Here’s How to Get Any Beer You Want

December 26, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
A sign lures attendees at the GABF.
Chris Morris

No matter how beer friendly your city or state may be, there’s always something you want to taste that’s just out of reach.

Whether it’s an offering from Russian River, The Alchemist, Three Floyds, or Cigar City, the geographic and production limitations of most breweries can serve as a stumbling block.

That generally leaves you with three options: You can make the trip to that brewery’s home town and try to get your fill there – but that’s a hefty price to pay for a beer that may not live up to the hype. You could also attend the Great American Beer Festival. Again, though, it’s an expensive way to get a taste.

Or, you could simply set up a beer exchange.

Beer trading is technically a gray market, but it’s one that’s growing at a phenomenal rate as more and more people discover the many options of craft beer. The concept is simple: Find a quality beer in your region and trade it for something of equal value in another part of the country.

The best trading partners, of course, are your friends who live scattered around the country. But there are plenty of strangers who are just as happy to make an exchange on message boards such as Reddit, BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. Getting started, though, can be a bit intimidating. Here are a few things you need to know.

Learn to speak the language

You’re going to see all sorts of alphabet soup abbreviations like ISO, FT, BB and IP when you venture onto these message boards. Before you attempt to make a trade, it helps to become fluent. ISO means “in search of.” FT is “for trade.” BB is shorthand for “bourbon barrel.” And IP is “In person.”

And those are the beer trade equivalents of LOL.

Many beers have their own shorthand, which is where things get tricky. A good tool to bookmark is this glossary of terms that are commonly used in the forums.

Know the territory

Get familiar with what brands are already available in the area that offers your desired beer. Good trading manners preclude you from offering something your trading partner can pick up at his or her bottle shop.

In other words, if you’re hoping to get your hands on “Sip of Sunshine” from Lawson’s Finest, don’t offer up something from, say, Against The Grain, since it’s already distributed in Vermont, the state where you’re most likely to find Lawson’s products. A good tool to consult is the SeekABrew website, which lists which beers are distributed in which states throughout the country.

Your money’s no good here

Forget about offering cash for these beers. Traders aren’t in this to pad their bank accounts. They’re genuinely interested in trying new beers. (There are also potential legal ramifications that are best avoided by making a cash exchange.)

Climb the ladder

Be prepared to take a leap of faith. Reputation is important in the trading community and if you’re just getting started, you don’t have one. As a result, you’ll likely be expected to send your beers first. Trading forums are self policed and word will get out quickly about people trying to scam others for free beers, so if you’re dealing with a long-time or even semi-experienced trader, you’ll have nothing to fear.

Shipping dos and don’ts

When you send your beers, be sure to pack them carefully. Very carefully. Taping the bottles in bubble wrap is a good idea and shipping them in a box designed to transport bottles is even better. Keep in mind that should your beer be shattered in transit (and it happens all the time, regardless of how many times you write ‘fragile’ on the box), you’ll be responsible for sending a replacement.

Don’t ship via USPS. That’s a legal no-no. (In fact, a bill introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier that would allow the postal service to ship wine, liquor and beer died in committee earlier this year, despite a long list of cosponsors and the endorsement of several lobbying organizations.)

UPS and FedEx allow it, but often try to tack a surcharge on. To circumvent this, most traders describe their shipments as sauces or olive oil if asked. (Note: Do so at your own risk.)

Beer buddies

Should you find a trading partner who’s especially skilled at getting you the beers you love, it’s always a good idea to stay in touch – or even surprise them from time to time with a no-strings-attached good beer you stumble across. Many beer trades evolve into partnerships and even friendships that keep you both well stocked with beers, and even other regional-specific items, that will both quench your thirst and impress your friends.