Gray Market/White Whale
The Hunt for the Beers of a Lifetime
Call me BeerMail.
It is no secret that beer fanatics in a certain place (Yourtown, USA) in a certain time (right now) long to plant their lips upon a snifter, tulip or chalice of some rarified, vaunted, practically mythical ale. Likewise, it is no wonder that some people will go through the Ahabesque task of trying to hunt these beers down. The expeditions launched from ports of call—one’s front door step, the office mail room, the nearest FedEx store—are called Beer Trades, or simply “BT”s. The prey are known as whales—primarily White Whales, or “WW”s.
But what is it that makes a beer a Moby Dick? At what point does the storied amalgamation of malts, hops, yeast and bugs, and blow-me-down adjuncts morph from ale to whale? And more to the point, how far are some people —the beer traders—willing to go to harpoon such a catch?
In the words of Herman Melville, “Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity.”
Everything has a Price
Everyone fetishizes something. To land the white whale of automobiles, say, a 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante, you would’ve had to shell out £3,000,000—around $4,800,000—for one recently. If you haven’t outgrown baseball card collecting, you can catch a 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card for a cool $2.8 million. Cheaper still for comic book collectors, your “WW” may be Action Comics No. 1 featuring Superman’s debut. If that’s you, try using $300,000 as bait. All have two things in common. They are ridiculously expensive and, therefore, almost impossible to obtain.
What about beer collectors? A scorched bottle of Löwenbräu found in the wreckage of the Hindenburg in 1937 set an auction winner back $18,000.
While not quite fetching six figures, even some 21st century brewed beers are endangered species. And though it’s practically one of the Ten Commandments—thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s beer—who among us doesn’t have a Holy Grail ale?
Craft beers are often limited by production and distribution. Though I live in California, my stash includes New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red from Wisconsin and Goose Island Imperial Brown Goose that I picked up in Chicago. From my home state, I’m holding Lost Abbey Cuvée de Tomme, North Coast Old Rasputin XI and more.
I have never traded beers with strangers, nor bought from them, nor seen the need to, nor felt the urge. But I’ll try anything once. If not beer-for-beer, would I have to resort to cold, hard cash (OK—soft, virtual PayPal cash) on an eBay auction? By any means possible, I set sail to land the following whales in a one-month period: Flossmoor Station Wooden Hell, Cantillon Blåbær Lambik and Iron Hill Ring of Fire.
Wooden Hell, a bourbon barrel-aged barley wine from Illinois, received a boost in awareness by medaling at the Great American Beer Festival. On BeerAdvocate.com, it is actively sought by almost 250 users while available for trade by fewer than a dozen as only 30 cases were sold. Blåbær from Belgium’s revered Brasserie Cantillon is a blueberry lambic with an availability that can be counted using all your fingers, yet 100 extra Advocates are clamoring for a bottle. And Ring of Fire is a porter from Delaware, one that has the distinction of being aged in Tabasco barrels from Avery Island, LA. It may not sound as desirable as other highly sought-after beers such as Vanilla Bean Dark Lord (Three Floyds) or Black Tuesday (The Bruery), but it sure is distinct, and with nobody listing it as available.
I decisively boarded my whaling ship, a.k.a. the Internet, anchors aweigh.
To BT or not to BT?
Procuring beer—by hook or by crook, or at least by beer trading or an online auction—that is not ordinarily available to you, either because it is not sold in your market or no longer commercially available, is not necessary. That is said from the standpoint that beer is necessary. But in this day and age, no matter where you live in the United States and most of the industrial world for that matter, a reasonably locally brewed, well-made beer is available to you. This is why sought after beers are called “wants” and not “needs.”
BeerAdvocate.com uses a system of “Wants” and “Gots,” while RateBeer.com has users file bottles in their virtual Beer Cellar as “Wants” and “Haves.” Beyond this, users start threads in the online forums announcing beers they are ISO (in search of) or have FT (for trade).
