The Underworld of Beer Trading

Chances are, you'll never get to buy a bottle of Kate the Great, a Russian imperial stout from Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, even though it's considered one of the best beers in the world by beer geeks. It was sold out a few hours before its official release on March 1. Fans had already reserved bottles for it the day before, so the folks who were planning on driving hours in the snow to stand in line for it were out of luck. The brewery produced 900 bottles of it, and there won't be any more until next year. But just because you can't buy it doesn't mean you can't get Kate the Great. You just need something to trade for it.

Beer trading, the practice of exchanging hard-to-find beers through the mail, is a growing phenomenon. On websites RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, enthusiasts list what beers they have and what beers they want, then email each other to arrange trades.

Three years ago, beer writer Tomm Carroll was surprised when one of the younger members of his local Culver City home-brewing club brought in a bottle of a delicious beer called Kentucky Breakfast Stout, from Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The beer isn't distributed west of the Mississippi. "I asked where he'd got it, and he said he did a trade," says Carroll.

Sending beer through the USPS is illegal unless you're a licensed distributor, although some states even bar shipments from licensed distributors. (That's why when you're buying wine online, they'll only ship to some states.) However, home-brewers who have to send their beers to competitions have for years gotten around this by using private companies like FedEx and UPS and declaring their products, if anybody asks, as "yeast samples in liquid medium." Beer traders use this loophole, as well as another one that allows people to ship "collectible bottles." Of course, in this case, collectible bottles are sealed, and contain beer.

Gotta Have It

For the most part, trading is a friendly sport. The culture dictates that no money exchange hands. On the RateBeer site, talking about dollars in the beer trading forum will get you banned from the site forever, and most traders make a point of distinguishing themselves from the small black market for rare beer that exists on eBay.

Trading etiquette requires you include a surprise, or "extra," inside boxes you ship: anything from another rare beer they didn't think they were getting to a bottle of home-brew to a special glass or bumper sticker.

Trading gets as feverish and competitive as in any other hard-core collectibles market. "There's a definite collector vibe that a lot of traders bring to the table," says 24-year-old Rhode Island beer trader Phil Penny. "The 'I gotta have it' mentality."

The more rare the beer, the more tradable it is, making brewery-release-only beers like Kate the Great some of the most sought after. Recently, release days like the one at Portsmouth Brewery have grown beyond locals-only events, drawing crowds and long lines, with some beer fans even flying in from other states. (The blog Beernews.org recently dubbed Kate one of the "Big Six" releases of the year, along with Sexual Chocolate, an imperial stout from Foothills Brewing in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The latter was listed as a "want" by a staggering 845 people on BeerAdvocate.)

A beer can also become a hot commodity if it's high in alcohol, barrel aged, and/or contains esoteric ingredients: all characteristics that are trends in the craft beer industry in general, but especially so in the trading community where experimental and extreme often go hand in hand with rare. In the case of Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a limited release from Scotland's BrewDog that is 32 percent alcohol (it's made through freezing the beer to remove some of the water), novelty even trumps quality: TNP only received a B rating out of 13 reviews on BeerAdvocate. Nonetheless, 91 people list it as a "want" (and 15 as a "have").

The hype around limited-release beer has gotten so loud—thanks in large part to online beer traders—that savvy breweries can create instant hits without having to wait years for acceptance. The Bruery, a well-regarded two-year-old craft brewery in Placentia, California, somehow managed to have one of the biggest releases of the year for its Black Tuesday imperial stout last September, though it was the beer's first year out the door.

The Bruery previewed the beer in its tasting room a few weekends before its release for a sampling of its most loyal customers, says sales and marketing manager Benjamin Weiss. On the day it was released, it had weirdly risen to become one of the top 10 beers in the world on BeerAdvocate based on reviews from those few people who had had an early sampling, even though the beer was not, and had never been, released.

"This beer rivals some of the greats including: The Abyss, KtG, Firestone 11, Dark Lord, Darkness, and KBS (I'm sure I'm leaving out a few). I have a feeling Black Tuesday is going [to] create some sort of frenzy on this site...so if you can, get your hands on this stuff. It truly is that good. Cheers!" wrote one reviewer.

As this video shows, the day the beer was actually released was a madhouse. Selling out was a foregone conclusion. Although that doesn't mean you can't get it. If you've got some Darkness from Surly Brewing you care to part with, I know somebody who needs some yeast samples.

The Bruery - Black Tuesday from benjamin weiss on Vimeo.

Photograph of Sexual Chocolate by Christopher Rochelle, CHOW.com