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Scalpers get in on the craft beer game

Scalping is like spam and junk mail: Nobody likes it, and as long as there's money in it, you can expect to keep seeing it. Large concert and sporting events are a common target for scalpers — folks who buy tickets for events with the intention of reselling them at a markup — but as the craft beer market grows, opportunists and loophole experts are popping up there as well.

It seems silly to think that scalping exists in the world of craft beer, a community almost entirely based on enthusiasm for the craft and true appreciation of fine brews. But where some see art, others see profit. Scalping is rampant.

As a member of the American Homebrewer's Association, I was entitled to buy pre-sale tickets for this year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver, along with tickets to the members-only Saturday afternoon event. I slept in a little late on the day of the members-only pre-sale, only to find that all of those tickets had already sold out. When general admission tickets for the rest of the events went on sale a few days later, all 49,000 sold out within minutes.

As a result of this fiasco, Ticketmaster issued a letter of apology to people that were unable to buy tickets, and the Brewer's Association (the organization that runs the GABF) reviewed ticket purchases and put a few more back on the market, which also sold out within seconds. Less than an hour after the pre-sale, tickets appeared on StubHub for prices upward of $200 each (the tickets were $55-$65 at face value), with some sellers holding an inventory of more than 80.

I ultimately bought my ticket to the "members-only" session from a gentleman who worked at the Colorado Convention Center. He bought dozens of tickets when they went on sale so that he could resell them later. I talked him down to selling the ticket for $5 over the face value, and I'm not proud of paying the extra $5.

The issue extends far beyond the markup and resale of beer-event tickets and all the way to the beer itself. I've written before about Westvleteren XII, a Belgian beer so exclusive that it can only be legally purchased at the brewery itself, and even then with a restriction on the number of bottles purchased. That doesn't stop resellers from snatching up bottles and selling them online for markups of 500 percent or more.

The monks who brew Westvleteren have openly condemned this practice in the past, as have others, such as California's Alpine Brewing, which stopped selling growlers of its popular Exponential Hoppiness IPA after owner Pat McIlhenney noticed a listing for the beer for sale on eBay. