Modern Day Bootleggers Are Making a Killing With Craft Beer

Little Beers Big Business
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last five years you probably noticed that the United States is in the middle of a massive craft beer revolution. But what you might not know is that this revolution has given rise to a cottage industry of modern day bootleggers who participate in an increasingly lucrative trade called "beer mail."

Across the country, craft beer connoisseurs are posting messages like this to online beer forums:

At least a four pack of fresh Heady Topper
Bruery White Chocolate (2012)
Bruery Melange #8

The author of this post uses ISO to indicate he is "In Search Of" some Heady Topper, a highly rated Imperial IPA that is virtually impossible to obtain outside of its home state of Vermont. In return, he has "For Trade" aka FT, two craft beers brewed by The Bruery, located in Placentia, California.

This is how beer mail -- the trading of craft beer between private parties -- takes place, and although most participants are satisfied to just swap suds, an increasing amount of beer mail is taking place purely for profit.

The phenomenon of beer mail is born out of the most basic of economic laws, the law of supply and demand. Craft brewers by nature produce their product in limited supplies, aimed primarily at the local population. Add to that a system of byzantine laws regarding the distribution of alcohol, effectively preventing most small brewers from selling or shipping out of state, and you get an imbalance in the cosmic beer universe.

However, there is no imbalance in the information universe, so when word of a particularly delicious brew is broadcast to the internet, beer fans go to great lengths to obtain said delicious brew -- even to the point of breaking the law.

The U.S. Postal Service is very clear on its position regarding sending alcohol through the mail, with their published regulation stating;

"Intoxicating liquors having 0.5 percent or more alcoholic content are nonmailable. Taxable liquors ... with 3.2 percent or less alcohol, including those obtained under a prescription or as a collector's item, also are nonmailable. The prohibition of the mailing of intoxicating liquors is contained in federal law."

It is still against the law to ship alcohol via private carriers without a license, but most take a "don't ask, don't ask policy." Barring any leaks caused by breakage -- something beer mailers guard against by being almost fanatical in their packaging -- the chances that package will be flagged and confiscated are almost zero.

This lax enforcement has emboldened those who live in areas with high concentrations of premium breweries like San Diego or Orange County, California, to expand their activities beyond trading into outright selling beer through the mail. Some have even banded together, opening small warehouses in central locations where they can acquire, stock and ship craft beers across the country and even the world.

"I first started trading beer as a hobby," said one Southern California local who wished to be anonymous. "But very quickly it became a full-time gig for me and I was able to quit my job from the income I'm making."

But with craft beer now representing almost 20 percent of total beers sales in the U.S., and demand only growing, the industry has been pushing the Postal Service to reconsider its rules, which would effectively put illegal beer mailing operations out of business. Former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has even gone on record as being in favor of such changes, indicating that allowing an exception for individual alcohol shipping could add as much as $50 million in revenues for the Postal Service.

But until such time that legislation is changed, beer mailers, both those who do it for fun and those who do it for profit, will continue to operate covertly, always hopping to avoid the bane of their existence, the dreaded leaky box.

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