Beer’s black market


Hundreds of beer drinkers gather at California's Russian River Brewing Company to drink Pliny the Younger, an imperial India pale beer offered only once a year. (Todd Jenkins/FTWP)
September 6, 2011

One Friday in February 2010, hundreds of beer geeks descended upon California’s Russian River Brewing Co. to score some Pliny the Younger, an imperial India pale ale that is released just once a year — only on draft. Within eight hours, they had bought all 600 gallons, and within days, 64-ounce growlers were selling on eBay for $150 and up. To thwart profiteers, this year Russian River decided not to fill containers. “The only way it was going to get out of there,” co-owner Natalie Cilurzo says, “was in your stomach.”

Nonetheless, Cilurzo caught two men trying to smuggle Pliny out of the brew pub, and an eBay listing appeared once again and was removed only after she complained to both eBay and the seller.

Her experience is not unique. The Web site has become beer’s most high-profile black market, a market that is increasingly angering some of the world’s best brewers, who consider resale immoral, illegal or just plain insulting.

In the words of Tomme Arthur, whose Lost Abbey beers are routinely resold for hundreds of dollars, “We believe those selling beer on eBay should be chased down.” The site’s alcohol policy explicitly forbids the sale of alcohol, except for pre-approved sales of wine, and eBay spokeswoman Amanda Coffee says the company “works with law enforcement and regulatory authorities to ensure listings are in compliance.”

But the beer trade persists, thanks to a loophole that allows the sale of “collectible containers” as long as sellers post an eBay-provided disclaimer, which states that “any incidental contents are not intended for consumption.” The disclaimer also notes that “the buyers and sellers ensure that the sale complies with all applicable laws” — even though many beer sales probably do not.

“There’s an awfully good chance that somebody selling interstate will be running afoul of state law,” says Thomas Hogue, congressional liaison for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Still, eBay beer sales seem to be on the rise. “It’s becoming a more typical practice,” says the Bruery’s Patrick Rue, who brews the imperial stout Black Tuesday, an eBay favorite. “And a lot more breweries are becoming aware of it and trying to stop it.”

Last month, for example, San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co., whose rare Vertical Epic beers are sometimes listed on eBay for more than $1,000 per bottle, began selling the first beer in its new Quingenti Millilitre series via a lottery system, and Stone has announced that people who try to resell it will be banned from future drawings. “We have involuntarily been a part of the eBay aftermarket for many years,” says Greg Koch, Stone’s co-founder and chief executive. “This is the first time we’ve come out, laid it on the table and said very point-blank, ‘Please, do not resell.’”

On Sept. 17, residents of the Washington area will be able to participate in what is probably the most creative response to eBay piracy thus far: Zwanze Day. Belgium’s Cantillon Brewery, whose beers are considered the gold standard of the spontaneously fermented style known as lambic, has shipped barrels of its annual Zwanze release to 20 leading beer bars spanning the globe from Finland to California to Japan, including Washington’s ChurchKey. The beer is not being sold in bottles, and all of the barrels will be tapped that Saturday, at the local equivalent of 3 p.m. EST where possible, resulting in a synchronized worldwide celebration that discourages stockpiling and online sales.

Jean Van Roy, Cantillon’s head brewer, came up with that plan after noticing that Zwanze 2010, which he sold for six euros per bottle, was soon going on eBay for 70 or 80 euros. “The goal with Zwanze Day is to try to reach directly the beer fan, the Cantillon fan,” he says, “and to give the possibility to those people to taste the beer at a correct price.” Likewise, Stone’s use of a lottery is intended to keep its beer accessible and relatively inexpensive. The brewery hopes to reward devotees rather than opportunists, and although it is selling the beer for $25 per bottle, that price reflects the cost of production instead of what the market will bear.

“In another life, I would be a consumer advocate,” Stone’s Koch says, adding that high prices also are problematic because they often accompany second-tier products. Some beers, such as hoppy India pale ales, quickly lose their vibrancy or go rancid when exposed to light and heat. “Frankly, somebody’s naive if they pay big dollars for this stuff on eBay,” Koch says. “They think they get a rare, special beer, but the reality is that they get a rare beer but it’s no longer special.”

Ultimately, though, what seems to upset brewers most is their sense that they are being exploited. “You want to hear about the framboise story?” said Russian River’s Cilurzo. “I am furious about this.”

Last September, Russian River released Framboise for a Cure, a raspberry-flavored beer that it sold for $12 per bottle to raise money for a local breast cancer treatment center. The beer sold out in a day, and soon somebody sold a bottle on eBay for $400. Then someone else put one up for sale. “We contacted that person,” Cilurzo says, “and we said, ‘This is absolutely ridiculous, because we donated 100 percent of this for charity.’”

The seller didn’t budge. “The guy said, ‘I have to support my habit somehow.’ ” Not heroin or cocaine. He meant craft beer.

Fromson, a former associate editor of the Atlantic, will write about beer monthly for The Post. His column will alternate with one by longtime Post beer writer Greg Kitsock.

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