In the fall of 2013, I bought a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Flipside Red IPA. It wasn’t a crazy hyped or rare beer, but something in the combination of lemony hops and caramel malts matched up perfectly with my taste buds.
I went back to the store to get more, only to discover the beer was seasonal and, in turn, sold out. My little beer heart sank. I voiced my concern over Twitter, where a random acquaintance said he’d seen it on the shelves at his local grocery store in Indianapolis. He asked me if I wanted some. I said yes. We set up a trade. Two weeks later, a slightly soggy box arrived on my front porch. Inside a mess of bubble wrap and newspaper were five pristine bottles of Flipside, and one pile of broken glass and sticky, stinky beer. My introduction to beer trading proved a tidy microcosm of the subculture; you can definitely trade for the beer you want, but it can be a risky, imperfect process.
Consumers have nearly five times as much choice as they did 20 years ago. In 1996, a typical beer wholesaler had to manage about 190 stock-keeping units (SKUs) of beer. Keeping tabs on that many products sounds challenging enough, but as of 2015, the National Beer Wholesalers Association reported that the number is closer to 947.
And yet, despite this growth, some beer remains elusive. Even as distribution networks expand, most small and medium-sized breweries lack the resources to sell their beer in every state in the union. Most don’t even plan to. Couple geographic limitation with limited availability and suddenly, if a person doesn’t live down the street from a world-class brewery, some of the best beer in the country becomes nearly impossible to get.
Nearly impossible, that is, unless you trade for it.
The concept of beer trading isn’t new, but the advent of the internet and the opening of so many new breweries have changed how and why beer is traded. Social media has allowed more like-minded collectors and whale hunters (enthusiasts who seek rare beer like Captain Ahab hunted his white whale) to connect, and the introduction of one-off or small-batch American beers has given people things to actually trade for. Reddit.com, RateBeer.com, and BeerAdvocate.com have entire subsections of their websites dedicated to trading, and the latter claims to have been facilitating trades since the late ’90s.
Swapping beer might seem like a niche within a niche, something only a tiny subset of beer drinkers might do. But on its website, BeerAdvocate claims that “hundreds of trades are conducted on a daily basis by thousands of members around the word,” and the “Beer Trade ISO:FT” Facebook group (one of the largest dedicated to beer trading) has more than 7,000 members. The /r/beertrade Reddit thread has more than 14,000 subscribers, and new trades are listed almost every hour. Factoring in the innumerable trades that happen at bottle shares, meet-ups, and other events, it’s safe to say the practice is at no risk of going extinct.
Trading is a simple solution to a complicated problem: Unlike most other commercial goods in 2016, getting the beer you want isn’t as easy as going to a website, entering your credit card number, and hitting “complete order.” While there are some options to buy beer directly online (like BringontheBeer.com or CraftBeerKings.com), availability and prices are not consistent. On top of that, 13 states have laws banning the shipment of beer directly to consumers. As great (and lucrative) as an “Amazon for Beer” might be, it will take a drastic shift in the current legal landscape to become a reality.
Beer trading is also fueled by the geography of distribution. I used to covet beer from Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co. because I couldn’t get it in Maryland. Maggie Skinner, brand manager for Brenner Brewing Co. out of Milwaukee, confirms that her local beers are often prized by nonlocals: “People think New Glarus and Karben4—our everyday, average beers—are gold. They’ll trade me all kinds of rare or exotic beers for things I can find on the shelves easily.”
As a result, the task of procuring rare beer from distant breweries falls directly onto the consumers. Like modern-day bootleggers, they flout the laws of shipping and carrying beer over state lines, and form grassroots networks of trustworthy peers to move their contraband all over the country. Beer trading happens in the spaces between taproom and retail sales. Most trades, for all intents and purposes, are off the record.
Using the word “trade” to describe the practice is a bit of a misnomer, though. Officially, trade describes the transfer of goods and services using currency as a medium. Partly because it’s illegal to sell beer without a license, and partly because straight-up purchasing the beer kills the haggling spirit of a trade, most beer traders are not in fact trading. They’re bartering.
On various forums on dozens of sites, traders chime in, making offers, asking questions, or just saying “PM” to finalize transactions in private. A few weeks later, boxes of beer arrive on respective doorsteps, everyone pops some tops, and the deal is complete.
But more often than one might expect, things aren’t so civil. Strangers openly admonish traders for unfair or unrealistic offers. Some are benign. Some are snarky and passive-aggressive. Some are downright mean.
