Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
August 6, 2018 - “Beer It Forward”
I have to say, I haven’t much dabbled in the world of beer geeks, though my spouse would surely consider me one. But when a friend recently sent me a New York Times article about two strangers meeting in a Manhattan park for the express purpose of making a “beer trade”, it broadened my perspective on the craft beer culture. The renaissance and reinvention of beer brewing over the last 20 years has created an explosion of diverse, tasty and re-imagined beers. Not just in North America, but in places like Germany, France, and England. But how do you get your hands on some of these delightful, sometimes limited availability beers in a world that limits the cross border flow of alcoholic beverages? The answer lies in the social media space between the tap room and the retail store.
Referred to colloquially as the “Beer it Forward” community, online beer trading forums are proliferating to provide beer enthusiasts the means to connect with like-minded seekers of one-off, small batch, or hard to get beers. It’s a quasi-legal world that operates on a “beer for beer” transaction basis. No cash is involved (in fact, trading beer for cash is illegal), and therefore falls under the umbrella of bartering. To get some of the rarest beers, you often have to do progressive trades. It can take a while to get your hands on that coveted bottle. The trading system is self-regulated; traders police each other to keep fraud at bay and form grassroots networks of trusty peers to move beer across provinces or between state lines. Many forums track the successful delivery of beer, and publicly shame traders who don’t come through on their end of the deal. There is wide-ranging advice about the best way to ship beer, as it’s not exactly legal to transport or mail it. Most traders get fairly “creative” in disguising what they’re shipping. From what I can tell, traders describe their package “contents” as bottles of olive oil, bbq sauce, or even yeast samples (which I guess is pretty much a true statement).
To the uninitiated, it may seem like a risky process. However, there are a myriad of online forums that offer tips on how to get started. The BeerAdvocate started posting online beer trades in the 1990’s and now boasts one of the largest beer trading communities, with thousands of members around the world. In 2012 they put together a “Beer Trading 101” guide and developed a proprietary trade-tracking app. BottleTrade.com was established in 2013, providing a dedicated social network to help “propel the craft beer revolution” based on the bottle-for-bottle “barter” system (though they seem to be strictly focused on the US trading market). Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook all are known to have access to trading networks.
Despite the existence of articles and rookie trader information in the sources above, it is highly recommended that you observe other trade threads for a while, then slowly dip in your proverbial toe before initiating trades with online veterans. Online trade forums have their own vernacular with abbreviations and shorthand that make some of the posts undecipherable. The basics include ISO “in search of”, FT “for trade”, $4$ “dollar for dollar” (as in, you’re looking to trade a beer for roughly the equivalent value of something in return). My favourites include looking for a “whale” (a reference to Moby Dick, for enthusiasts who are chasing after that rarest of beers) or “shelf turd” (a common beer that is so widely distributed it isn’t really valuable as a trade).
Why might beer trading be for you? Well, most beer sales from small and medium-sized breweries are limited by geography or small-batch availability. Many don’t have an intention to sell outside of their own province (or are unable to do so due to interprovincial trade laws). That means that some of the best-crafted, tastiest beers in the world become inaccessible…unless you trade for them. Moreover, as the online beer trading community likes to point out - it really isn’t about the beer; it’s about the bonding power of sharing a pint and spreading the word about good brewers and great beer experiences.
So, if you’ve got easy access to a local beer that might be prized by a non-local, or you want to get your hands on that elusive “whale” of a beer, start exploring the world of online beer trading, and “beer it forward”. You can make new friends in the strangest of places…