How craft breweries and consumers stand to win – and lose – from the growing and unregulated practice.

Part of the mystique around some of the best craft beer on the market today involves availability. Or, more specifically, the calculated lack thereof. If something is really good – that super-hazy double IPA everyone is talking about, say – odds are you can’t just buy it at the liquor store down the street. You might not be able to buy it at any liquor store, in fact. So now you want it even more. Hype builds. The stuff sells out in the blink of an eye. Like Pavlov’s dogs, you drool at the mere mention of its name.

Increasingly, the best craft beer can be the hardest to get your hands on. Tree Housing Brewing out of Monson, Mass., is home to some of the most sought-after beers going, but you’ve got to go there to get them. Trillium Brewing Co. is on tap or stocked in limited supply at select bars and stores, but sells out quickly. (I recently had Mettle, one of their double IPAs, with lunch at the Brewer’s Fork in Charlestown. When I went back that same night with friends, it had long since sold out.)

Bissell Brothers and Foundation Brewing Company, two of the hot newer breweries in Maine, aren’t available in Massachusetts. And if you’re clamoring for any of Vermont’s holy trinity – those from The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead or Lawson’s Finest Liquids (and the list goes on) – a road trip to The Green Mountain State is your only shot.

 

How do you get the brews you seek? More and more, you trade for them.

But say you don’t have a Saturday to kill to go on a beer trip. How do you get the brews you seek, the rare gems from Maine, Vermont or even California? More and more, you trade for them.

“When we started Night Shift we weren’t even aware that trading was a thing,” Rob Burns, one of the founders, told me of their early days in 2012. “But we quickly saw via social media our beers being enjoyed all around the country and the world. Which we thought was pretty awesome. People take serious amount of time and money packaging up boxes and shipping them out. The passion for sharing beers with strangers around the world is pretty cool.”

“We were founded on the notion that good beer can and should be shared; it creates a communal atmosphere and encourages like-minded gatherings to take place more often than they might otherwise,” said Tree House Brewing founder Nate Lanier. “Our long-time regulars have been so generous sharing our beer around New England, and beyond.”

Trading beer is not a new phenomenon. But as craft breweries proliferate across the U.S., it’s a culture that’s gaining momentum, especially on popular beer-rating forums like RedditRateBeer and BeerAdvocate, where it’s been going on since the late 90s. The beer-rating app Untappd has also contributed to the culture, elevating the passion of trying new beers into a social competition.

“Our beer is self-distributed locally only in Massachusetts, so it’s astonishing to check out social media and find photos of fans enjoying our brews in far off destinations such as Australia and China,” said Matt Garstka, the sales and events manager at Trillium Brewing. “We couldn’t ask for a more dedicated and determined group of supporters who continue to share our offerings with friends and family the world over.”

Of course, anything involving alcohol in the state of Massachusetts doesn’t come without its somewhat nebulous guidelines. (For example, the Mayor’s Office is currently deciding whether people should be able to drink on a restaurant or bar patio without ordering food.) Look up the laws pertaining to beer trading here – that’s Chapter 138, Section 2 of the Massachusetts General Law – and you’re met with the following:

No person shall manufacture, with intent to sell, sell or expose or keep for sale, store, transport, import or export alcoholic beverages or alcohol, except as authorized by this chapter.

To clarify, I asked Stephen Miller, longtime alcohol attorney with McDermott, Quilty & Miller LLP, where the state stands on beer trading.

“There is a significant [amount of] all types of alcoholic beverages that are being shipped into Massachusetts illegally,” he said. “Unfortunately the ABCC [Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission] does not have the staff to tackle the problem. The ABCC’s focus is on public safety (underage drinking and over service) and processing the thousands of licensing transactions each year. They would need a significant increase in staff to tackle the problem.”

Shipping wine in and out of Massachusetts is not illegal if done through proper channels. But beer doesn’t enjoy the same luxury, said Miller: Shipping it in or out is against the current law. I contacted the ABCC – which is currently in the middle of a largely unprecedented investigation into illegal pay-to-play practices between distributors and retailers – to weigh in on Miller’s assertion about their regulation of beer trading in Massachusetts; they declined to comment.

