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How to Trade Beer Online

In the world of craft beer, there is a thriving subculture that continues to grow beneath the surface, impacting the entire industry. I’m speaking, of course, of the beer trading scene.

The concept is simple enough: Trade a beer you have for one you want or one that might not be as readily available in your area.

Despite that simple definition, there is much, much more that goes into this popular hobby ­– knowing the etiquette, learning the language and navigating some of the legal and ethical challenges of trading beer.

The act of bartering is nothing new. People have been exchanging goods and services for centuries. As the number of breweries, beer styles, and beer options increased and drinkers’ interests grew over the last few decades, the practice of trading beer skyrocketed. Websites such as Beer Advocate and RateBeer have seen trading activity since the late 90s. Until earlier this year, Reddit had been a prominent hot spot for beer trades since 2005. (A spokesperson said the site updated its content policy to forbid transactions on alcohol.)

But the true fuel to the fire came from the rise of social media. Facebook groups devoted to trading beer are in abundance. The Craft Beer Trading Society has more than 11,000 members that published 700 posts for trades in 30 days. Other groups include BEER TRADE 4 YOU with almost 5,000 members and Beer Trading 101 with more than 7,000 members. There are also regional groups, such as Beer Trade Chicago & Burbs with more than 3,000 members and Oklahoma Beer Trader with about 1,500 members.

“The more connected we become, the easier it gets to trade beer,” says Mark Iafrate, co-founder of The Beer Exchange, an app and social network where people can trade beer. According to Iafrate, there are tens of thousands of registered users that have traded more than 25,000 unique beers from 5,000 craft breweries.

“People now scroll through Instagram, see users showing off their beer, and say ‘Hey, I want to try that’,” he says. “Beer trading has allowed people to become friends with someone on the other side of the country simply from an affinity to want to try new beer.”

And while making a new friend thousands of miles away sounds lovely, it leads to the elephant in the room – the gray area of shipping beer. Shipping laws are ever-changing and somewhat complex, but here are the need-to-know details: It’s illegal to ship beer via the United States Postal Service (USPS). For UPS and FedEx, it isn’t necessarily illegal, but it is against their policy to send alcohol without a license. According to the Beer Exchange’s guide to shipping beer, it’s common knowledge that thousands of people are shipping beer anyways by simply stating it is something else when asked (artisanal olive oil, anyone?).

People now scroll through Instagram, see users showing off their beer, and say ‘Hey, I want to try that’,” says Mark Iafrate, co-founder of The Beer Exchange. “Beer trading has allowed people to become friends with someone on the other side of the country simply from an affinity to want to try new beer.”

One way around the intricacy of shipping is in-person trading, something that Sylvia Benavidez, founder of the app 4TradeCraft, is hoping will increase. The app approaches trading in the same style as dating app Tinder, which matches beers from your cellar with the ones you swipe right on in your geographic area.

“This way you get to know people around you that are interested in beer, too, and appreciate the social aspect of it,” she says. “You build a beer friendship for life.”

Regardless of whether a trade is happening near or far, there is always a question of how to determine what a beer’s worth is and what warrants “a good trade.”

“The value of a beer in the secondary market is whatever people want it to be,” says Iafrate. Essentially, a beer is going to have less value to the person who can walk to the brewery or local bottle shop and get said beer whenever they want. The beers that see action on trading forums are usually limited releases from really small breweries, beers that are restricted to a minuscule geographic area or vintage, barrel-aged beers that have been aged for a while.

Some of the most-traded beers or “whales” on these forums and trading groups (along with their acronym) include Cigar City Brewing’s Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (Huna), Toppling Goliath’s Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout (KBBS), Founders Brewing’s Canadian Breakfast Stout and Kentucky Breakfast Stout (CBS and KBS), The Alchemist’s Heady Topper (HT), 3 Floyds Dark Lord Imperial Stout (DL), Russian River’s Pliny The Younger (PtY), The Bruery’s Black Tuesday (BT), Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA (120), Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout line (BCS), and Perennial Artisan Ales’s Barrel-Aged Abraxas (BAA).

As far as what all of this trading means for the industry overall, it seems to be a good thing. The American Brewers Association doesn’t have an official stance on beer trading, but Craft Beer Program Web Manager Andy Sparhawk says it seems to be a fun, communal way to taste and enjoy beer.

As far as the influence on the industry, he says it’s difficult to identify any solid impact because of the post-purchase, consumer-to-consumer aspect of beer trading. “One’s best guess on trading is that it has highlighted and helped amplify many brewers, beers and beer styles to a larger audience that would not have had access to information about these beers before,” Sparhawk says.

One of the most popular and widely sought after beers via online beer trading is the Bourbon County line of beers from Goose Island. Photo Courtesy Goose Island Brewing Co.

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