NO BEER SALES ON EBAY? FINE WITH ME

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.

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26 comments

  1. Great post! Its always been one of pet peeves of mine that people will get hold of some rare craft beers and sell them for a King’s ransom on EBay….yes, I’d like to get my hands on a Founders CBS one day, but to pay $100 for one bottle? I’m glad EBay is getting in line behind this movement!

  2. Vary nicely done.

  3. Gene Fruit · ·

    http://beerauctions.com/ – bottom of the page

    BeerAuctions.com aggregates craft beer and breweriana auctions from eBay, beer books from Amazon, and beer news & links from around the web.

    This site carries no inventory and does not actually own or sell any beer. You will be linked to a 3rd party site for all purchases, potentially earning this site a commission.

    1. Aha, well then. I guess somebody else will have to take on the semi-legality of it.

  4. Wait-a-minute, how else am I supposed to make thousands upon thousands of dollars for my complete set of The Bruery’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” when we reach the end in eight years? That’s a lot of valuable cellar/fridge space to simply “drink away.”

  5. “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.” That’s just madness.

  6. 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.”

    Ah, but “the ones who appreciate it most” aligns more closely with “the ones willing to pay $200 a bottle on eBay.”

    1. Or “the ones who happen to be wealthy and thus don’t care what the cost is.”

  7. aylwin forbes · ·

    This being a “free” country as they say, I suppose folks are totally at liberty to sell their possessions to whomever wishes to buy them. If people are prepared to spend such lofty sums to purchase a bottle of beer, why excoriate the seller for enabling the purchase? Personally, I am with the writer in not buying bottles (or DLD tix) simply for the purpose of selling to others at high gain; I would much rather share with those of like mind.

    If you think the situation is bad with beer, it pales into comparison with the wine world, where auctions of fine wines for preposterous prices is positively celebrated.

    1. Well there is the fact that it’s illegal for regular shmoes to sell alcohol to consider. It’s like if you buy a gun–can you just sell put it on eBay and sell it to anyone, regardless of whether or not that person has a license?

      1. caucasian1975 · ·

        As far as the legality goes, technically it is illegal. But taxes were already paid on the beer when it was first bought and i don’t have confidence that additional tax revenue from resell would be used properly. Further more i can’t go into a movie theatre with a growler of pliny the younger and get into too much trouble. (too soon?)

  8. I think the solution is to stop making great beer. Or maybe make more great beer. Or maybe have everyone make great beer, then everything is great, so nothing will be considered extra great. Unless it’s aged in a Bourbon barrel. Then it will be extra great. I wonder how much that extra great beer would go for on eBay?

  9. Sir Breton Mices · ·

    I’ve read (almost) every article/post/comment on your site over the past few months, and I really appreciate and enjoy your humor and insights (from all of you regular posters, not just Kid Carboy Jr.). So thank you for having such a great site!

    The news that eBay is cracking down on beer sales saddens me.

    A bit about me: I’ve only been seriously turned onto craft beer for about a year now, and I’ve just recently expanded my horizons beyond the West coast (I’m in Los Angeles). Sure, I’ve been a member of BA for a while now, but I’m not involved in the “community” because certain elements don’t appeal to me. I do support the site though a magazine subscription, but I would contribute more if they had a PayPal donation option (*hint hint* Aleheads). In general, I believe in compensating/rewarding people when they provide me something of value, and I consider myself a generous person. I also spend 60-80 hours working full time and going to school part time, so I don’t have a lot of extra time or energy to arrange complicate trades through some barter system, let alone buy beers specifically to trade. You can see why occasionally buying beer through eBay can be very convenient for me…

    Apart from flying outside of CA, or personally building a relationship with someone in another state, I don’t know how else I could get offerings from Founders, Bells, Odell, Cigar City, etc, outside of eBay. I have still never tasted anything by Founders or Cigar City, but it was comforting to know that at least eBay was available to me (that is, after I finish drinking 100 or so bottles in my cellar).

