The way we get our beer is changing. Your supermarket has roughly a bajillion brews for sale, and your local beer bar has approximately a bajillion more. But what if you want the rare stuff? A bottle that's only sold at a brewery 2,000mi away, or only once a year on a date that coincides with your wedding anniversary? What then?
You trade for it, that's what. There's a vibrant gray market for beer, and it lives on message boards. That's right, you guys: not only are the files in the computer, but the dry-hopped IPAs are, too. The thing is, craft beer's digital swap meets can be a bit daunting for first-timers. Hell, they're a bit daunting for me, and I write about this for a living. So I tapped my beer-trading buddy Thomas Haydon to help me create this very primer. If you're looking to get into the sort-of legal world of shipping stouts across the country to get other stouts in return, let this unofficial, incomplete guide to beginner beer trading light your way.
Cash is not king. Nobody wants your cash.
Perhaps the most surprising truth about beer's thriving, semi-legal marketplace is that actual money rarely changes hands. "This isn't so much an unwritten rule, but I think it's the most important foundation of the beer-trading community," explains Haydon. "Beer trading is all about the beer-for-beer transaction." The craft community is famously tight-knit, but there's another reason for this rule besides friendship. "Trading for cash is illegal... on top of shipping alcohol," says Haydon, which, depending on which states are involved, may also be on the wrong side of the law. (More on that in a moment.)
Listen before you speak...
In beer trading, as in life, it's smart to keep to the sidelines while you're figuring things out. "Before getting your whistle wet, monitor the boards for a few days to see what people are offering vs. the beers you have access to," says Haydon.
... and make sure you speak the language
Even if you already know how to talk like a beer snob, trading's vernacular can throw you a curveball. That's because it's not really comprised of words. "If you're not up on the abbreviations, you have no chance in the trade world," says Haydon. To wit, here's a quick crash course on frequently used acronyms you'll likely encounter on the forums:
- ISO: "In search of"; used as a prefix with the name of the beer you're trying to track down
- FT: "For trade"; you've got a bottle that you want to swap. Also a prefix.
- $4$: "Dollar for dollar"; meaning that you're looking to get roughly equivalent dollar value in return (as opposed to an intentionally lopsided trade motivated by extreme scarcity, sentiment, etc.)
- Whale: A coveted bottle worth chasing after -- like, y'know, Moby-Dick.
- Shelf turd: The opposite -- a common bottle that's widely distributed and therefore, not valuable in trade.
- BA: If it's not referring to BeerAdvocate, this stands for "barrel-aged."
- Drain pour: A beer so bad that the recipient literally pours it out instead of finishing it.
There are literally hundreds more of these. Reddit's staggeringly comprehensive glossary can help you translate if you get in over your head. Pro tip: read it before you dip your toes.
Know your target market
Speaking of availability: "avoid offering beers that are distributed to your target zone," counsels Haydon. Unless your for-trade bottle is insanely rare, and you're hunting another insanely rare bottle, it's considered poor form to do trades within your own region. For example, he explains, "FT Bruery beers ISO Russian River beers" is kinda just muddying the waters for everyone else who wants to trade for California beers. A trader who has one can get the other.
If you're still not sure whether Oskar Blues is from North Carolina or Colorado (Longmont, CO!), or where Dark Lord Day actually takes place (Munster, Indiana!), avoid a geographical faux pas by consulting a map. A beer map, that is, at SeekABrew.com. This crowd-funded resource is essentially a master list of up-to-date distribution info, maintained by the trading community. Use it! (And if you do, consider donating!)
Shelf turds only go so far
Unique, easily obtained bottles are perfect to play a supporting role, but if you try to make unremarkable beers top billing in your trade, they go by another name: "shelf turds."
"[Y]ou will typically hear crickets if you ask for limited-release brews while offering shelf turds," he cautions. Dollar-for-dollar doesn't rate here. Even if you're offering a dozen so-called turds -- which, again, outside the context of trading, may be perfectly drinkable beers -- for a single 12oz bottle of something rare, you'll likely be shunned. Remember, availability is the driving force of the marketplace. No one is excited about beers they can already buy themselves, even if you're offering more of it.
Don't use the USPS. And always remember: you're shipping "sauces."
Laws vary by both state and shipping carrier, but the general rule of thumb is that shipping beer is prohibited. (This excludes special licenses, which you can read about here!) A trader's work-around? Sauce! "If the shipping clerk asks what you're shipping," instructs Haydon, you should say "olive oil or artisanal, homemade sauces or something like that." As long as you're not extremely suspicious, they probably won't give you any trouble.
Also -- skip the US Mail, he suggests. "Traders should avoid using USPS and instead use FedEx or UPS. USPS is more strict and less reliable."
If you want people to like you (and you do), throw in extras
Let's say you live in San Francisco, and set up a trade for Pliny the Elder. It's common in Northern California but relatively rare in NYC, where your trade partner lives. The deal is for the IPA, and the $4$ comparison applies to that bottle. But Haydon says "[it's a]lways a good gesture to throw in extras to round out a trade, especially if you have extra room in your box."
It won't cost that much more in shipping, and it's good karma. So you might take a look around the closet/cellar/perfectly cooled semi-natural cave where you keep your bottles, and toss in a couple Anchor Christmas bottles -- way more available than Pliny, sure, but brew that'll nonetheless be appreciated on the other end. A good reputation is invaluable to a beer trader, and bonus beers are a good way to preserve yours.
You break it, you buy it (for them)
"If some of your shipment does not survive the journey to its final destination, you're expected to replace the damaged bottles," cautions Haydon, because it's just the Right Thing To Do™. This is why a lot of traders are wary of shipping to the Midwest & Northeast once the temperatures dip below freezing -- if your box of beer sits on a truck, the bottles may rupture. That's a costly waste of good brew. Bummer.
Snitches get... mad props on the message board!
Because it's unregulated, traders self-police to keep fraud at bay. "The community detests [people] who do not come through on their end of the deal," remarks Haydon. If you get burned (which does happen), tell the forum. Not only will on-the-level traders "publicly shame the guilty," but they'll often "chip in to send you what you were supposed to get through the original trade." The thinking, says Haydon, is that you're doing good for the community by flagging a conman; the extra bottles are a sort of consolation "thank you."
Find a partner
"When you find a reliable trade partner with easy access to certain breweries," it's a good idea to just keep trading with him, he encourages. "It becomes a trade partnership, and comms can move outside Reddit/BA. This is common for coast-to-coast traders since the distributions differ the most."
ISO: not beer
You can't trade for money, but you can trade for something other than beer. "You often see people looking to make a whiskey-for-beer trade," says Haydon. His trading buddy in Virginia sometimes trades beer for live ammunition. "I still think he's going to be shot on site. BUT goes to show you beer trading can be expanded past its traditional borders."
Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow @dinfontay on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.