The Whale Hunters: Into the Depths of Beer Trading

You’ll find them in cellars, basements, and dark closets across the country: row after row of boxes, some unmarked, others scribbled over with marker or pen. They’re packed with a hard-earned hoard, treasures amassed from months or years of research, meetings, and negotiations.

These are some of the rarest beers in the country, and perhaps the world.

Unless you’re the type of jet-setting beer geek who devotes your life to full-time beer tourism, this kind of collection is pretty much impossible to get without beer trading. Like beer pairing or beer-themed dinners, trading is something most casual fans have probably heard of but don’t know that much about.

The trading community can seem closed off, even secretive. We might hear about a beer share or spot a trading session at the brewpub, but we’re not invited in. The web presence can be even worse—tons of acronyms, long lists of rules, confusion about what’s legal, and unwritten rules of etiquette.

To peel back the curtain on beer trading, I sat down with two veteran traders:

Over about 4 years of trading, Josh Troiano has accumulated hundreds of bottles, ranging from fresh New England IPAs to Belgian classics like Westvleteren 12 to stouts like Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s and Toppling Goliath’s Mornin’ Delight. Based in the Pittsburgh area, a recent trade netted him all five imperial stouts in the “weekday set” from Tampa’s Cycle Brewing.

Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione once called Tom Greenwood a “true evangelist of beer.” Between his full-time efforts at southern Delaware beer store R & L Liquors (which Men’s Journal named one of the 50 best beer stores in America), attendance at community beer events, and active status in the beer sharing and trading community, Tom more than lives up to that title.

Both Josh and Tom were eager to share their knowledge of trading and demonstrate that the community is much more welcoming than it sometimes appears.

Julian: So why trade –what’s the value of it?

Josh: It’s really the only way to acquire a lot of beers that aren’t in my distribution area, or are from limited runs that sell out immediately. Beyond that, you get to meet a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Tom: It would be great to get all the whales in the world, but my principle object is to make connections and maintain relationships with people from other areas. It’s really a great community to be a part of.

Julian: How did you get started with trading?

Tom: For me, it all started with Dogfish Head. Southern Delaware got some limited releases, especially big bottles, 750s. I was able to get some and start aging them, which gave me something worth trading. Those beers were valuable here, where they were brewed, but they were even more valuable elsewhere.

Josh: I was on beeradvocate.com and saw they had several trading groups. I didn’t want to mail because the legalities are iffy, but they have one group for in-person trades. The first trade I ever did was for some Bourbon County Coffee, and it went really well.

Julian: Let’s walk through the trading process. To start, how do you find people to trade with, and how do you know those people are trustworthy?

Josh: I started with the Beer Advocate groups, and then I joined four different Facebook groups. Beer Advocate tracks your trades, and you can look through traders’ feedback. Within the Facebook groups, there are lists of “bad traders” to avoid, but you can also ask for a personal reference. That’s normal for trades that start online, if it’s a person you don’t know.

Tom: I meet a lot of people who visit the beer store where I work, many from other parts of the country. They’lI bring me beer, and then I’ll give them something in return. I juggle about 10-11 people at a time. I’ll talk to them about beer releases, go to beer shares, and then do trades with them.

Josh: It’s great to establish a relationship. You can find dedicated trade partners, especially ones who live near a brewery you like. That way, you can set up periodic trades.

Julian: What about the beer itself? What’s good for trading?

Tom: I’m willing to experiment with the things I get, but I learned to stay away from stuff that’s 7-9% alcohol. I’m shooting for beer over 10% so that I can stock it away and age it, which makes it more valuable. Since I started trading, I have a greater appreciation for saisons and farmhouse ales, things that get a lot more interesting over time.

Josh: When I look for new beer, I’m browsing the web, searching for special releases. I trade for things where you’d have to win a lottery or stand in line at the brewery to purchase them–that’s more worthwhile than something that’s in a store.

Julian: So moving to the actual trade – how do you set it up?

Josh: Once I know what I want, I try to find a good valuation of what I’m trading for. On sites like beerblackbook.com or mybeercellar.com, people show receipts of what they’ve paid or traded for a beer.