    When I’ve bought beer through eBay, it has always been something that is not distributed to Los Angeles and sold at a markup (usually 50-200% plus shipping costs). Some secondary markets have the potential for widespread profit (like ticket scalping and many other eBay goods) but even the “heavy” craft beer sellers don’t seem (to me) to be making much total “profit.” (I think of “profit” as the excess money they earn, net the costs of their time, expenses, shipping and PayPal fees, etc.). In the example about selling Dark Lord at a markup – it would cost me way more than $60 (a recent eBay listing for 2012 including shipping) to obtain a bottle, so I would be personally getting a deal for 60 bucks (although I’ve never bought a bottle myself). In Los Angeles, it’s common to tip $15+ on all sorts of things (meals, haircuts, etc) or even give it to homeless people for no good reason at all, so tipping someone who’s helping me get fantastic beer (even if they only have to go to their grocery store) seems more than reasonable to me. Maybe I’m overly generous, but that’s just my personal point of view.

    Now I can’t know the sellers’ motives, but I suspect they must be some mix of altruism, irrationality, and a desire to earn a buck. I know people that give up hours of their free time in order to “make” the equivalent of $5, or people that spend a few dollars in gas to drive out of their way to “save” even less than a few dollars in gas… Those things seem generally irrational to me, but some people derive pleasure from that, so more power to them. Selling things on eBay is a giant pain in the ass and can consume hours of your time, so sellers that consider that part “free” are kidding themselves. Ultimately, I don’t see beer sellers in general as greedy people, even if they consider themselves as profit-seeking (in which case they are probably exaggerating to themselves).

    But buying beer on eBay is illegal, and many craft breweries oppose it. Those two things are undeniable. To my understanding, craft breweries oppose exorbitant pricing because they want their beer to be affordable to their fans, so that it is accessible to their fans. This keeps their beer affordable, but does it make it any more accessible overall? What about to fans (or potential fans, like me) in Los Angeles? I’m sure that some limited productions create a trade-off between local fans and non-local fans, but I would be curious to know how the volume of eBay sales negatively impacts local supply overall. As far as legality, I don’t have any qualms about doing “illegal” activities as long as no one is remotely “hurt.” From my point of view, a lot of these craft beer sales are due to distribution limitations, either because of the brewery’s small-scale, or from the three-tier system (great articles on this by the way Aleheads!). Who is being “hurt” here? For craft beer sales of older vintages, I wonder how much the brewery would charge if they had to pay to store bottles for 5, 10, or 15+ years. (Rogue sells a nine-bottle vertical of Old Crustacean for $97 + $20 shipping on their website, for example.) For whatever reason, most craft breweries do not offer this service to their customers, while resellers on the secondary market sometimes do. Selling vintage bottles of beer may impact current availability, but it is also increasing availability to other people years down the road. In general, it’s not clear to me who is being “hurt” by reselling, and why the legality of it is so important – especially for year-round offerings that Midwesterners can get from the grocery store. I’m going to move on from this now, but I’d be curious to hear the opinions of other Aleheads on this topic.

    Finally, I admit it. I know you’ve been expecting it all along. I have sold beer on eBay. I listed a couple extra, off-the-shelf, Bruery bottles that didn’t do it for me, and a four pack of Hoptimum, each at a moderate markup. The Bruery bottles sold to someone in South Carolina as a present for his father, and the Hoptimum sold to someone in the US military who was stationed in the UK and lonely for America’s craft beer. (It’s surprisingly easy and affordable to ship beer to FPO addresses by the way, but probably even more illegal.) I wasn’t selling the beer to make money. I was selling the beer because I have way too much beer as it is, and I wanted to give-back to the people out there like me, who can’t get these beers conveniently. That was my small way of contributing.

