If this were a 60 Minutes undercover segment, “Sam’s” face would be blurred, his voice pitched down to a low, warbly frequency. But for print, we’ll just change his name and the organization he’s involved with. You may laugh, or think the security measures unnecessary, but believe me—this is serious business. Sam doesn’t want to lose access to his riches. Nor do I.
Ever wonder why it seems impossible to get your hands on those one-off beers you’ve read about on forums? It’s not because you’re unlucky, or that your local store can’t acquire them. Rather, a highly organized underground collection of beer geeks is controlling the market to intercept all the most coveted limited releases—and leave you with only “shelf turds” (lingo for common beers that sit on store shelves).
Two years ago, Sam was in your boat, until he received an intriguing invite on Facebook. He had just returned from a business trip to Belgium, bringing home with him dozens of bottles of Cantillon lambics. That was more than he could drink, and he wondered if they would draw interest on the public Facebook group Beer Trader ISO:FT. (For the uninitiated: ISO means “in search of” and FT means “for trade”; thus, a trader might post “ISO: King Henry/FT: Fou’ Foune.” There are also trading forums on Beer Advocate, RateBeer, and Reddit.)
Beer mule: someone who has the access and means to acquire numerous bottles of limited beer releases in order to distribute them to fellow mules across the country.
Sam set up one trade with a man named Tim, not only sending him Cantillon Fou’ Foune, but also tossing in saisons and wild ales from Side Project, a craft brewery located in Missouri. Tim inquired if Sam could easily and frequently access other Side Project releases. Living in St. Louis, Sam said he could. Tim then asked Sam if he might be interested in joining his “muling group.” Sam didn’t know what that meant, but agreed to sign up and investigate.
“You don’t sign up,” Tim informed him. “We decide to invite you.”
A few days later, Sam received a private invitation on Facebook to become the group’s St. Louis mule: someone (typically male, as is the case in the craft-beer world) who has the access and means to acquire numerous bottles of limited beer releases in order to distribute them to fellow mules across the country.
When you see people with a stash like this on social media, you’ve got to wonder how they made the score. (Photo: Instagram/snakeorama)
Several groups like these operate in the U.S.—maybe as many as a dozen—all with goofy names (Sam’s group is not named “Beerz 4 Fearz,” but that’s close enough) and similar infrastructures. Sam’s coalition has 68 members throughout the country, most of whom are strategically situated near middle-of-nowhere brewery meccas like Des Moines, IA; Tillamook, OR; or anywhere in Vermont. Big-time beer cities like San Diego and Chicago have multiple members. And since Sam lives in that crucial city of St. Louis—giving him access to coveted local breweries Side Project and Perennial Artisan Ales—Beerz 4 Fearz saw him as a valuable potential ally.
Sam told me that accepting his invite was similar to a frat initiation. He was immediately bombarded with greetings from fellow members; immaturity and broiness reigned. Language on the group’s Facebook wall is typically crass, and most non-beer talk drifts into the sexual. Several guys in Sam’s group enjoy posting nude pictures of women, often holding rare beers between their bare breasts. But when the banter slows down, they are wheeling and dealing beer like it’s their job, with many members actively chatting on the page from early morning until late at night.
Codewords are central to communication. These are 30- and 40-something men who intentionally speak in the parlance of middle-school texts (“dat KBBS doe”). Complicated abbreviation is frequently employed as well, creating a web of lingo that’s virtually impossible for an outsider to decipher. Even for a beer expert like Sam, he’s often at a loss to what is being discussed. DDG. DBH. BVDL. WTF?
Several guys in Sam’s group enjoy posting nude pictures of women, often holding rare beers between their bare breasts.
(That’s Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze, Cigar City’s Double Barrel Hunahpu’s, and Three Floyds’ Bourbon Vanilla Dark Lord—all white-hot commodities you will probably never taste.)
For Sam, joining Beerz 4 Fearz was like being a kid in a candy shop. For so long, his only chance to score rare beer was hoping he’d stumble upon a bottle of Founders KBS at Whole Foods; praying a local liquor guy might hook him up with a new Allagash sour; or waiting in line to acquire bottles from a Side Project release. Now, thanks to the Facebook group, he could have anything.
Let’s look at how Beerz 4 Fearz operates when a sought-after beer is scheduled for release—say, Jester King’s Atrial Rubicite, which came out in June. A sour ale aged in oak barrels with fresh raspberries, the Atrial was an in demand item for beer collectors around the world. Unfortunately, it was a brewery-only release, and the venerable Jester King is located inconveniently in the Texas countryside. No cause for panic: Beerz 4 Fearz has an operative in Austin, just down the road.
In the weeks leading up to the release, this Austin-based operative (let’s call him Jack) posted on Beerz 4 Fearz asking who wanted bottles, and how many. The group shares a massive Google Drive spreadsheet that acts as its database. It lists all the important breweries and their upcoming releases, so if you want a particular beer, you simply list your name under the release and note how many bottles you’d like.
