Request Pending: Inside the Members-Only World of Online Beer Trading

Since 2004, Russian River Brewing Company has built a whirring local tourist economy around the yearly release of its famously hoppy triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, available on draft at its Sonoma County brewpubs, then distributed in kegs to a small number of area bars a week later. Last February, during its 15th annual Pliny release, the beer generated more than $4 million in visitor revenue, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. But this month’s 16th annual Pliny release resulted in a whole new secondary economy. For the first time, Russian River put the previously draft-only beer in bottles, limiting in-person, to-go sales of Pliny to two per customer and labeling bottles “not for resale.” Nice try. Pliny was soon available FT (“for trade”) on Facebook trading groups, offered ISO (“in search of,” or in exchange for) other rare beers, or available for cold hard cash, commanding many times its original $10 per 510-milliliter bottle price at the brewery.

Charging $155 for a single bottle of beer, as some did for Pliny, might cause the average beer drinker to spit out their average beer. But for a passionate community of craft beer aficionados who trade and resell rare beers online, that price was just business as usual.

As the American craft beer industry continues to grow, an online secondary market for rare or hard-to-find beer has taken up in its shadow. Highly perishable IPAs like Pliny the Younger aren’t typically traded due to their short shelf life. Instead, it’s barrel-aged stouts or wild-fermented lambics — beers with longer lifespans that take more time and effort to produce — that make for good and potentially lucrative trading. “The most valuable bottles are ones that are super limited, expensive at retail, and allocated very slimly,” explains beer blogger and podcaster Alex Kidd: beers like Toppling Goliath’s Assassin, Perennial Artisan Ales’ Maman, and one-offs from breweries like Hill Farmstead, Jester King, and Side Project Brewing. “A one-per-person bottle release probably has the best chance of hitting the highest margin, because the person giving that bottle up probably has the highest opportunity costs.”

Beers rarely retail for more than $30, but a bottle’s secondary value might be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. “There are a few [traders] that make a considerable amount of money,” says Kidd. But for the most part, that’s not the point: Traders are estimating a beer’s dollar value and exchanging beer for similarly valued beer, not cash. “They’re converting [a beer] to 300 dollars, so they can get another 300 bottle… because there’s no beer bucks or a beer-backed security they can swap,” says Kidd. “It looks like they’re profiting from these crazy sums, but these are not really super-wealthy people.”

Beer trading became common in the 2010s on sites like Beer Advocate, RateBeer, and Reddit. Technically, the U.S. Postal Service bans the shipment of any alcohol, and FedEx and UPS won’t knowingly ship booze, either. But it’s the way brewers like Connor Casey of San Francisco’s Cellarmaker Brewing Co. were able to take inspiration from distant breweries, allowing him to sample the once-rare, now-trendy Galaxy hop, for instance. “Was I trying it in its best shape [shipped across the country]? No. Was I grateful to have tried it? Yeah,” says Casey, who now frequently brews with Galaxy.

Beer traders themselves have gained a somewhat unflattering reputation, according to Kidd. “If I’m going to paint with a broad brush,” he says, “the usual type of beer-trader guy is a profiteering, libertarian, market sets the value, you can’t tell me what to do with my bottle once I have it type of mentality.”

But that’s far from everybody. Kidd says he’s sent out more than 2,000 beers in trades. “It’s the lifeline of the rare stuff I get,” he says, how his podcast, blog, and beer world-infamous Instagram account, @dontdrinkbeers, are all made possible.

But in past years, RateBeer sold a stake to A-B InBev, blowing its credibility with beer geeks, and Beer Advocate banned commentary on trades, frustrating users. Even Reddit shut down its beer-trading hub, r/beertrade. Now, most of the action occurs in private, members-only Facebook groups. Some are general, while many are devoted to a single region or popular brewery.

David Roberts of Washington runs one such group, called Floodland: Seekers After Light. Its 1,100 members — all approved by Roberts – are dedicated to trades involving the Washington-based Floodland Brewing. Trade posts follow a standard format: “FT: Protection Spells or Muscat or Timework Aflame,” reads one offer, advertising three barrel-aged beers from Floodland. “ISO: One fresh Pliny the Younger and one Pliny the Elder.” Negotiations and peanut-gallery evaluations of the trade and the beers involved ensue in the comments below.

“We try to keep everything super transparent and out in the open,” says Roberts (once a user is accepted to the Facebook group, that is). After a trade is agreed upon, parties announce it closed and conduct the transaction over private messages or off Facebook. “There’s not a lot of moderation involved,” Roberts says. “There’s rules posted at the top of the page, but it’s pretty simple.”

Things could soon get harder. Last year, Facebook formally banned the sale of alcohol and tobacco between users, shutting down a number of high-profile bourbon-trading groups. Beer-trading group admins also fear Facebook’s cross-hairs, and rightly so, as several have already been banned.

