Trade talk: People are swapping beer all over the country, right under your nose

Trading is a hobby for Jay Campbell, chief buyer at Beer Run. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Trading is a hobby for Jay Campbell, chief buyer at Beer Run. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Ever ask yourself, “Is there any way to make beer uncool?” If so, rest assured the answer is yes. Beer traders have made it so.

Not content to leave behind one of the great hallmarks of childhood dorkdom—swapping stuff with friends—beer traders communicate across the country and occasionally across the pond to locate brews they can’t otherwise get, determine what might be of fair barter value and set up in-person trades or ship each other boxes of sweet, sweet suds.

No, beer trading isn’t a new hobby, but it’s growing faster than ever before. And Charlottesville certainly has its share of these geeks.

“I know a lot of people that trade,” said Brian Martin, an active homebrewer who’s planning to open Charlottesville’s next nano-brewery, St Fuad, sometime this year. “How else would they have beer X, Y or Z? It is common.”

Just how commonly locals trade beer is tough to determine. Though there’s nothing unlawful about trading beer person-to-person, the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibits the practice of shipping alcoholic beverages by anyone who isn’t licensed to do so. Likewise, the U.S. Postal Service and the major private shippers like Fedex and UPS have policies against booze mail. So it’s not something people are necessarily eager to talk about—and when they are they’re more comfortable referring to in-person swaps.

There’s no doubt, though, the practice is more common around the country now than it was 15 years ago. BeerAdvocate started its online trading forum in the late ’90s with only a few members and currently hosts hundreds of daily trades by thousands of members around the world. Other forums have popped up as well, including one on RateBeer and dozens on Facebook like Beer Trading 101, BeerTrader ISO:FT and Casual Beer Traders. In February last year, a new social network devoted entirely to swapping suds, BottleTrade, launched.

“I’ve been trading on a regular basis since early 2010,” Martin said. “I probably do 15-20 trades a year, say one every two to three weeks.”

Martin said one of the things about trading he enjoys is sharing his homebrew, and Beer Run owner Josh Hunt reckons homebrewers indeed launched trading while looking for some homespun distribution back in the day. That quickly turned into people from different areas of the country looking for things they couldn’t find on their local retail shelves.

“What I love about craft beer is it is such a regional phenomenon,” Hunt said. “When I was in my early 20s, I traveled across the country, and I felt like America was just becoming homogenized. Everywhere you went you’d find the same things. What appealed to me about craft beer was that it was different.”

Mike Berman, a financial analyst out of Rockville who’s done some trading, agrees that sharing the local beer love is what beer trading was once all about. But he’s not necessarily been impressed with all the folks who’ve driven the hobby’s growth.

“When I started getting engaged in it, you’d say, ‘I have some great beer coming out of my area, you have some great beers in your area, do you want to swap some beer?’” Berman said. “But it’s become such a big thing that there are a lot of folks out there that are really commoditizing it.”

Indeed, the slippery slope from trading to aftermarket sales would seem to be the main concern for the beer industry.

“The only thing I don’t like is eBay sales,” Champion Brewing Company owner Hunter Smith said. “I get it, but it is bullshit—paying a fair price at the brewery and then reaping money that you had nothing to do with. It’s difficult as a businessperson because you don’t expect to have to account for assholes, but you should. It comes down to: This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Otherwise, Smith supports trading, though he’s careful to advise that no one should be mailing beer. He said he appreciates when locals go out of their way to pick up some of his beer to trade with others out-of-market. It brings exposure and distribution Champion can’t yet get in any other way.

Likewise many beer retailers have enjoyed some benefits from trading. Jay Campbell, Hunt’s chief buyer at Beer Run, sees people come in to buy large amounts of beer for others all the time.

“Obviously it’s great for us,” Campbell said. “We have folks who meet up and have some beer they [brought back] from Colorado, California or even just from North Carolina. It’s always fun for people to share and talk to others about beer.”

That leaves only one more opponent of beer trading, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. At press time, the department had yet to make a statement on the practice, but in brief discussions with a spokesperson, it was clear one of the chief concerns would be the possibility of trades going to minors.

Let that be a lesson to you, beer nerds: Always determine the age of your trading partner before sealing the deal.

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