For Atrial, 55 group members signed up, requesting 81 bottles. Fine, except for one fact: Only 2,400 bottles were made, and Jester King only permitted two bottles max per person. That’s a problem for you and me, but not for a group with immense clout like Beerz 4 Fearz. Often, a guy like Jack is friendly with his local brewery and doesn’t have to waste time waiting in a snaking line with all the other shnooks; he simply loads as many cases as he needs into the back of his Buick. At worst, Jack is going to have to call in some favors from friends and family to help him mule more beers. For other operatives, it might mean putting an ad on Craigslist to get a few warm bodies, or offering a homeless person a quick payday to stand in line with him. There’s even the apocryphal story of one mule who had a bum wait in line to help him buy a case of Tired Hands rarities in exchange for a case of Olde English forties.
Whatever the case, and however he did it, Jack acquired those 81 bottles of Atrial. Now, he had to distribute them across the country and collect the thousands of dollars in payments. The latter part is easy: Unlike trading groups, muling groups deal exclusively in monetary transactions. Via PayPal, Venmo, or Google Wallet, group members pay for the retail cost of the bottles, throw in a couple extra bucks for packing materials (bubble wrap, tape, boxes), and sometimes toss in gas money if an operative had to drive particularly far to make the score. They then email the operative a pre-paid shipping slip from UPS or FedEx, which is the only time group members interact online outside of Facebook. The operative devotes a grueling day to packing up and labeling these 55 different boxes, then ships them out.
To quote Leo in The Wolf of Wall Street: “Was all this legal?”
Well, not exactly. Shipping alcohol through the U.S. Postal Service is indeed illegal: “The shipment or transportation, in any manner or by any means whatsoever, of any spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquor of any kind…is prohibited.” But using private carriers is where things get slippery. Anyone who has ever dropped a bulky package off at FedEx has had the counterperson question them, Se7en-style: “What’s in the box?” Say “beer” and you’ll be sent home. You could easily lie, but that sloshing sound of liquid is hard to cover up (there’s a long-held joke in the muling community that everyone is an “olive oil importer/exporter”). Most mules also employ tactics like throwing Kraft mac and cheese packages or loose pebbles into their boxes to create diversionary noises. Affixing Hello Kitty or SpongeBob stickers to the outsides of boxes are other ways to deceive authorities.
Many breweries have taken a hard stance on the beer black market, but many are also more than happy to have these uber-geeks distributing their beers to other tastemakers in the industry.
But when you have ties to people in the post office, there’s really no need for these red herrings; lots of people and organizations have it in their best interest to look the other way. And not just UPS and FedEx, who are likely not ignorant to the fact that they are making some serious coin from illicit beer shippers. Even the U.S. Postal Service has debated allowing the shipment of alcohol of late, thinking it could increase revenues by some $50 million a year. By his own estimate, Sam has spent $4,000 in shipping costs in 2014 alone.
Likewise, it doesn’t do these breweries any good to discourage muling groups. True, many breweries have taken a hard stance on the beer black market, but many are also more than happy to have these uber-geeks distributing their beers to other tastemakers in the industry (subscription models and shady “trustee” systems are wink-wink acknowledgements that breweries are aware of what’s occurring). After all, distribution laws are tricky, and interstate shipping costs and taxes can be prohibitively expensive for a fledgling company. It’s much easier to have some mules ignore the taxes and handle all the distribution logistics for you. There are even some cases in which mules infiltrate breweries, working from the inside. I know of one upstart brewery owner who is in a muling group himself. It’s an easy way for him to get his small-town beers around the country to generate national buzz. Looking at his Untappd scores, I can tell you it’s working.
Amazingly, Sam’s only met two fellow group members in person. One was a loathsome tub of lard from New Hampshire who was as bad as you could possibly imagine a beer geek being; another was a normal dude from the Boston area. And that’s the thing about these groups: They vary wildly in terms of membership and economic means. Sam’s group has several lawyers and doctors all able to easily shell out cash for any beer the group needs; it also has a few people Sam suspects are unemployed and still living in their mom’s basement. These latter guys constantly need to be fronted money, or even borrow it from fellow group members. In fact, Sam is currently owed a few hundred dollars in payments. He’d be concerned, but there are so many hot releases coming out in the next few months in these operatives’ areas that, to a certain extent, he needs them.
Beer muling groups gobble up Goose Island Bourbon County Stout releases by the thousands. (Photo courtesy Goose Island)
So it’s good for Sam, but the ultimate question is, is it good for beer? If you’re an Average Joe who was unable to land any Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout this year, you’d probably be upset to learn that a Beerz 4 Fearz Chicago operative spent most of November going around to area retailers offering to buy their entire allotment for 20% over cost—so long as they would assure him the beer would never hit their shelves. While you were scrounging for a meager four-pack, he acquired literally thousands of bottles.
At the same time, though, beer muling groups are subverting draconian beer laws and distribution systems within the U.S. Unless you care deeply about the IRS, it’s a fairly victimless crime, and it’s aiding the transportation of terrific product to people across the country who might not get a taste otherwise. Like me, for instance, who got to share a bottle of Atrial Rubicite with Sam last weekend. Yes, it was incredible and, oh boy, could I taste the muling.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of The Guide for a Single Man and The Guide for a Single Woman.