“You’re seeing a lot more secrecy in these groups now,” Kidd says. “It’s exceedingly difficult to get into some of [them] … there’s precious few places to go and engage in this subculture at this point.”

Legally suspect “Beer Razzle” groups are even more secretive. Razzles are just raffles, their name likely obscured to escape notice from moderators. Think Powerball, but for rare beer, explains Kidd: “It’s essentially [for] if you can’t afford the $450 cost of entry on a bottle like Side Project BBT, but you want a shot at trying it.” A “razzler” might pay $50 for a chance to win the bottle by picking a ball number: If it’s pulled, they’ll get the beer. Razzlers don’t actually conduct the raffle themselves; they just tie their razzle to a real lottery, such as the actual Powerball, for fairness and simplicity. One Chicago beer group on Facebook called “Candy Enthusiasts” suggests selling slots tied to the Illinois Pick 3 lottery. Its profile picture is of the candy Razzles.

Razzles have a negative reputation, but they’re also democratic, in their way. “It gives people who don’t have the disposable income to belly up to the table,” says Kidd. “And if you win, it’s almost more intense than having bought it outright.”

The more straightforward website My Beer Collectibles (MBC) offers an alternative to light gambling and cloak-and-dagger Facebook groups for its 25,000 active users. Its founder, who would not provide his full name, started MBC in 2012 as “the eBay of beer”: Bottles or sets of them are available for auction, or offered for sale at a fixed price. Sellers take precautions to skirt laws around selling alcohol by specifying that they’re selling bottles, not what’s in them. “All bottles or cans are sold for their collectibility and any contents are incidental,” one seller caveats a listing.

Payments are conducted over Paypal, and MBC gets a 2 percent commission. It’s easier than a beer-for-beer trade, the site’s founder says. “Trying to find the other side that’s got the exact thing you’re looking for, and negotiating what it’s worth is [difficult].”

Ideally, a system of trading and selling one-off bottles helps small breweries without expensive distribution deals reach new customers in distant markets. “I’ve met breweries that are all for a site like My Beer Collectibles because it gets their product in the hands of people who wouldn’t normally see it,” says the site’s founder.

“A brewery like ours can’t legally ship beer,” says Casey of Cellarmaker, who is against reselling beer for cash, but doesn’t oppose beer-for-beer trades. Now he sees people drinking Cellarmaker all over the country. “To find out you have a fanbase in other states or cities is cool.”

But if taken too far, secondary sales and trades can erode primary sales to locals. On his Instagram account @dontdrinkbeers, Kidd depicts the system in meme form, laid over an image of Justin Trudeau at a Calgary flapjack breakfast. The prime minister is labeled a “shitlord profiteer” buying up beer, his spatula is “the secondary market,” and he’s flipping a pancake that represents “bottles some local could have purchased and enjoyed.”

To prevent that outcome, some breweries have tried to police resales, enforcing strict rules at bottle releases and banning known resellers. Two Washington beer fans, Jeremy Miller and Amanda Adams Isherwood, caused a minor online imbroglio this winter after they drove 200 miles to pick up limited-release beers at Floodland in Seattle — and were promptly banned for life for violating the brewery’s rule of one beer allotment per “romantic couple.”

“We just figured this was a rule that would be difficult to enforce and was designed to prevent reselling beer,” says Miller, who claims he never planned to sell his allotment.

Miller argued the banning was sexist — the implication being that Isherwood wasn’t buying the beer for herself, but for her partner — and criticized Floodland on the Holy Mountain Brewing Facebook trading group, which he co-founded. “As far as drama, it ballooned pretty quick,” says David Roberts, the Floodland Facebook trading group admin and a Holy Mountain Group member. “There were 600 comments in less than a day… a lot of it was people just piling on.”

Floodland seems likely to keep fighting the secondary market, cracking down on trading beer for profit. But the battle could be futile. The more rules and the more drama, the more people join the Floodland trading group, that group’s admin says.

Casey has decided to just accept the facts. ”People are trading beer, they’re excited about beer — what are you gonna do, man, shake your fist at them and be like, ‘You’re excited about beer, but you’re not doing it right’?” As long as traders aren’t seeking profit, he means, there’s no real harm. Beers might not arrive in ship-shape condition, but that’s better than nothing: Without a few daring traders, Cellarmaker wouldn’t reach new fans outside of San Francisco, and getting that early taste might lure new drinkers into eventually visiting the brewery.

Even an expensive bottle that might seem to imply exclusivity has the potential to bring people together, both online and in person. “A person who buys a $500 beer is not necessarily the same person who buys a $500 Canada Goose jacket, because what they’ll do is they’ll split [the bottle] 10 ways just so each person at some backyard share gets a 2-ounce pour,” Kidd says. “Share” might not be the right word: Drinkers can reasonably expect to pay the organizer $50 per pour, cash or Paypal accepted.

Carolyn Figel is an illustrator and animator based in Brooklyn, New York.