    So…… anyone want to trade beer with me a couple months from now? If I don’t have anything that you’re interested in…. I could always “trade” you some universally accepted United States currency! =)

    (I’m being serious by the way, I think you guys are great and it would be awesome if you could help me get some delicious beer!)

    1. Mr. Mices,

      Thank you, sir, for such a wonderful and well-thought out reply. It kind of blows my mind to think that anything on our blog could actually inspire someone to sit down and hammer out that kind of response. After reading it, I had to go into the kitchen and crack open a bomber of homebrew (rye stout) because I knew that I was going to need something to drink while replying.

      Frankly, it’s hard to know where to even begin in addressing everything that you raise. This is a very complex issue. I think there are some very basic differences in how we look at an issue like this that begin with our complete perception of the offerings from breweries outside our reach.

      I believe that it is a mistake to think of any brewery as “national” unless it’s distributing to your state. Which is to say, I don’t think someone living in California logically has a reason to think that something from say, Founders, “should be accessible to me.” These are ultimately regional products. I would love to have access to Russian River and Alesmith beers all the time, but I don’t. And I would never think that those breweries somehow have an obligation to try to get some into my hand. I am not their market. The brewer at Russian River shouldn’t even CARE if I like his beer or not at this point, because I’m incapable of being an everyday consumer of it.

      This is not to say that I think you’re one of these people who feels entitled to Three Floyds releases despite living across the country. But in the eyes of the brewers, it seems to me that you might as well be. I expect that, given the option, they would choose to have all of their beer consumed in those places where they distribute it, because those are the markets that they can reasonably supply. Consumption happening anywhere further out is just lessening the remaining supply for those places that are supposed to be “in the distribution area.”

      Obviously, this applies much, much more to special release and rare beers. I don’t think that any of us really have the time or energy to get our underwear in a bunch about the reselling of flagship beers, although that does seem like a rather uninspired way to make money, if making money is the primary objective.

      There are clearly different levels of “reseller,” and I looked at it as far too black and white. And as I will gladly admit that there are probably plenty of nice folks trying to resell beers to spread beer and good cheer out there, you must also admit that there are some serious fucking hucksters out there trying to profit on this stuff as well. Look no further than the Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout release, which had, I shit you not, guys following around the delivery trucks in some places, negotiating sales to buy cases and cases of the stuff above market value from the drivers and liquor store owners so they could immediately resell them on ebay at 10X value. When there are bottles of a rare beer up on eBay on the day they are released from the brewery, I believe that is a problem. That means someone went there specifically trying to make some scratch, and it transforms one person who could have bought a bottle for $15 and enjoyed it into someone who has to buy the same bottle for $100. I don’t feel the altruism in that scenario.

      A large part of this is no doubt my own personal distaste for making money that way. It feels almost like film or game piracy—or more accurately, a guy in an alley with a bunch of knockoff rolexes.

      I think I can say with some certainty that I’ll be thinking about the things that you’ve said in the future, and that perhaps I’ll soften on certain aspects of this issue. Not on the truck guy, though. That guy can go to hell.

      I might be able to help you out, tradewise. I traded a couple of boxes full of year-round stuff with another Californian once. I know that you’re not him because I sent him some Founders. ;) I’m sure I could get you a few Chicago-area things at some point that you’ve never had before.

      1. Sir Breton Mices · ·

        Thanks for the kind words Carboy. Hopefully my unique point of view contributed a bit to the discussion. I didn’t realize that people would stoop so low as to bribe delivery guys for entire cases of extremely limited beer. That’s really shitty… In instances like those, I agree that the brewery’s goal is to serve its “primary” market – its distribution area – and these poachers are perverting that. But I also think that breweries appreciate fans outside of their distribution area too.

        I’ve spoken with (the sales departments of) over thirty craft breweries, and they are always happy to hear from a fan. In fact, Founders sent me an extra $20 worth of their merchandise, unsolicited, just because they’re awesome people. I don’t know if Founders should care about Californians, but they apparently do, as do most of the breweries I’ve chatted with – even Three Floyds, who despite their reputation, employs some very nice people (like Holly Slaton!).