Kyle Davis, a veteran trader based in Cincinnati, acknowledges the reality of trading on forums: “I don’t even look at those Facebook groups anymore. If you’re new, they’re intimidating. People are ruthless. You post a deal and either get crickets, four people who want to work out a trade, or 93 people saying you’re an idiot.”
To the newcomer, the current trading landscape is a minefield of poorly explained etiquette. While a few bulleted lists and articles of basic information exist to educate the rookie trader, there’s a lot more that a person needs to know before braving the wilds of beer-trading forums. Even though the site touts the joys of and encourages beer trading (to the point it developed a proprietary, trade-tracking app), BeerAdvocate didn’t start putting together a “Beer Trading 101” guide until 2012.
Pulling off a successful trade can be an overwhelming if not downright toxic experience, especially for someone not well-versed in the expectations and realities of procuring and packaging beer, then shipping it to a stranger half a country away. Few current traders offer concrete advice on the best way to ship beer. Even fewer mention the additional financial commitment that shipping presents.
“Everyone justifies the shipping costs by saying the other person is paying them, too,” says Tom Aguero, a long-time trader from Ohio. “But it’s still extra cost, out of your pocket, that makes the beer itself that much more expensive.” While still cheaper than making a cross-country pilgrimage to a brewery’s bottle release, these costs add up, turning average beer into expensive beer.
Worse are the cultural aspects of rare beer supply and demand; the ever-shifting street value of certain highly sought-after beers isn’t exactly listed in a spreadsheet somewhere. Some staple beers like Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Younger, Founders’ Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Goose Island Beer Co.’s Bourbon County Brand Stout or The Alchemist’s Heady Topper always have some innate trade value, but beers from smaller breweries like Tired Hands Brewing Co., Trillium Brewing Co. and Tree House Brewing Co. have surged to the top of ISO lists across the internet. One trader even joked that he’d offer up his first-born for a case of Cherry Fruit Stand from Casey Brewing and Blending LLC.
But there are so many beers, and subjective taste preferences dictate perceived value. Undefined abbreviations and shorthand for beer names and breweries litter trading sites, to the point where some posts are all but indecipherable unless a trader has her finger constantly on the pulse of the beer industry.
It seems, to the uninitiated, that figuring out all these extra details serves as an informal rite of passage, proving you have the chops to hang with the trading veterans and are worthy of Westbrook Brewing Co.’s Mexican Cake or Perennial Artisan Ales’ Barrel-Aged Abraxas. That’s not to say beer trading is deliberately exclusive. But it’s also not exactly accessible to the average beer drinker, either. “Trading beer is one of those hobbies where the more you get into it, the more you have to put into it,” says Aguero. “To get some of the rarest beers, you have to do progressive trades. It can take a while to get that one very rare beer you’ve been lusting after.”
The steep learning curve does, however, offer some protection for those bottles passing in the night. It’s not exactly legal to transport or mail beer. It is currently a federal offense (read: felony) to send beer across state lines via the United States Postal Service. This law is not well-enforced, but the USPS will intercept and keep boxes it thinks contain contraband liquids, sending a warning to the sender to cease and desist.
In September of 2015, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper spearheaded a comprehensive bill called iPOST, which sought to revamp many of the dated policies of the USPS, including legalizing the shipment of beer in order to increase revenue. If this bill becomes law, it would provide a much easier, cheaper way to send beer all over the country and is projected to generate nearly $50 million for the financially ailing USPS.
Third-party options exist, but are usually expensive. UPS and FedEx aren’t quite as strict about what can be shipped, but do note that shipping beer is officially against company policy (unless you hold a liquor license). Lots of trading advice describes the best way to deceive a UPS or FedEx staff member; some have explained the weight and sloshing sound of a package as entries in a barbecue sauce competition, water being sent for testing, or even yeast samples.
The question comes down to, Why? In a market where consumers have five times the choice they did 20 years ago in their neighborhood store, why bother braving the unforgiving oceans of beer trading? Why risk the shattered bottles and lost money, or sending your bottle to possibly get nothing in return?
The reasons are as varied as styles of beer.
The majority of traders seem driven by taste. They hear stories, read reviews, buy into the hype. “I’d been hearing really good things about the sour beers from Russian River,” says Davis, describing the first time he sought to trade for a beer based on what he’d heard about it. “But they don’t distribute here. I had to ask a friend how I could get some, and he suggested trading.” Once a drinker has exhausted the flavors available locally, it’s natural that he or she wants to branch out to seek new experience from distant states.