So I try to find out how much what I want will cost, and then get together some beers I already have that match that beer in dollar value. I’ll use something desirable that I have to acquire what I want.

Online, I can do a post and say, “I have these 2 beers and I’m looking for these 2 beers in exchange.” People might have what you’re asking for or throw out other offers. It becomes an open discussion, but the rarer the beer, the more negotiating. If I’m looking from something really rare, I might have to swap beers out from my offer or add beers to it.

Tom: My trading partners and I will text. We’ll send each other pictures and say, “this is what I’ve got. What are you going to come up with?” And then if it makes them happy, you load up a box for them; if not, you add to your offer. Communication is a big part of it.

Julian: I’ve heard that traders often throw in “bonus” bottles as part of a trade. Is that common?

Josh: You don’t have to do that, but it’s nice to do and helps your trade accountability.

But there are some caveats: don’t send out-of-date IPAs as your extras. Don’t just open your fridge and add something random. That can be seen as an insult. Good extras are something you can buy locally but the other person can’t get where they live.

Tom: And I like to see pictures of everything they’re planning to give me, so I can eliminate ones I’ve already had or have no intention of cellaring. I’ll pick up some if I know they can wait at least a month, so I don’t have to drink them right away.

Julian: What about shipping the beer, instead of trading in person?

Josh: I avoid it. Remember: it’s illegal to ship beer through USPS, UPS, and FedEx. But I know plenty of traders do it.

Tom: That’s why I like to trade with people when they come visit the area.

Julian: I’m guessing you’ve still read or heard a lot about issues with shipping.

Tom: I know shipping requires a bit of learning. With high shipping costs, both sides of the trade have to be valuable. And in case something breaks, people try to send their trading partner pictures before they ship it, to show it in good condition and packed properly.

Josh: People put bottles in a ziplock bag and make that secure, so even if it breaks the liquid won’t seep through. That’s a way to avoid having the whole shipment confiscated if even one bottle breaks. Then people will use bubblewrap, package it really tight so nothing moves around.

I’ve even heard about people putting a noisemaker in there – something like TicTacs or dry macaroni so you hear that noise instead of the liquid swishing around. One guy even showed me a baby rattle that came in a trade.

Julian: Wrapping up, what would you say to someone who’s interested in starting trading?

Josh: It’s definitely about more than beer. Through trading, you find people who share other interests too. I’ve traded bourbon for beer, boxes of cigars for beer, beer for bourbon. It’s a bartering system. There’s even a Facebook group that allows trading of anything for beer: sports tickets, TVs, Playstations.

Again, I really like the in-person trading. Once you get into it, you get invited to bottle shares, get a sense of camaraderie, help people out who end up sharing with you.

Tom: There’s a huge investment – financially, and in terms of time – but it’s worth it. I’ve taken to labeling bottles with people’s names so I can thank them when I open the beer. It’s always fun to go on Untappd and see where people have toasted me for a beer I traded them.

The people in this community are really nice, and they’re nice to be around. With trading, they’re seeking a form of happiness. You can get a lot of happiness from sharing. And, of course, from beer.

 

After we first published this article, we received a link from one of our readers to a Beer Trading Glossary they created. The site contains definitions and explanations for many of the abbreviations and acronyms used in the beer trading community

Julian Cantella

Julian Cantella

Professional writer based in Delaware. On the lookout for brain-altering music, beer, film, food, and people.
Julian Cantella

4 thoughts on “The Whale Hunters: Into the Depths of Beer Trading”

  1. Julian is right, beer shares are an opportunity to at last try a beer and get trading “creds” for having held on to such a “whale.” The tricky part is figuring out when to disturb that beer and yank it from it’s slumber to sample.

     
  2. Julian this a great read. I’ve always wondered about the beer trading community as I’ve only traded between friends.
    Did they have any additional comments on when they decide to actually drink a highly sought after beer? I sometimes keep beers so long that they just become trophies.

     
    1. Thanks David. Both traders certainly have a large backlog of beer, but they both pull relatively regularly from their collection. Beyond that, special events and beer shares seem to be a common excuse for opening a particularly rare bottle.

       

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