        Now I don’t feel entitled to anything (especially one of life’s finer pleasures like craft beer) but it is nice to try a new beer, even just once, from all these different breweries. I’m sure their target audience varies from brewery to brewery, and some breweries want to expand their distribution while others want to limit it, so it’s hard to make blanket statements for the entire industry. And it would be a real shame if breweries lost their regional identity, or expanded their distribution at the expense of their product, ownership, or local support. So it’s hard to balance all of those aspects against the opportunity to try a new beer without flying across the country. I feel that, at least in certain circumstances, secondary markets (like eBay) can provide some value to the craft beer industry as a whole, but there is a large gray area between those circumstances and instances where people are solely trying to profit off the system.

        After this conversation, I’m still sad that eBay is attempting to crack down on beer sales (although it’s doing a terrible job at it so far), but I’m more disappointed that a few people are taking it to an extreme. Maybe they’re just filling a market need, or maybe they’re less fortunate than me and trying to earn money any way they can. In either case, I will definitely consider the interests of the brewery and its locals in my future purchases. The last thing I want to do is support some guy poaching cases.

        But chances are, I’ll be too busy trying all the other great, affordable beers to pay him much attention anyways…

        1. Sir Breton Mices · ·

          P.S. If you’re looking for another hot-button (and somewhat related) topic, you should consider the buying and selling of new and used tap handles. This is something that affects breweries more directly, and something that breweries have a bit more influence over. I have a sweet tap handle collection, including some breweries that choose to NOT sell to the public (Surly, The Bruery, Ballast Point, etc.). Lots of parallels, including the attitudes of particular breweries. — For the record, I only buy second-hand tap handles when the brewery does not sell them directly.

  10. CraigTX · ·

    Sanctimonius BS.

    1. You almost just made me do a beer spit-take, I was laughing so hard.

      Those two words of yours have got to win some sort of award for “worst follow-up ever” to a great critical response by Sir Breton Mices. Bravo, sir. My mind is blown.

  11. American D. Stout · ·

    The breweries create this situation, either intentionally or unintentionally. The decision to brew special releases in limited quantities fuels demand, which fuels hype, which fuels online ratings, which fuels demand, etc. etc. Couple that with distribution limitations and below-market pricing, and breweries incentivize people to resell their beer at a profit.

    Some breweries may have limited capacity, but they should understand the market forces and make decisions accordingly. If an artist wants his work available to the public, he donates it to a museum. If he sells it to an individual, he is no longer in control of the product. Like you’ve said, some breweries now prove their intentions by requiring the beer consumed on location. That’s an excellent way to ensure the beer stays local. Other breweries may implicitly condone the secondary market by bottling special releases and enjoying the resulting popularity boost. Or they think themselves above the principles of economics.

    If they absolutely need to bottle beer they should increase production. Sure the beer might not be as “special” but what do they really value? If the brewery is too small to increase production, it should either reward locals by not bottling it, or it should stop complaining about resellers. They can’t stick their fingers in their ears, sing “la la la la la,” and pretend that the world should work according to their rules.

    If Shaun Hill wants things his way, he needs to find a way to creatively accomplish his goals while still abiding by the forces of the free market.

    1. Anonymous · ·

      Why should breweries have to adapt to ILLEGAL activity? The solution is to enforce the existing laws.

    2. It’s my understanding that “just make more of it” isn’t an option with most of these brews. The true value of a beer like Dark Lord or something comparable is, as you yourself said, in the publicity. Given the extremely long amounts of time it takes to make a beer like that, and the number of tanks that are therefore tied up in the process, these prestige brews are by no means the most profitable to make. So therefore, if you truly want these breweries to do what is best for themselves in the free market, “make more of your most expensive beer to produce” just doesn’t work as an option. Why do fans want breweries to maximize their profits so badly, anyway? I always thought that was a concern for shareholders and people telling brewers “Look, nobody will probably notice if there’s some corn in the grist, right?”