Others treat beer more like baseball cards or Pokémon, seeing holes in the cellar stash as holes in their soul, looking to trade to complete collections and secure the rarest beers possible. Given the size and scope of some of the pictures posted on beer trading groups, it’s unclear if these people actually drink beer or just enjoy having a basement full of dusty bottles, so long as they have every year, sequentially, since the beer was released.
And yet others see the trade as a sort of sport. Some exchanges, especially for the rarest beers, can get fierce and sharp, with sides conceding and compromising to get what they want. At the end of it all, one party will often declare himself a winner—as, in his mind, he got more than he gave and is on his way to being the informal champion of all the beer traders.
Reputation is everything to the trader and tradee. If a person is known for canceling trades, taking too long to send the beer, or not sending any at all, that person is generally added to “do not trade with” lists. But these types of people seem to be the exception, not the rule. “I’ve had more amazing situations than bad,” says Aguero. “Once a bottle of Pliny broke in transit. The guy who sent it told me not to worry and sent another one—plus an extra.”
That’s the good news: Despite these trading archetype personalities, the beer trading community isn’t entirely founded on receiving or hoarding beer. Groups that embody more of the social camaraderie of beer will often send bottles—without any promise of reciprocation—when they know their peers haven’t tried them. During some trades, people sneak additional beer, other goodies like T-shirts and assorted brewery swag into the package as a little bonus. For these purist folks, it isn’t about beer, really, but about friendship, and the bonding power of sharing a pint. Beer enthusiast Natasha Godard of Portland, Oregon, describes the warm and fuzzy feeling of “surprise” beer trading: “It was definitely easier to be the yummy beer fairy. I’ve given away a lot of surprise [Founders KBS or Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout]. My trading partners have surprised me with Heady or Pliny or similar. It brings me a lot of joy to do this, and I think it does my friends as well.”
It’s known colloquially as the “Beer It Forward” Community. “It operates less on an economy and dollars system, and more on a karma system,” says Davis. “That’s what trading used to be like before people started hunting specific, rare things. It was more a little more open-ended, a little more relaxed. I’ll send you this and you send me something cool back. It worked because everyone took care of each other.”
Ultimately, trading gives some of the retail power back to the consumer. Obviously, the beer still has to be purchased, but through perseverance and wanton disregard for some outdated laws, trading groups give people a chance to try new beer. Trading is a direct side effect of the explosive growth in the number of breweries in the U.S., and the quality of beer they are producing. That people will pay extra to send a beer across the country, on faith that they’ll receive some back, all for a new flavor experience, is a sign of just how far American beer has come.
How to Trade
New to trading, but looking to turn that bottle of Firestone Walker Parabola into some Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine? Here’s a quick primer to start trading beer:
Decide what beer you want and what beer you have available to trade.
Do some research to determine the general value of your beer and what it might realistically be traded for, using completed trades and forum discussions as a guide.
Choose one of the online trading forums, create an account and list the brewery, beer name and (if relevant) vintage year as “FT” (Ex: FT—Firestone Walker Parabola 2015) and then what you’re searching for after as “ISO” (Ex: ISO—fresh Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine).
Agree upon the number of and specific beers to be traded, and swap shipping information (also be courteous and friendly when negotiating).
Package your beer well, with lots of surrounding bubble wrap and/or padding, and ship it promptly (though avoid using the post office). Significant delays in shipment can get you listed as a bad trader and possibly blacklisted. (If you’re very new to trading, don’t be offended if the other party asks you to send your box first; it’s common practice.)
Once the trade is complete, enjoy your beer! Report bad behavior or missing packages on the online forum, but only after you’ve followed up with the other party and given ample time to get things sorted out amicably. Good luck trading!
Beer traders speak what sounds like their own language, a hodgepodge of abbreviations and years to designate what they have for trade.
Here are the basics:
FT: For Trade
ISO: In Search Of
$4$: Dollar for Dollar, or asking to trade something of the same retail value
Whale: A particularly rare or sought-after beer
Many traders also use shorthand to reference styles (RIS: Russian Imperial Stout), breweries (TH: Tired Hands Brewing Co.) or specific beers (PtY: Pliny the Younger). A few plucky Reddit users have compiled a dizzying glossary that covers even the most esoteric terms.
Oliver Gray is a Maryland-based writer, editor and homebrewer. On Twitter @OliverJGray.