So you’re obsessed with craft beer. Join the club. To feed (quench?) this obsession, you’ve found yourself combing the Internet in search of a bar that serves a rare brew you've been pining over. Maybe you’ve even driven some miles to a brewery to pick up a bottle of a special release. Perhaps you’ve purchased more than a few and found yourself with a closet or cellar full of imperial stout in the middle of the summer. While you can’t go back in time and exchange these bottles for something more summer-friendly, it might be the perfect opportunity to venture into the growing world of beer trading.
But before you run out for a bag of packing peanuts, you must know that shipping alcohol across state lines is tricky — and the postage is usually higher than the beer itself. We suggest that you think of a few beers you really want. Brews you’ve been dying to try that you simply can’t get where you live. For me, those beers were from Jester King, Karbach, St. Arnolds and No Label, all unavailable in my homestate of New York. Through a message board, I found a fellow beer trader in Texas who had access. In exchange, I sent him some local Northeast favorites like Ithaca Flower Power and Tröegs’ Nugget Nectar. Though none of these are particularly rare, they're desirable because of their relative unavailability.
Beer trading is a hobby with a booming and dedicated following, and yes, time and effort is involved. Thousands of beer enthusiasts swap bottles every year, but the unspoken disclaimer is "trade at your own risk." Yes, that’s right; it’s illegal to ship alcohol via USPS, while UPS and Fed Ex require a special a permit which, unless you’re a liquor store, it’s unlikely you have. Despite the frequency of trading, there’s no definitive guide; however, like any collection, the more local or hard-to-find beer you acquire, the more exotic trades you can make, especially older vintages. Here are a few of my own tips to pull it off:
- Search for a trade partner with a proven record
Finding a trade partner can be easy, but finding a reliable one is another story. Beer Advocate even posts a Bad Traders list so you can steer clear of scammers and lazy packers. You should trust members with a record of positive trades.
- Don’t buy beer on eBay. Don't EVER buy beer on eBay.
It’s basically like scalping, which is totally counterproductive to the breweries traders are looking to support. It’s also illegal to sell alcohol on eBay, so sellers list bottles as “empty.” If you actually get an empty bottle, good luck trying to get eBay involved — you’re pretty much out of luck.
- Get used to the lingo
ISO stands for "in search of," which means that’s what people are looking for. FT means "for trade," which is what you can get from them. Many traders have whole list of “gots” and “wants” so even if you don't have exactly what they're looking for in the trade, you still might be able to work something out.
- Don’t skimp on packing materials
This can’t be overstated enough. Newspaper alone will not cut it, though it can be used to fill gaps.
Here is what you will need:
- 1 pack of gallon freezer bags
- 1 pack of quart freezer bags
- 1 large roll of bubble wrap
- 1 large role of tape
- 1 newspaper to fill in the gaps between bottles
- 1 flat-rate shipping box
We realize supplies aren’t cheap, but it’s absolutely critical to wrap each bottle individually in bubble wrap. The neck of the bottle is more fragile than the bottom, so make sure to wrap that carefully. Then put each bottle in a gallon freezer bag. If the bottle happens to break, this will save you a massive headache of getting a wet box returned to you, or even worse, getting your box confiscated completely.
- Shipping is expensive, but so worth it
Expect to pay between $15-30 per box, so make it count. Ideally the trade is "valued" at double the shipping. It’s about the same as if you ordered from an online retailer — though these are potentially brews that can’t be purchased from retailers online or within a car ride. If you come away with several great beers it will be worth a premium.
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