December 7, 2013

Sought-after beers brew up black market

As demand grows for top-rated craft brews, opportunists are finding alternative – and illegal – avenues to reach thirsty fans.

By Lisa Rathke
The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. — 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.

click image to enlarge

Cans of Heady Topper roll off the line at The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt., earlier this year.

File photo/The Associated Press

As craft brews gain an intense following, a black market has bloomed in which opportunists sell for hundreds of dollars top-rated beers that are hard to find, in short supply, expensive or illegal to ship.

In Vermont, a Burlington woman was charged recently with selling five cases of the popular Heady Topper beer 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, Vt., 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.

Beer geeks often trade coveted craft brews with no money changing hands to get hard-to-find beers that may only be sold in certain states or countries, in limited amounts or are 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.

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