The world of trading sought-after beers
Many industries have been torn asunder by traitors. Samuel Slater came to America with ill-gotten English cotton manufacturing secrets in the 1700s, and changed not only the textile industry, but all of the downstream industries as well. Père d'Entrecolles visited porcelain factories in China and learned all he could about their processes and kilns while serving as a Jesuit missionary (also in the 1700s), and he shared this exclusive knowledge in letters sent back to France, shattering a monopoly. The shift initiated by the internet has made these historical singularities seem insignificant. Tech can be shared as easily as a text, everybody has a camera in their pocket, and intellectual property has no value cap.
But this article is not about traitors. It is about traders. Beer traders, to be exact. Yes, beer traders. This is not a for-profit kind of thing. By design, it expressly does NOT involve any currency changing hands. It is, at its heart and roots, about folks getting a little more than they need of their favorite beer from their favorite local brewery, and finding like-minded folks in other areas with whom to exchange small batch local-only goodies. This is how the movement started.
When Peter and Tod at The Portsmouth Brewery started noticing people waiting in lines for Kate the Great releases well over a decade ago, that was an unheard of phenomenon. Waiting in line to buy beer? What was this, communist Russia? But wait in line they did. Da, commerade. Happily. Happily, and with bragging rights. It was almost like waiting in line for concert tickets at Strawberries or Tower Records. As this "limited release" concept got more traction, people wanted access to the action without actually having to wait in line. Social media pages were established for folks to trade beers with other folks for other beers. Things got sloppy, people started mentioning money on the sites, and after a shakeup the sites now are more like hook-up bars for people looking for the next cool brew. Swipe right. Or, at least, swipe correct.
Most of the beers being traded early on were "cellarable" beers. Although many of the national breweries want you to believe that all beers should be judged on the basis of their freshness — some beers, like some wines, actually improve with age. Generally, these are higher in alcohol and less dependent on hop character. They are often also dark, and sometimes involve wild yeast, souring bacteria and/or barrel aging. Barley wines, imperial stouts and stock ales all cellar well, and age nicely for a decade or more. These were the poker chips in the early game. They were called “whales.” Whales, brah. Whales.
But by three or four years ago, there were enough rock star breweries packaging super-fresh IPAs in cans that they also had lines outside their doors on release days. The difference was that they had release days multiple days a week. Not once a year. Some varieties came out regularly. Some were yearly releases. A few breweries could release a “unicorn” one-time only release, and still draw hundreds (or thousands) of patrons to buy a beer nobody had ever tried. They also serve who only stand and wait, as Milton said. These beers developed a following, and not everyone could get to the doors three hours before the brewery opened.
Around the same time, some breweries were realizing that people wanted guaranteed access to the good stuff. Some people will gladly pay you Tuesday for a beer you will release next year. People wanted to invest in beer-bellies, to coin a commodity. Enterprising breweries funded barrel-aged programs on subscriptions to the barrel-aged beer they would eventually produce. Brilliant! These beers take time, and breweries are essentially paying rent on the beer in the barrel until it is packaged and sold. However, in the last 18-24 months, the New England-style IPA has come to dominate the New England beer trading scene. EVERYBODY wants tall cans of the newest release. ISO/FT, as they say. In Search Of/For Trade. In other words, I have “this juicy IPA” and I want to trade for “that juicy IPA.”
Happening parallel to this, also fueled by pocket tech, is a thing called "Untapped." It's an app that gives drinkers the ability to document, share, and revisit any and all varieties of beer they have consumed. There are merit badges (scout’s honor), and pictures can be posted with reviews. One of our regular patrons at the brewery recently celebrated his 2,000th unique beer posted on Untapped at our bar.
The implications of this are, like so many gifts of this age of informational Aquarius, a mix of thanks and regrets. Breweries can research where their beers are "checked in," and see how far their grasp exceeds their reach. As a tracker of purely organic, unsolicited demand, these traders check-ins provide a cool glimpse of far-away happenings. Untappd has also turned a number of people into my father. Since the days of plaid upholstery, my father has consulted the oracle of Consumer Reports before any major purchase. Always. New car, without question; cell phone, of course; plantar fasciitis-friendly sneakers, oh heck yeah! Likewise, there are legions of drinkers (and traders) who won’t waste time on anything less than a beer with a blah-point-blah rating. Every pint is researched, no commitments are made without due diligence.
These two communities, the traders and the posters, back and forth and back again, created a feedback loop of sorts that gave enormous lift to some already-ascendant brands. People saw good ratings for OMG awesome beer and traded for it. More people got exposed to OMG awesome beer because of trading than limited distribution would have normally allowed, and they in turn post favorable reviews about OMG awesome beer, creating even more demand. And she told two friends, and they told two friends and so on.
So has the beer world been torn asunder by traders? Obviously not, as this is likely the first time many of you are even hearing about them. But have they terraformed a portion of the beer world? Undoubtedly. Patches, perhaps, patches more interconnected as time progresses. But a revised beer tapestry is forming with wild new forces at work, and traders and posters are weaving much of the warp and weft of what you will see on the beer shelves and draft lines in the days to come.
Remember, this is just my First Draft.