Craft Beer Black Market

Craft Beer Black MarketYou may not be willing to shell out big bucks for a great seat (or any seat!) at the big game, but how much are you willing to pay for your favorite craft beer while you’re watching at home? There’s a growing craft beer black market due to the popularity and scarcity of a few great brews.

The craft beer industry is growing (see Craft Beer Growth) and there’s debate about the definition of craft beer (see Fake Craft Beer); however, such growth and demand brings out opportunists who want a piece of the action and profitability… whether or not it’s legal.

Illegal Beer Sales

The craft beer black market made headlines late last year when a 28-year-old Burlington, VT woman was cited by the state’s Department of Liquor Control for allegedly selling Heady Topper, brewed by The Alchemist Brewery located in Waterbury, VT. Why Heady Topper? It’s ranked number one of the top 250 beers by Beeradvocate. It’s also Alchemist’s flagship beer. According to their site, Alchemist is focused on brewing one beer perfectly, and that’s Heady Topper, an American Double IPA, featuring a proprietary blend of six hops, so it delivers plenty of “hop flavor without any astringent bitterness.”

On a side note, this beer’s popularity has created more problems than illegal sales. Alchemist had to close its retail operation in mid-November last year because neighbors began complaining about the level of traffic. According to its blog post: “Last week we made the decision to close our retail shop beginning November 16th. This decision was unplanned and prompted quickly to mitigate ongoing traffic issues and public access concerns. Each week our retail shop has become busier and more chaotic—too much for our physical location—and demand continues to grow.” (The brewery anticipates opening a new retail location in Waterbury Center.)

It was Alchemist Brewery that tipped off the illegal sales, advertised on Craigslist, to the Department of Liquor Control, and the department subsequently set up a sting operation. This case wasn’t an exception. According to BurlingtonFreePress.com’s “Black market for Vermont beer,” a Craigslist perusal turned up 16 entries for Heady Topper including requests stating, “I’m looking for a case of Heady Topper if anyone can pick some up and mail it to me.” And “Willing to pay $100 plus reimbursement for a case of Heady Topper and shipping to Ohio.”

The state does not allow alcohol to be shipped, except for direct shipping by wineries or breweries with proper licensing and shipments controlled by volume. Additionally, the United States Post Office prohibits mailing wine or liquor: Alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, or liquor) are restricted and can’t go in the mail.

There is also a policy against selling alcohol on eBay (“We don’t allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on the US eBay website [eBay.com], except for pre-approved sales of wine”) and Craigslist includes alcohol on its list of prohibited goods.

Trading Beer

There is a lot of beer trading that goes on, and Beeradvocate has created a trading forum. Its rules on the beer-trading forum include: Trades must be beer for beer; no other goods or services, like tickets, booze, proxies/mules. According to “Craze for coveted craft brews spurs black market” (by AP Business Writer, Lisa Rathke, posted on USA Today), there’s a lot of illegal trading that occurs, and RateBeer tries to discourage it, according to Joe Tucker, executive director of RateBeer.com.

While the beer trading practice doesn’t bother most brewers, illegal sales (buying, marking up the price and re-selling) does. In addition to selling beer without a license, there’s no guarantee that the product has been properly stored. Quoted in the AP article, Jen Kimmich, Alchemist owner, said, “It’s a compliment in an odd way, but at the same time, we don’t want to see the consumer being cheated by paying too much and getting a product that hasn’t been taken care of properly.”

Despite a policy against it, there have been plenty of posts on eBay offering hard-to-get beer at inflated prices. A case of Heady Topper retails for $72.00, and the Burlington woman charged with illegally selling it was asking $825 for five cases. Another popular beer, Pliny the Elder by Russian River Brewing, has also appeared on eBay ads with a $5.00 bottle going for $15.00 to $50.00. Also, its Toronado anniversary beer (now discontinued) was being auctioned for $700.00. It sold for $25.00 at the brewery.

So if you really want to try Heady Topper, you can buy it legally at about 150 various restaurants and retail locations in Vermont. Before scheduling your trip, however, check the site as some restaurants only serve it on particular days and not every retail location offers full cases.

Whether or not you can make it there and back before kickoff on Sunday is another question, but keep in mind that the craft beer black market is overpriced and the product may not live up to its reputation.