You may not live near one of the highest-rated (sexiest) breweries, but your neighborhood or regional craft brewery deserves your support. But of course, we always want what we can’t get. Just ask The Rolling Stones. Furthermore, if you really need a beer from some distant shore, booking a trip to go pick it up yourself isn’t always feasible (but it is a lot of fun).
Perhaps this is why one of the best parts about beer is that it’s a vacation in a bottle, or growler. This goes beyond the idea that alcohol is an escape. (Drinking loads of cheap beer achieves that.) Rather, just as the point of taking a holiday is meeting new people in strange lands, it is those very people from those same faraway places that make a beer more amazing. It takes more than yeast to make beer come to life and this must be what people are in search of. Maybe shipping off bottles transcends mere beer trading and becomes a correspondence. Trades don’t need to be Holy Grail for Holy Grail; they can be mixers of regionally available brands, my Firestone Walker for your Bell’s, my Hair of the Dog for your Cigar City. Keep it up and fellow traders turn into friends (albeit ones who can’t share real beer in real time).
For those not into the community aspect of beer trading, there are websites that make many out-of-reach beers just a few clicks away. Phil Lowry of BeerMerchants.com (Europe only) describes sites like his as primarily for those who are “beer aware” but don’t have exotic beers at their disposal or may be “cash rich but time poor.” Orders topping £300 are not unheard of. Similarly, LiquidSolutions.biz will ship a three-liter bottle of 2006 Samichlaus and one from 2007 to anyone over 21 in 48 states (sorry Maryland and Wyoming) for over $300.
Of course, legally shipping beer to any state is riddled with gray zones. Caveat shippor—shipper beware. Mailing beer via the U.S. Postal Service violates Federal law (18 USC Sec. 1716) and the private carriers FedEx and UPS won’t ship beer. (They will, as an aside, ship other liquids such as “olive oil” or “marinade,” for example.) eBay, for their part, requires sellers to state that beer auctions are not, in fact, for the beer, but the “collectable container” and that such coveted glassware’s contents “are not intended for consumption.”
Firing the First Shots
I am a virgin. I’ve never traded beer with someone I didn’t know and that was not transacted in person. My first beer mail sent in search of Wooden Hell fell upon deaf ears/blind eyes—as did my second and third. The meaty part of my fourth read: “Hey there. I have a few whales and am trying to hunt down WH. Any chance you’re interested in Anchor Our Barrel Ale (magnum)? Lemme know.”
The pertinent parts of the response from user Hombrepalo read: “Thanks for your interest in my Wooden. The two beers are good but not what I am looking for.” It was suggested that I revisit his list of Wants.
Upon discovering that I’m from California, my anticipated beer trader from Illinois requested trading for “volume.” Volume, in this case, meant trading his ultra-rare bomber of barley wine for 750-milliliter bottles of Russian River Temptation and Consecration (two American wild ales, refermented with Brettanomyces; and Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, respectively) and two bombers of IPAs from San Diego, AleSmith IPA and Ballast Point Sculpin.
Would nearly five ounces of my beer to his one be worth the trade? I hoped so. We virtually shook hands on it and soon enough we were emailing each other tracking numbers.
For my next whale, my expedition went from national to international. It seems one of the most prolific reviewers on RateBeer had a bottle stashed in his cellar in Copenhagen. I sent him this message: “You’re on the short list of people who ‘Have’ my desired whale, Cantillon Blåbær Lambik! Any chance we can arrange a trade? I happen to have a few from your Wants list, so let me know if a) you are interested and b) what seems fair.”
I rattled off 10 beers from his list of Wants including my only bottle of Ballast Point Tongue Buckler Imperial Red—a one-off from the San Diego brewery—and had every intention of sending him all of the above.
As for my final trophy, a bottle of Ring of Fire would appear sporadically online and communiqués were sent into the void, never to be heard from again until I felt a tug emanating from Maryland. The note on the hook came back and read: “I have one Ring of Fire left, and I could potentially let it go. What other stuff do you have that’s not listed on your Gots that you would be willing to trade? Not auctioning, just looking for the right deal.”
It just so happened my local beer retailer had two bottles of The Bruery’s Papier stashed away the way many liquor stores and bottle shops keep their treasure chest off the shelves. I bought both: one for me, one for a “BT.” The gentleman on the other end of the beer mail said of such a trade, “I would do it in a second.”
It took Captain Ahab his seafaring career, and 135 chapters, to track down Moby Dick. Could I have really landed all three of my desired whales that quickly and easily?
Keeping Up with the Jonesing
It seems every third thread in the forums of the online sites is regarding trading and collecting beers. Top Fives. Most expensive. Ones that got away. One poster wrote about “offering up (my) first born and half (my) cellar, and still nada.” Another said that he’d spent more money on buying and shipping beer than on rent. And to the guy who listed Russian River Deviation, Upland Kiwi Lambic and Flossmoor Station Blue Wax de Wilde Zuedentrein as merely the top of his wish list, Godspeed my friend.
Trading, for many, is an addiction. And what can’t be found FT, some resort to eBay. Westvleteren 12 from the Trappist St. Sixtus Abbey is almost as common as Beanie Babies once were. Three Floyds Dark Lord is available way more often than the once-yearly Dark Lord Day at the brewery in Indiana. Moreover, while a 2005 vintage is likely tastier and certainly more desirable, is the winner who pays $200 going to enjoy it three to four times as much as the person who bids $50 to $75 for last year’s vintage? And let’s not even get into the area of people who obtain a White Whale beer and then don’t even drink it.
Most traders revel in sharing beers they have obtained with friends or take to tasting parties. Nickd717, an active trader on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area invited me to a monthly gathering he attends where friends bring in bottles from that month’s haul. It was a “BT” paradise and included AleSmith Barrel-Aged Decadence ’07 (hand-numbered 80 out of 817), New Glarus R&D Golden Ale, and my personal favorite, one that I’d read about in the forums but hardly expected to find it this far south of the Arctic Circle: Midnight Sun Oak-Aged Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter. As much of a mouthful as the name is, the beer itself is a gorgeous elixir that boasts equal parts silky milk chocolate and spices redolent of homemade pumpkin pie with the spiciness offset by the pumpkin’s creaminess. Then there was the bottle I brought, which garnered the “oohs” and “aahs” I’d hoped for. Gold wax dripping off the crown of the one bottling from 2008 of Bourbon aged barley wine known to traders simply as WH.
Hook, Line, and Drinker
So how did my beer trades fare? Clearly, the Wooden Hell arrived in fine shape. At first sniff, the aroma burst forth as homemade caramel with a kick from bourbon and oak adding desired complexity. It tasted brighter than expected from a year-old bottle and offered fresh figs and a touch of prune, buoyed by vanilla from the oak. It was surprisingly hot for 9.5 percent ABV. Additionally, Hombrepalo, real name Horacio Aguirre, included five “extras,” bottles I would never find elsewhere, demonstrating the true spirit of generosity. Good traders don’t merely send the minimum they can get away with, they include as much as can fit into the shipping box.
I was happy to learn the Russian River beers I sent him would be ritualistically poured as part of his upcoming wedding celebrations, which likely meant during his bachelor party. Talk about the last Temptation.
The trade for Cantillon Blåbær hit a snag or two. User Papsoe, real name Henrik Papsø, is a devoted ticker—someone who strives to tick or check every beer ever brewed off his “need it” list—who expressed an interest in trading his Holy Grail sour blueberry for brews he hadn’t tried yet, which is a smaller list than one might imagine. Fortunately, I’ve done a fair amount of beer tripping and had beers to offer not just that he hadn’t rated before (good thing I loaded up on bombers of Kern River’s Class V Stout while passing through Bakersfield) but from breweries and even states he’s never tried—Diamond Bear’s Presidential IPA from Arkansas for instance.
