Tips from a first-time (beer) swapper

Jeffrey Wiser, September 22, 2015

I drink most of the beer I buy. I buy most of the beer I drink. There's a reason for this: I like my taste in beer better than anyone else's. That's why it's mine. A few in my inner circle have great taste in beer, at least in so far as I'm concerned, but by and large, I probably don't think a lot of what most other people are drinking. They think this wit beer is fantastic or that lager is smooth, but I'm not impressed. As a result, I keep a pretty tight grasp on what I consume.

It's not that I'm a dick -- I'll try anything. It's just that I tend to take my beer-drinking more seriously than most others. You're probably in a similar boat. You know what you like and you make sure it's in your fridge. Self-preservation is important when you're a beer geek, I guess. 

But there's an inherent problem with this philosophy: the drinker is limited to what she/he can find for sale in their particular market. I love beer, but I can't fly to Vermont just to drink. That'd be nice, but that's not a priority at the moment. So getting outside of one's geographical beer region is tough to do. Sure, there are a couple of mass produced micros from each region that can be found in just about every pocket of the country as distribution grows, but you don't get to experience the nuance of a different beer market. 

Saying you've had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale does not make you a California beer aficionado. Deschutes' Black Butte Porter doesn't represent every northwest beer and Magic Hat No. 9 isn't a solution for drinking your way around Vermont and New England. You get the idea. These beers might provide a couple of ideas, but they won't really provide the complexity each region has to offer. 

The solution to this problem: a beer swap.

If you've got the right connections, you can find a fellow swapper in another locale who will be able to send you a good smattering of beer from another region. Finding a connection might sound difficult, but social media makes it a lot easier. Twitter, Untappd and Facebook are all place to try and identify someone to swap with. It's not something I'd advertise to your entire timeline but rather a place to search for targets to pitch your plans to personally. 

I was lucky to find someone through Twitter and I learned a lot in the process. Here are a few things to consider

Some tips for those new to the beer swap process to consider:

  1. Trade with an experienced swapper your first time - I had the benefit of swapping with someone who knew what they were doing. He was able give me a few pointers and ship his beers to me first. I took note of all the packaging and saved it all for use when sending my shipment back. If I had questions, I had a resource at my disposal, which really paid off.
  2. Make sure the swapper is knowledgeable about beer (unless they're just shopping for you) - now, you may have a friend or family member that's willing to just buy beer for you and ship it, but if you're truly swapping, make sure the person on the other end is at least as beer-geeky as you are. Ask some questions and pick their brain. Check their Untappd - if they're rating the latest Blue Moon catastrophe with 4.25 stars, this may not be a good idea. Ask for some recommendations and research them. If you can't trust them to identify and send you good stuff back, abort mission.
  3. Set a budget - know what you want to spend and discuss it beforehand. You don't want to receive a large shipment of expensive beers of you're not prepared to return the favor. Keep the number of beers in mind - more beers means higher shipping costs.
  4. Don't advertise beer swapping - if you're hunting for something special to send back and speaking to your local hookup for limited releases or hard to find beers, don't mention you're about to send the precious cargo to someone else. This may irk your source. I made this mistake and, as much as I hate to say it, things between my beer man and I just haven't been the same. In a place like SoCal where everyone and their brother is trying to get their hands on Pliny and the like, you don't want to ruin your good will and piss off your supply line by intimating that you're just going to put the beer in the mail for someone else.
  5. Buy fresh beer - this is especially helpful if you're sending IPAs or other fresh hops beers. Because you don't want to return old, past their prime beers, avoid places that don't have a lot of turnover or are known for selling less-fresh products (Trader Joes, in some instances). You want it stored cold and fresh whenever possible. Also, buy your hoppy beers just a few days before you plan to mail them. They shouldn't sit around for three or four weeks before shipping. Keep it fresh.
  6. Know your pallet - make sure the person sending you beers knows what you want, and vice versa. Describe your preferences, provide a few well-known comparisons and communicate what you'd like to receive. I wanted a local variety so I could get a feel for the region, but I wanted that variety skewed towards IPAs and other hop-forward beers. I was not disappointed.
  7. Do your homework - if you're planning to receive a half dozen beers or more, hit the BeerGraphs leaderboards and ask for a couple specific beers. Now's your chance to get that beer you've heard so much about. Don't waste the opportunity and make life easier for the person on the other end by requesting a couple specific brews. "Just give me whatever" is not a sufficient request.
  8. Don't skimp on the packaging - as I mentioned earlier, I received my shipment first and saved all of the packaging, lots of bubble wrap, tape, ziplock freezer bags and other packaging cushioned the whole box. It was packed so tight nothing moved. Every beer was rolled in bubble wrap, then individually sealed in a ziploc bag just in case. The bagged bottles were surrounded by other air pouches typically found in your latest Amazon order. If you're sending first, start saving the packaging you receive at home and/or checking the trash can in the mailroom at work. You don't want to buy packaging if you can help it.
  9. Check your package before you try to ship - in a subsequent swap, I tried to ship a beer that wasn't completely full from the brewery for whatever reason. I didn't notice this at first, but after sealing it up, the package made a bit of noise when slightly shaken. The FedEx guy picked up on this immediately and refused the package despite my stories about its contents. Also, give the whole package a final inspection and shakedown before sending it off.
  10. Save your tracking number - I was advised against sending beer via USPS and have used either FedEx or UPS every time. Aside from the anecdote above, it's worked every time. I did lose one bottle (Space Dust IPA by Elysian Brewing) in a follow up shipment, but in the 40 beers I've now traded, that's the only casualty to date. My guess is that I failed in the packaging department.
  11. Drink with a plan - receiving eight to twelve beers at once sounds like a dream come true, but if can also be overwhelming. Make sure there's room in your fridge and drink the IPAs and fresh-hop beers first. Save the dark stuff for later. Make sure to check all these in and post a picture of your stash on Facebook to make your friends wildly jealous.
  12. Send back quality beers - if someone is willing to help you out and enter this quest with you, do the right thing by sending them back some high quality beers. Don't skimp. If it isn't enough to impress you, it won't be enough to impress your fellow swapper. You should be the expert of your region and your market, so give them a quality package in return. You never know, this person might serve as a reference in the future or be so impressed they send you an even nicer package at a later date.