      Ultimately, the only reason that a brewery like FFF can afford to make something like Dark Lord every year is that they sell enough Alpha King and everything else. The more Dark Lord they commit themselves to, the less of every other cash cow can be produced. Given all the work and hubbub that people raise about limited releases, there are probably brewers out there who are so sick of trying to make prestige beers that they’d like to stop, but only persist because the annual bump in interest in the brewery in general is too good to pass up.

      And can we just once acknowledge that it’s illegal to sell beer to each other? Just as a baseline? In my experience, people who have been through the incredible hassle of getting liquor licenses have a tendency to get angry when other people without them take their product and resell it for profit.

      1. American D. Stout · ·

        I meant that the secondary market would dry up if the supply were increased. If breweries valued profitability over their craft, they could simply raise prices and solve the supply-demand imbalance that way. But if they want to combat illegal reselling without raising prices, they could increase supply. Both options would make people less likely to buy beer with the intent of reselling it, but the option to increase the supply does not make the beer prohibitively expensive for their intended customers.

        I agree that increasing supply is not a simple thing to do, and even impossible for many breweries in the short-term. Therefore breweries should take creative approaches to accomplish their goals that don’t incentivize the secondary market, such as not bottling the beer. Although I haven’t thought of them, other options must exist.

        But why not eliminate the secondary market through increased enforcement, and through people simply “doing the right thing”? Well I have a very cynical view of the world, and I think that illegal activity will persist regardless of enforcement. Whether or not it’s “fair” for breweries to adapt to it, illegal activity exists and breweries should consider it if they want their beer to end up in the hands of specific customers.

        Of course, the other way to combat the illegal market is to educate the end-users, which is what you’re doing here. Discussions like this will help a lot, but it is also “unfair” to put all of the burden on the shoulders of educators like you, especially if breweries are not making an effort to help themselves.

      2. American D. Stout · ·

        I re-read my original comment, and I worded one of my points poorly.

        When I said: “If they absolutely need to bottle beer they should increase production. Sure the beer might not be as ‘special’ but what do they really value?”

        I meant that the beer would be less “special” because it would be more readily available. I was not suggesting that the brewery would compromise it’s quality standards to produce a larger supply, whether or not a larger supply would be logistically or financially possible to produce.

        I wondered if the brewery would be willing to sacrifice some of its “hype” and if not, what does that say about the brewery’s values. If they are just making these beers for the “bump in interest” then I suspect that they indirectly benefit from the high price of their beer on eBay.

        1. I definitely didn’t think you were meaning that increased production meant lower quality beer, so the point was understood.

          I think, of the brewers that really do get angry about this sort of thing, they tend to be the most idealistic and “arts focused” of them out there. I just identify with those sorts of people because the “friendliness” and “good-naturedness” of many brewers is something I always found attractive about craft beer in general.

          And you’re right, the entire purpose of a post like this is just hopefully to spread a few ideas to a few potential readers. Some who read might not know how the vocal brewers feel, so if I can communicate that to a few, it’s a successful post.

          In general, I would like to think that we don’t attempt to tell people HOW to feel here, just tell people how WE feel.

          …and then, you know…hope they agree. *cough*

          1. Sir Breton Mices · ·

            Hopefully posts like this will raise awareness among consumers AND breweries. I would like to know more about the business side of craft beer, and I think many brewers could benefit from some business lessons too. There is no beer without the artists, but it’s money that keeps the whole thing afloat.

            That, and posts like this allow me think about beer while at work, which is the next best thing to drinking beer while at work. So ya, this site is pretty good.

  12. [...] discussion the topic on Aleheads. Tagged: beer advocate discussion, Craft Beer, ebay stops selling beer, rare beer, special craft [...]

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