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.
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.
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).