Anything goes in the “hunt to swill” world of rare beer collecting. Meet the guys who score the best bottles on earth, and find out why their methods have some beer lovers up in arms.
By Christopher Staten
Last November, a rare event occurred in Phoenix: Bottles from Belgium’s Cantillon brewery, which brews some of the best lambics in the world, were delivered to select shops for the first time in four years. Leading up to the release, Tony Piccini, owner of Pitcher of Nectar Distributing and the guy responsible for bringing in the elusive beer, tried to keep the news quiet, but when a staffer mentioned it to a local beer drinker, all hell broke loose. A barrage of phone calls, texts and Facebook inquiries flooded the channels. On delivery day, Piccini arrived at the first store and was greeted by Dakine Beckman, a beer fanatic who waited all morning for the truck to arrive. Piccini made the drop, got back in his truck and carried on to the next shop. En route, he received a text from Beckman. Piccini checked his mirror and there was Beckman, following in his car. This carried on for the next few stops, with Beckman buying as many of the rare lambics as he was allotted at each store.
Piccini calls it the most extreme thing he’s seen—but for Beckman and other collectors, it’s just a solution. And it’s not just about scoring hard-to-get releases: Notoriety, popularity and the reputation of being the guy who can snatch up the world’s greatest beers are all at stake.
The lengths beer hunters go to land coveted releases surfaced in 2008, when a RateBeer.com user from Missouri admitted that he hired people—prostitutes, as legend has it—through Craigslist to stand in line for Captain Lawrence Cuvee de Castleton at the New York brewery. The same user admitted to hiring “mules” for Portsmouth Kate the Great and limited releases at The Lost Abbey and AleSmith in California.
The mule method was a beer collecting game-changer. For some, it spawned an “obtain by any means necessary” ethos; for others, it was unforgivable, especially after another user discovered the Missouri hunter intended to sell bottles on eBay for a profit.
“Five years ago, nobody was profiting from this,” remembers Beckman, who doesn’t sell beer online, but is a prolific trader. “You want this Dark Lord? No problem, send me $14 of the same style of beer. It happens now, but it’s not like it was. It’s hard to give away something you know is worth $300 to $400.”
EBay banned beer listings in 2012, but the black market thrives on sites like Craigslist and MyBeerCollectibles.com. Though, flipping rare beer for profit isn’t really the crux of the issue for beer enthusiasts.
The argument is simple: If someone pays a guy to stand in line for a beer, people behind the mule miss out. Line padding (usually with friends or trading partners) is spreading, as are its critics; it’s even a banned topic on BeerAdvocate.com threads. Breweries try to prevent it; The Lost Abbey mandated that anyone who bought its 2012 limited Track Series beers had to consume them at the San Diego brewery so they wouldn’t become commodities.
“It’s flattering to know that in our short existence we have managed to produce some whales and even white whales for the über beer consumer,” says The Lost Abbey co-founder Tomme Arthur. “It isn’t a stated goal of ours to create such hype, but it’s inevitable that killer beers released in small allotments will drive up the value.” Even so, brewers like Arthur want their beer to be enjoyed and shared, not snatched up and sold.
The value for the beer collector who isn’t stamping an inflated price tag on rare bottles is less tangible: These guys may not brew the beer, but they hold the keys to consuming it. “A lot of people think, ‘That jerk got four of those,’” says Tim Weable, another Phoenix beer collector. “But chances are, that jerk is going to be at the next tasting, sharing it with people who couldn’t afford to get it initially.”
Weable’s fairly modest about his 400-bottle collection; he considers himself a casual collector, not a whale hunter. Still, as he describes how he and Beckman are different, he highlights their similarities. Both have established national networks of mules and trading partners. As we’re talking, Weable’s simultaneously emailing and IMing with guys in Oklahoma and Florida about potential trades, a process that consumes about two hours of his day.
If two hours a day is casual, Beckman is black tie, hunting for whales to add to the 500-beer collection he keeps in a walk-in closet (his 500 beer glasses have been relegated to the garage). Even serious beer geeks would have to Google some of his rarities. As a trader, he’s a legend on RateBeer.com—a guy who’ll toss in four extra bottles when shipping a trade, just for the heck of it. And he regularly hosts tasting parties on his driveway, where guests can pretty much sip whatever they like from his hoard. Only 20 to 25 bottles—like a Cantillon Don Quijote he values at $1,200—are off limits.
Beckman and Weable aren’t anomalies. Hayden McCall, a collector near Philadelphia, often participates in “beer it forward” threads, where users try to one-up previous trades by including more beer. But when it comes to muling, he’s mythical: Earlier this year, McCall rented a Chevy Tahoe, took orders from a dozen locals and drove to Vermont. A few days later he returned with more than $3,000 in beer, including 24 cases of The Alchemist Heady Topper, and 90 growlers and 40 bottles from Hill Farmstead Brewery. None of it was for him.
“Some people said, ‘Hayden was the reason I went up [to Hill Farmstead] and they were all out,’ but they don’t realize how many people are getting all that beer I bought,” reasons McCall. “At the end of the day, there’s still good beer left in Vermont.”
Like Beckman and Weable, McCall’s beer fanaticism transcends the beer itself. Their methods leave some casualties—mainly, those who line up behind them—but to these collectors, the rewards far outweigh the criticism.
“If I have 120 bottles, that’s 120 opportunities to be in good company with people,” explains McCall. “Every one of those represents a moment I’ll be spending with my friends. The idea of drinking a bottle by myself and merely telling my friends about it is unappealing.” •