There are a few big, hot-button issues in the world of craft beer these days. There’s the “Can you still drink beer from former craft breweries owned by macro-brewers?” debate for instance, or the “What really qualifies as ‘session’ beer?” debate.* But the issue of craft beer reselling by non-brewers in the secondary market is the one that generates the most visceral reaction in me personally.
*Also known as “The Lew Bryson Debate.”
Yesterday, Beerpulse ran a story about beers from certain breweries like Cantillon and Hill Farmstead disappearing from eBay, signifying what may well be the first wave in craft beers being removed from the site entirely, with eBay finally recognizing and admitting to the world at large how ridiculous it was that folks claimed to be spending $100 or more to buy the “collectible bottle” of beer with no intent to consume its contents. It should go without saying that these kinds of sales will just move to other sites such as www.beerauctions.com, but in terms of overall volume, the loss of eBay as a place to unload the goods certainly seems as if it would put a dent in just how much beer is sold on the secondary market. It also means the loss of arguably the most secure and safe means of transaction.
Personally, I say “good on them” to the people making this decision. It was absurd to ever allow such resales with the reasoning of “Urrr, I’m only selling the collector’s bottle and the contents are incidental.” Looking completely past whether or not beer resale is “the right thing to do,” if you’re reading this I feel like you should at least concede the point that the eBay model was always stupid. Is there even one person out there who is buying up bottles of Dark Lord and Kate the Great just to stick them around the house like decorative urns? Find me this person. The only reason such a rationale was ever accepted by the website in the first place was that the folks at eBay clearly had a meeting where the company policy was determined to be ”Look, let’s just look past the illegality of licenseless people selling each other alcohol for as long as we can, k?”
You might ask yourself, where do the brewers themselves stand on the issue? Many seem indifferent or resigned to the fact that this is something that will happen no matter what they say, but there are a few who are vocally against the secondary market, and this small segment of brewers includes some of the most respected in the country. Russian River, Cantillon, Alpine Brewing Company and Hill Farmstead are some of the big boys to come out against it. Russian River and Alpine won’t even allow some of their special release beers to be consumed outside the brewpub at this point, because there’s no other recourse they have to combat the smuggling and resale of their beer online. Hill Farmstead has been EXTREMELY vocal about their hatred of beer reselling, and I empathize with them. They consider this eBay move to be a definite victory.
At this point you may very well be asking “So what’s the problem with reselling, anyway? It’s a free market, once I buy something I can do whatever I want with it.” Well yes, I suppose you can. Except for the illegality of actually selling alcohol, there’s no reason you can’t resell the bottles of Dark Lord that you waited in line to acquire. All I can say in defense is that to me, it seems to cheapen the art that went into the creation of each bottle of rare (and therefore valuable beer). It’s a disservice to the time and effort that brewers spent in crafting their product. If you ask those brewers, the people they hope they can get their beer to are the ones who appreciate it the most, and I guarantee you that “the ones who appreciate it the most” do not align with “the ones trying to make $200 a bottle on eBay.”
I got into an argument about this topic the other day on Reddit (as “redjameskidd”), and if you read my back and forth with the fellow (who was perfectly civil, by the way), it’s clear that there are different camps of craft beer fans when it comes to an issue like this, and they’re not likely to change their viewpoints any time soon. His argument, which was that he needed to sell the bottles because they’d sat in his cellar for too long, was alien to me, because if it was me, I would find a way to drink those bottles or share them with friends. I’ve never bought a bottle of beer to sell to someone else, no more than I’ve bought another product like a concert ticket to resell it later. I just find it distasteful. I’m sorry. That’s my opinion.
This person on Reddit seemed to feel that he was entitled to a certain degree of “compensation” for the trouble he had gone through to obtain some bottles of Dark Lord. “I drove eight hours there and back, and stayed two nights at hotels,” he said. “Shouldn’t I be able to recoup some of that costs?” To that I would reply “Yes, you could recoup those costs…if this was your job, and you had access to some kind of expense account.” But this isn’t a job, and that’s the problem, because the beer smugglers and profiteers treat it like a business and not a hobby. If you choose to drive eight hours somewhere, it’s nobody else’s obligation to reimburse your gas money. You don’t get the sense that what motivates these resellers to make those trips is the love of the product, although that passion must be there somewhere. But to travel eight hours each way, just to buy beers that you’re not even going to DRINK? Well that’s just depressing. If you don’t care enough to do this stuff without expecting something in return, then why are you doing it?
I don’t expect some little post like this to influence anybody. Those who rationalize their profiteering on resold beer usually do so by citing the ultimate freedom of “the free market,” where something like a brewer’s opinion is completely moot. These are the people who make the argument of “Well, if Hill Farmstead would just sell all of its bottles for $100 each, there wouldn’t be a secondary market,” as if that solution would somehow fix things.
I think ultimately, this is a battle between the creatively minded and the “realistically minded.” I believe that if you asked most brewers, and certainly a brewer like Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead, he would not list his goal as “Make my business as big as possible and make as much money as I can.” I think he would name his goal as “Create the best beer in the world.” As such, he’s just not going to act in a way that pleases the free market worshipers. These aren’t cold, calculating businessmen, they’re beer geeks.
These men are artists. They treat their beer as they would their own paintings, and their sense of ownership in them is intense and palpable. I’m not about to buy their work with the intent to profit off it instead of enjoying it. I have more respect than that for what they do.
You may begin your idealist-bashing now.