That might be a lot to digest, but if you're serious about beer swapping you should be serious about the work that goes into doing it right. This isn't something you can fake your way through, at least not successfully, as I found out. Put the work in and you'll be rewarded.

Now, as to my swap, I sent a pretty decent package of beers. I thought long and hard about what to send and what I could reasonably get my hands on, but part of it was simply being opportunistic. Here's what I sent off:

  • Russian River - Pliny the Elder
  • Russian River - Damnation
  • Elysian Brewing - Space Dust IPA (KIA)
  • Mother Earth Brewing - Four Seasons DIPA
  • Pizza Port - Swami's IPA
  • Firestone Walker - Stickee Monkee
  • Lagunitas -  Scare City High Westified Imperial Stout
  • Smog City - Coffee Porter
  • Knee Deep - Hoparillo TIPA
  • Ninkasi - Total Domination IPA
  • Golden Road - 20/20 DIPA
  • Golden Road - Heal the Bay IPA
  • Deschutes - Fresh Squeezed IPA

And the package I recieved (from left to right)

  • Fulton Brewing - War & Peace
  • New Glarus - Moon Man Pale
  • Three Floyds - Zombie Dust
  • New Glarus - Wisconsin Belgian Red
  • Surly - Furious
  • Bent Paddle - Cold Press Black Ale 
  • Half Acre - Daisy Cutter
  • Steel Toe - Collision Course DIPA
  • Three Floyds's - Gumball Head
  • Bell's - Hopslam
  • Three Floyd's - Arctic Panzer Wolf
  • Lervig Aktiebryggeri/Surly - 1349
  • Toppling Goliath -  psuedo Sue

As you may have figured, my swap partner was in the upper midwest and gave me a great package of local beers. Getting Zombie Dust, Hopslam and psuedo Sue alone was more than worth all the trouble. You can't get these beers in SoCal, yet they're always part of any great beer discussion. They surely didn't disappoint. The others were excellent, too, including the Wisconsin Belgian Red which blew me away. Only 1349 didn't agree with me, and that was mostly due to its overwhelming sweetness. Combined, this painted a great picture of the region by showcasing the different malt profiles of even the hop-forward beers in the upper midwest. 

Even though the swap was a lot of work, it was fun work and it's something I've replicated since. I would encourage you to give it a try if you're so inclined and hopefully the points above are of use. If you have any other advice for those attempting a first beer swap, feel free to leave them in the comments.