of. By 2012, craft beer had entered a boom state, and cult favorites—once available only to those who camped out at a brewery the night before release—suddenly had the distribution channels to make it to store shelves, diluting their value in the trade market. In all its hypelessness, “shelf turd” became a vessel of ironic detachment to refer to any bottle that didn’t sell out in a flash. Whether it is delicious or not is irrelevant to the conversation. Kidd points to Fundamental Observation, a renowned imperial stout from Southern California brewery Bottle Logic. “They make so much of it now, so that would be in that pocket of something that’s desired, something that people would still be excited to drink, but so widely available that it doesn’t have any trade value,” he says.
Of course, the shelf turd needed an antipode. The “whale” (or a “grail” in fashion), by contrast, is imbued with ideals amplified by one’s anticipation and untarnished by reality. A bottle of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle is, at this point in bourbon’s money-pit era, something that most drinkers today will never have in their possession, which concentrates the sweetness of longing.
However, when one whale is captured, that sense of longing doesn’t just disappear—that would be too convenient. It is, in the words of Canadian anthropologist Grant McCracken, “displaced,” and transferred to the next whale. From whale to whale, beer fiends form bridges to keep an idealized avatar of desire afloat. “These bridges serve as proof of the existence of this style of life and even as proof of the individual’s ability to lay claim to it,” McCracken wrote in his collection of academic essays, Culture and Consumption. Our interests and passions help us self-define; in that sense, self-actualization could just be a whale away.
Shelf turds sometimes enter the market hoping to capitalize on such intense desires, hoping to be someone’s whale. Some, like Bourbon County, once were. But sheer attainability can corrode hype in an instant. It isn’t necessarily about the soul of a beer or whiskey being lost, but the thrill (and hope) of the chase. “Collectibles, unique or very rare, must be hunted down, brought out of hiding, won away from other collectors. When goods have this special elusiveness, they can once again become bridges … for his or her personal ideals,” wrote McCracken. “In short, collectibles make it possible once again to dream.”
And what is a shelf turd, then, but the death of a dream sold to you?