We were close to striking a deal—basically exchanging a smattering of bottles involving a total of 26 from my end for six from his including, I kid not, the 2005, 2007 and 2009 Blåbær vintages. That’s like catching Moby Dick, Mrs. Dick and Moby, Jr. with one harpoon. Papsø suggested I do a vertical of three batches. “I’m pretty sure that would be a popular tasting to attend .”
However, trades fall through all the time for many reasons, but mostly, I’ve heard it said, because of shipping shock when Americans discover how expensive it is to ship overseas (more than the cost of the beers in most cases) or a stall or break in communication. In this case, a much more dire excuse occurred. Papsø went under the knife for cervical disc replacement surgery. Beer ticking takes a back seat to upward mobility any day.
But then I heard from him mere days later informing me he was already cutting down on his morphine and that his stitches would be out soon along with this message: “Due to my ticker nature I find it impossible to let ANY beers go knowing that they are in your possession and realizing that I NEED them!”
On top of this, my first box to him arrived with half of the booty but his package to me appeared to be lost in the system; the tracking code for the Danish Postal System yielded no info and the trader offered to round up replacements. I’m praying the box hasn’t fallen into the hands of a thirsty carrier and that it will complete its trans-Atlantic journey.
As for the Ring of Fire, it seems to have flamed out. I had read that there were problems with over carbonation. One user posted about trading for it and receiving an empty bottle while someone else said, “I had a bottle of this in my cellar. One day I found it empty, the cork and cage completely blown out, and a dried up black puddle on the floor.” Naturally, I asked my would-be trader how his was faring and appreciated his honesty when he told me he hated to say it but that he pulled the bottle from his cellar and found the cork already on its way out and that successful shipping was dubious. Like Moby Dick himself, this whale got away.
Having pulled an Ishmael, going along for the ride in search of not one but three white whales and living to tell about it, I’d say two out of three ain’t bad. As for its addicting powers, it’s easy to see. One beer trader near me named Bryan said, “You start waiting for Frankenstein-ed packages that contained trash bags, Styrofoam peanuts, newspaper, cardboard and bubble wrap to roll in everyday just so you can take them home and pillage them and move on to the next.”
Sure I had to know what a barrel aged barley wine that medaled at the Great American Beer Festival and earned successive top honors in the barley wine category of the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers tasted like. I asked Matt Van Wyk, then the brewmaster at Flossmoor Station, what it’s like to be responsible for creating such a coveted beer.
“For the brewer,” Van Wyk said, “it’s an amazing pat on the back and compliment that so many people love your beer.” He appreciates that communities such as RateBeer, BeerAdvocate and BeerMapping extend enthusiasts’ awareness of such small-batch beers beyond a several mile radius.
Incidentally, when I revealed that I had the pleasure of drinking one of his masterpieces alongside that chocolate-pumpkin number from Midnight Sun (Van Wyk has relocated with his family from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest where he now brews at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene), he mentioned that he left behind a similar behemoth at Flossmoor Station, which still needed some aging. Get behind me on the list of Wants to try their Bourbon Barrel-Aged Big Black Pumpkin Porter
Ultimately, Van Wyk offered, he thinks beer traders are as much addicted to the community as they are getting their hands on unique beers. “It’s just like Facebook and Twitter.” And the truth is, there are people out there who check their beer mail more frequently than their email or Facebook messages.
In doing so, their hearts are in the right place. There is equal enjoyment in helping others finally try ballyhooed beers as in quaffing them personally. It’s why people are fanatical enough to buy a case of, say The Bruery’s Black Tuesday or Portsmouth’s Kate the Great when they know they will only enjoy a bottle or two—it’s more about sharing the joy with the brotherhood of beer lovers. I don’t suspect anyone will buy two Aston Martin V12 Vantages just to have an extra to trade with another car collector.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He homebrews in San Francisco and if you have an intact bottle of Ring of Fire, beer mail him at byaeger on the communal sites or at email@example.com.