Craze for craft brews creates black market
By LISA RATHKE
The Associated Press | December 07,2013
AP File Photo
Cans of Heady Topper roll off the line at The Alchemist in Waterbury. It's one of the sought-after brews that are traded or illegally sold among connoisseurs.
MONTPELIER — Fancy a pint of Pliny the Elder or Heady Topper double India pale ales, but can’t find it in your neighborhood? Get out your wallet.
As craft brews gain an intense following, a black market has bloomed in which some opportunists are selling for hundreds of dollars top-rated beers that are hard to find, in short supply, expensive or illegal to ship.
A Burlington woman was charged recently with selling five cases of the popular Heady Topper for $825 on Craigslist, which brought about mixed feelings for its brewer.
“It’s a compliment in an odd way,” said Jen Kimmich, owner of The Alchemist brewery in Waterbury, which produces Heady Topper. The hoppy concoction, which retails for $3 a can and $72 a case, was recently ranked No. 1 by Beer Advocate magazine out of the top 250 beers in the world.
“But at the same time,” she added, “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.”
The beer is so popular that The Alchemist recently closed its retail shop in Waterbury to appease neighbors concerned about traffic. In the weeks since, a half dozen posts have appeared on Craigslist — including from southern California, Chicago and Boston — clamoring for the stuff. Craigslist did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Beer geeks often trade coveted craft brews with no money changing hands to get hard-to-find beers that may be sold only in certain states or countries, in limited amounts or only in draft form.
To get them might require a beer mule, who will transport the brews to the consumer, or someone who will buy them from the brewery and ship them, said Joe Tucker, executive director of the RateBeer website.
“It’s done because the rarity of these releases, the prestige of these releases is a huge driver,” he said.
Plenty of trading is done illegally, which RateBeer tries to discourage, he said. He said he once got an unsolicited shipment labeled the Belgian Coffee Company that contained the site’s highest-rated beer.
The practice of trading beer doesn’t bother most brewers. But buying beer, marking up the price and selling it is another matter. It’s illegal in the U.S. to sell alcohol online without a license.
Yet at least hundreds of posts daily last year on eBay offered hard-to-get beers at astronomical prices, said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner and president of Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa, Calif. She spotted the brewery’s flagship Pliny the Elder, which sells for $5 a bottle, going for between $15 and $50, and its discontinued Toronado anniversary beer, which sold for about $25 at the brewery, being auctioned for about $700 last year.
“It was out of control,” she said. “People were running liquor stores on eBay without any accountability.”
She cited the steps her company took that black market sellers are skipping: acquiring liquor and business licenses; paying sales, property and other taxes; and selling responsibly. She pointed out the dangers of selling to minors online or the questions of who would be responsible if a drunken driver who’d bought beer sold illegally online killed someone.
She decided she had to stand up for the breweries.
“It was not just our beer but a lot of our friends’,” she said. “And I really felt like I needed to be an advocate for everybody.”
She went to state regulators, who set up a meeting with eBay. She said eBay was unaware of the practice but committed to ending it. EBay responded to an interview request by referring to its site, which says that it doesn’t allow any container with alcohol, even if it’s considered collectible.
While brewers and states might not have the resources to police illegal sales online, beer lovers are doing their part.
“We have a lot of consumers out there that really care about our brewery as well as many other breweries, and they’re really kind of our ambassadors, if you will,” Cilurzo said. “And they’ll notify us if they see something strange online.”