Nicholas Hall's picture

'Local Shelf' Brings Home Out-of-State Beers

The Local Shelf Beer Mystery Box Exchange creates camaraderie across state lines with online beer trades.
Online Beer Trades Florida Beers
A selection of Florida's craft brews (photo credit: Palm Beach Media Group)

The Local Shelf Beer Mystery Box Exchange doesn’t want your whales. LSBMBE takes a different route from the usual beer trading that takes place online. It's so easy to get wrapped up in the latest special release or that one "shelf whale,” that readily available local beers may get forgotten. Those are exactly the beers the LSBMBE wants to celebrate.

Every round, each member is given an assignment: ship a box of locally brewed and regularly available beer to another swapper. That's it. An air of generosity surrounds the group and each box typically contains a host of "extras," such as brewery-branded glassware or limited releases.

“The idea of the very first event I organized was to close the gap between beer lovers,” said Joe Harris, founder of the LSBMBE. “I wanted to expand the beer horizons of individuals beyond their own communities and states. I live in Texas and I want to be able to enjoy what my friends drink in Ohio. I think that’s the essence of trading, but we get lost in hunting rare beers and forget about all the variety out there. It’s just awesome to open a box and find a bunch of beer that you can’t buy where you live.”

Harris started the group on Facebook in the summer of 2014. Initially, it was conceived as a one-off event for friends and fellow traders with whom Harris already had a relationship. The trade was a smashing success, and its 50 or so participants began clamoring for more. With the help of a handful of volunteer administrators drafted from that original group, Harris made it official.

“I wanted a group with a sense of community, where all members deserved and received respect,” said Harris. “I decided from the start that anyone who belittled others would not be welcome. With a large group of members participating in our scheduled events, it also built a community of trusted individuals, with whom you could feel comfortable performing direct trades.”

Those regularly scheduled trades, usually focused on a specific theme, are a key feature of the LSBMBE. A given event might focus on high ABV beers, such as the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” trade that occurred over the winter, or on canned beer – a particular point of interest for Harris.

That focus makes it easier for new traders to participate, said Matt Colboth, one of Harris’ volunteer admins. Colboth said the group does not follow the standard “For Trade” or “In Search Of” format.

“You’re trading more for styles than any one particular beer,” said Colboth, who often found himself enjoying the “shelf beers” included in his trades as much as the beers he’d been specifically searching for. “It’s nice to be able to stop by the local bottle shop on Friday evening and buy a six-pack of fresh beer for the night. This group lets someone across the country experience a beer they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to try.”

“The LSBMBE has added a new twist to online beer trading for me in the form of community and relationships,” said Andy Atkinson, a newer member who worked with Harris to launch the first LSBMBE charity swap. For every $20 a member donates to the chosen charity (St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis), they receive an entry in a raffle with a chance to win a “porch bomb” of beer hand-selected by Atkinson to be shipped to the winner’s front door.

As of the start of March, the LSBMBE has swelled to just over 750 members. With the increasing size of the group, and the complexities of managing trades and assignments, Harris moved the functional aspects of the trade enrollment and assignment process to a dedicated website, Group members still meet up online via the original LSBMBE group on Facebook, arranging side-trades and posting giddy pictures of their latest exchanges. There’s an air of positivity about the way the participants interact that seems unique among beer trade groups. Generosity almost seems like an exercise in one-upmanship, as each trader goes above and beyond the required elements of the trade.

Interestingly, that spirit of generosity often means that unexpected “whales” pop up with a fair degree of regularity, added as extras on top of the required local shelf beer allotment.

“The relationships I have built in this group have resulted in obtaining more ‘whales’ than I ever acquired in other trading groups, and usually for a trade value that is roughly equal to retail,” said Harris. “This is how I know my goal to make beer trading about community and not about taking advantage of people is actually a success. You'd be surprised how often a member opens a box full of local shelf beers and finds the beer equivalent of a bar of gold. It's not that the sender needed to send it. It is just an amazing sense of camaraderie that makes these participants want to share great beer with each other. These extras put a smile on the face of the recipient and it’s as if the sender wants to see that smile.”

All in all, Harris estimates that, through the LSBMBE, he’s sampled around 100 new beers from 20 new breweries he might not otherwise have had the opportunity to try. That extends to his locally available beer, with the trades as a catalyst for discovery. “The very first event I hosted, I sought out as much variety as I could to send to my recipient. Of course, I had to buy some for myself as well. I probably tried 15 local beers I had never taken the time to try as a result of that event. I knew we had a lot of local beer, but even I was surprised at just how many there were. Ever since, I never miss a chance to try a local I haven't had before!”

A close-knit community of people whose only goal is to share their love of beer, and beers they love, LSBMBE is worth raising a glass to, preferably with something brewed in another state and made readily available with a trademark Mystery Box.