Anyone who’s relatively new to craft beer runs right to the RateBeer or BeerAdvocate ‘Bests’ lists to find the most coveted and seemingly tasty beers to try. While many of those beers can be obtained locally, there is a great handful that aren’t, and that’s where beer trading comes in.
After my first trade, I realized there was some basic etiquette involved that still holds true today. First and foremost, the trade has to be agreed upon (duh). At a high level, both sides place a value on their beer. This is usually pretty easy to agree upon, as retail prices are the same everywhere, and brewery only beer releases publish the price of the beer prior to the sale. Secondary to price tag value is the rareness of the beer. If 50,000 bottles of a certain beer is made, it would be less rare/valuable than a brewery only released beer with a bottle count of 1,500. So once both sides agree on the trade and the value, the fairness is balanced out with any extra beers added to one of the sides. From there, a good trade will involve bonus or extra beers, usually comprising of local,tasty beer, or if you are very kind and generous, a very special beer that will really impress your new or existing trading partner.
At the peak of my trading habit, I had over 50 trades under my belt on RateBeer alone. I also dabbled in a few Facebook trade groups, and if I couldn’t get my trade “done”, I would pop over to BeerAdocate. I got to try so many beers I never had access to, and even got to try some of the then rarest beers in the country. Then one day, things changed. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but things took a turn for the worst.
In addition to the typical line cutting one experiences at brewery only bottle releases, beer enthusiasts began assembling “mule teams”, in which a group of people would band together to game the bottle limit of a particular sale. If a brewery had instituted a two bottle limit, a person would come with their mom, grandma, their cousin, and maybe a hobo from the gas station. This person will then proceed to go on social media and show a picture of their 10 beers from a 2 bottle limit sale. This really has put a negative light on the enjoyment of craft beer, and the intimate relationship small breweries are trying to forge with their local customer base.
Because of all of this nonsense, I have stopped buying into the hype, and have backed away from trading. I’ve found that unless I have the newest hype beer, many of the folks on the trading block have no interest in beers I find to be special. It’s also hindered my ability to acquire and taste these coveted beers from around the country for the purpose of The Full Pint.
In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed this new aspect of the trading culture has escalated into an even uglier territory. During Tampa Beer Week, Cycle Brewing released some very limited, brewery only released bottles for every day of the week. They are treated strong ales with various adjuncts and or barrel treatments. These beers sold out quick, and even locals had a hard time snagging them. Immediately, there were many wild offers placed on trading boards and Facebook groups, with the hope of “winning the trade.” By “winning the trade”, I am referring to a trade designed to be lopsided in favor of the person trading the Cycle Brewing beers. To me, this is a horrible practice, and goes against trading etiquette mentioned above, in which you try to send something back of equal value. In addition to these wild trade offers, many were seriously advertising a resale of the beer in excess of $1,000 for the entire set of Cycle beers. While some have deep pockets and are willing to pay this, this starts a long thread of negative comments directed towards the poster and subsequently the beer itself.
In response to the nonsense caused by the opportunists trying to flip the Cycle bottles, locals to Bottle Logic Brewing in Anaheim responded to this by mimicking the behavior with the release of Ground State, a special treated stout brewed for their 2nd anniversary. Within minutes, lopsided trade offers and highly marked up sale offers flooded social media and trade boards.
Sadly, there are more losers in this than winners in this situation. First of all, people who wanted to simply taste and enjoy either the Cycle beers or the Bottle Logic beers couldn’t, as they were shut out by the people gaming the system. Secondly, and mentioned briefly above, the brewers take a few hits from this mess. If you scan any of the for sale or lopsided trade threads, folks who are angry or jealous will fire shots at the brewery or the beer, claiming it’s not that good or not that rare, in hopes of lowering the value. To me that’s a sin, as the breweries are mostly not at fault for the secondary market value. It also brings them unnecessary and often times negative noise on subsequent releases.
For people who share my feelings of disappointment, here is how I navigate around this troubling culture. I stick to easy to get beer that I really enjoy. If I meet a friend from out of state, I forge a friendship and a trading partnership that doesn’t revolve around “winning the trade” or chasing the low bottle count beers. Luckily here in California, we have very delicious offerings from the bottom to the top of the state. I also realized if I really want to try a hard to get beer from Vermont, I should probably visit Vermont and enjoy it there. I’ve also lucked out trying some of these beers at bottle shares, although I feel guilty at how much more work others are putting into a trade, which I am easily geezing a taste off of.
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. This beer was artfully brewed to drink, not passed around in a hot FedEx truck multiple times over 3 years. While brewers have plenty on their plate with running a small factory that makes beer, I hope they can contribute to curtailing some of this poisonous culture surrounding their small batch products. I’m hoping more breweries move to online sales, rewarding local lovers of good beer.