Despite the law, the popularity of shipping beer around the world is crystal clear. It’s at once a powerful word-of-mouth marketing tool for breweries – “The majority of long distance trades I see on Instagram and the like are friends simply exchanging their local favorites with one another. It’s pretty awesome,” said Lanier – and an increasingly cutthroat competition for reputation and clout as much as good beer.

“I really do believe the trade scene has gotten out of hand, and I hope that some people grow up and realize that we aren’t dealing with Tiffany Collectables, sports cards, or even stocks,” Dan, one of the founders of The Full Pint, lamented in a March article. “This beer was artfully brewed to drink, not passed around in a hot FedEx truck multiple times over 3 years.”

In-person trading is a favorable approach, too. Maybe you had to work on a day Trillium released something you really want – you’re bound to have something to offer the friend who could make it in return. Or, conversely, if you’re headed to NH for the weekend, you can bring some Boston stuff and arrange trades with people there once you arrive.

 

I’ve met a lot of great people trading beer and have ongoing relationships with them.

“The concept behind beer trading is pretty simple,” said Ben, a prolific trader from Boston who asked that we not include his last name. “I have some beers that you want and you also have some beers that I want. Regardless of platform it works the same: One person posts and then gets responses.”

Ben told me he’s done more than 100 trades, online or in person. “I’ve met a lot of great people trading beer and have ongoing relationships with them,” he said. “I see a lot of the same people up and down the East Coast at big releases; it’s like a college reunion of sorts.”

Here’s the general rundown of shipping beer by mail:

  1. Pick a preferred platform, be it social media, BeerAdvocate, that guy down the street who hordes choice brews, whatever.
  2. Know the lingo. There’s a language here, and it’s in your best interest to get familiar before you wade in.
  3. Agree on a fair trade. Monetary value and rarity come into play here. If it’s a bit lopsided, it’s customary to throw in a few local extras to even the scales.
  4. No money shall exchange hands.. This is a big no-no on the forums that take this seriously. Like, Pete-Rose-banned-for-life territory.
  5. Pack carefully. It’s expensive to pack and ship beers, especially the high-demand stuff so often sent via trades. If a beer doesn’t make it, the sender is typically on the hook to make it right.
  6. Know your mail carriers. In Massachusetts, trade vets know to avoid the U.S. Postal Service (they might ask questions) and instead go with FedEx or UPS.
  7. If anyone asks, you’re shipping “sauce.” Seriously, that’s the party line.

To get this out of the way, you do all of the above at your own risk, seeing how slinging beer across Massachusetts state lines isn’t exactly street legal.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing that change. I’m all for breweries who champion their local markets above all else. And while beer trading does, to a certain degree, cheat locals from that beer – since what’s already a limited quantity is being sent out of state in return for something else – I think the local beer scene largely stands to gain from the nationwide, and even global, recognition.

“The trading of our beers really helped to spread the word out about what we were doing and the funky beers we create. It’s tough to gauge trading’s impact on our business, but I think it has accelerated our growth and reputation,” said Burns. “We get customers regularly buying beers for people across the country in our taproom and then other people who tried our beers once via a trade and then come visit us at the source.”

One potential downfall, said Garstka, is beer trading takes the distribution control out of the brewery’s hands, a big deal for an operation like Trillium or Night Shift that’s been self-distributed from the start. “Long distance travel, with variable conditions, can sometimes have negative impact on beer sustainability,” he said. “Anything hoppy is best served fresh and cold.”

For now, it’s a strong and growing subculture in Massachusetts and beyond, surging as the number of craft breweries proliferates, that’s operating on the borderlines of legality – thriving due to heavy demand and a lack of regulation. Whether it should be more strongly enforced or given the official green light is up for debate. But the power of a good trade is undeniable. Said Lanier: “I’ll see someone drinking a three day old Julius in California before I’ve even had time to sit down with the current batch.”

Courtesy BostInno, – Lifestyle Editor