Summer Guide: Beer

There is no food in my refrigerator.

Fruits are relegated to the cupboard; cheeses and deli meats turned away entirely. There's a lone gallon of milk and a sad, half-empty bottle of ketchup on the door shelf, but that's it. It's not that I don't eat; I just feel that the machine's cold-storage properties are better spent on other products. Namely, beer.

At this moment, about 60 different bottles of beer from all corners of the country crowd every square inch of space. Twenty-two-ounce bombers of IPA from California mingle with 750 milliliter bottles of cherry ale from Wisconsin, while stouts from Michigan and märzens from Pennsylvania fill the gaps between. It's a diverse, noisy crowd — I'm met with the musical clink of glass-on-glass each time I open the door.

The stack of boxes and bags of packing material in the closet will let you know where they came from. Beer geeks like myself lovingly pack 20-pound boxes of brew and send them across the country to replenish my supply. The bottles constantly rotate, but the fridge never empties. My guilty pleasure? Trading beer.

Everyone remembers their first. Mine was a Coors Light, stolen from the cooler that sat on the "adult" boat during a long, hot day of fishing a lake in Utah. Under cover of night, we sneaked lukewarm bottles of the brew to our cabin and drank them while playing poker. The beer was warm and bubbly. The fact that I was drinking it and getting drunk with my friends at 16 was, of course, awesome.

It was also awful. Just vile. I hated every forbidden sip. Thankfully, my journey to good beer did not end at Adjunct Lager Junction.

Similarly, every beer geek has an "epiphany beer" — the drink that opened his or her eyes to the kaleidoscope of colors and flavors a talented brewer is capable of culling from just a few simple ingredients.

Mine was Consecration, a sour ale made by a small artisanal brewery in San Francisco called Russian River Brewing Co. Dark and Belgian, the beer's brewed with currants and funky yeast, then aged nine months in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. My dad and I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon sipping our way through the 750 milliliter bottle, exploring its depths and discussing our findings. The final drops I managed to eke out of the giant bottle marked my solemn dedication to beer as the One True Beverage. It was, and remains, my favorite beer of all time. I had to have more.

Only problem: Russian River doesn't distribute to Arizona.

The solution: the interwebs. As it has for many other lunatic fringes of society, the wonderful web has created a place for beer nerds to talk about, rate, and trade their favorite beverage. Sites like and are home to a motley crew of geeks who log reviews, post pictures, and set up tastings.

It was on one of these sites I was introduced to the seedy underworld of beer trading. Because many local breweries don't have the same distribution capabilities as the big boys, many world-class beers are available only within their own local markets. This is anathema to beer fanatics who want to try every bottle out there, so beer trading is necessary.

It works thusly: A person creates a forum post detailing beers he's looking for and what he has to trade in return. Interested parties will send him a private message, and the two will work out details such as the total amount of beer, dates for shipping, matching the amount of cash spent on beer, and so on. Beers are purchased and packed up, boxes are shipped, and a few days later two people have boxes full of new brews to try. Hooray!

Here's where the guilt comes in: Shipping beer isn't exactly lawful. The U.S. Postal Service says in the "Intoxicating Liquor" section of its Basic Standards for Mailing Services: "A potable beverage is non-mailable if it is of 0.5 percent or more alcoholic content by weight, which is taxable under Chapter 51, Internal Revenue Service Code." Unless you're sending O'Doul's, you're SOL with the USPS.

Private mail carriers, however, are more lenient. Sure, they all have their guidelines that say "please don't" in so many words — but it's really more of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. As long as the clink of bottles or a beer-soaked box doesn't give away the contents, they usually won't ask questions.

Not that this erodes the fear or repercussions in any way. Beer traders operate in a state of nebulous legality, and with every beer sent, there's the fear that this box will be the one that gets you caught.

Beer trading is a treacherous game. First you have The Man trying to turn you in for not respecting his authority. Then there's the danger of Perry the Postal Worker dropping your box from and shattering every bottle inside. Plus, with the cost of shipping and packing material, you're definitely paying more per bottle than you would by purchasing it off the shelf. So why do it at all?

Remember how you felt as a kid when you walked into your living room on Christmas morning? You squealed with joy as you tore into mysterious boxes, excited to discover what was waiting inside.

That's how I feel all the time. There's nothing like finding a box of unmarked cardboard on your doorstep and slowly fishing out the treats inside, each bottle better than the last.

The people behind the beer are even more epic than the brews they send. The beer community is filled with some of the most incredibly passionate and generous people you'll ever meet. Through trading, I've made great friends all over the country I could visit anytime — and when I do, I know the beer fridge will always be full.

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Zach Fowle
Contact: Zach Fowle