A friend of mine in Michigan has a beer fridge that any self-proclaimed “beer nerd” might be envious of. He’s got an equally impressive cellar. Kegerator, all the proper glassware – the works. He routinely meets up with a local beer club, travels to breweries, and even toyed with the idea of doing a podcast with a few friends. He has a beard. All the general requirements of being an unabated beer dweeb.
Like numerous other beer enthusiasts of the modern era, he participates in online beer trading. For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, forums on Reddit and Beer Advocate (among others) allow people to barter and trade beer around the country. Person A has a beer that person B can’t get in his/her geographical region, so person B trades a bottle from his/her collection that person A can’t get in their geographical region, and so on. Thanks to the world wide web, a beer drinker on the east coast can drink a limited released bottle of whatever from a local brewery only distributed in southern California.
Sounds great, right?
Call me old fashioned, but I’m sort of against the whole internet beer trading business. While I’ve personally never traded beers online, this is one of those situations where I’ll argue against the “don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it” notion.
There are over 4,000 breweries in the United States alone. Four fucking thousand. There are SO MANY amazing beers out there, some of which are likely brewed within a 10-mile radius of where you live. Increasingly, local artisanal brewers are sourcing ingredients from local farmers and maltsters. Some experiment with open/wild fermentation, catching all those magical microbes and yeast strains from the air that’s as native to where the beer’s being brewed as you can get. It’s similar to a wine’s terroir, and it’s what makes Chelsea, Massachusetts’ Mystic Brewery’s Vinland 3 (ale fermented with yeast cultivated from Vermont-grown raspberries) so delightfully interesting and different from anything brewed on the other side of the country.
I shouldn’t be able to drink a Pliny the Younger unless I’m in northern California, or at the very least within Russian River’s distribution footprint (do they distribute? I don’t even know). I’m OK with not being able to get my hands on a limited bottle release from a local brewery in Missouri, or that “white whale” bottle from Wisconsin.
Half of what traveling is is eating and drinking somewhere you haven’t before. In my experience, drinking a brew local to where you’re visiting somehow makes it taste better (never mind the draft vs. bottle debate). Maybe the whole sensory experience has something to do with it.
Because of the 3-tier system, distribution creates beer availability “regions.” My favorite example being Bells Brewing Co. of Kalamazoo, Michigan. They brew Two-Hearted Ale, easily one of my top 10 favorite beers, and it’s available as far east as New York state. Juuuuust still out of reach for me in Massachusetts. Not saying I would be upset it the brewery were to step up production and be able to push through to the Bay State, but it does somehow make the beer taste better when I’m able to drink it the few weeks a year I’m in Michigan. Distance makes the heart grow…thirstier?
This is not to say I believe breweries that distribute cross-country aren’t as good. Most times it just means that have multiple breweries, strategically positioned to satisfy markets geographically closest to it. Lookin’ at you, Oskar Blues, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, and (rumored) soon-to-be Ballast Point. And please don’t even bring up the craft vs. not craft crap. If the beer tastes good, who cares how many barrels they produce or who owns it? The release of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout is still practically a damn national holiday.
But I must confess – I have traded beer. It’s rare, and only with my friend in Michigan (which is where I am originally from, anyway). Thanks to him, I have a bottle of 3 Floyds Dark Lord 2015 aging alongside a few others I’ve stashed away – Brooklyn Black Ops, Pretty Things Fumapapa, a couple Jacks Abby sours, and a Funky Buddah Imperial Stout I brought back from a trip to Florida. I really just don’t dig the internet trading thing. And I don’t understand my friend’s obsession with having a fridge full of exotic bottles from states he’s never been to. Without his beer club buddies, I don’t think it’s even possible to drink everything in there before flavors start to drop out. It’s a borderline hoarding situation, and he might soon require an intervention.
My point being – drink what’s locally available, and stop obsessing over what you can’t get. You probably won’t be disappointed with what you find.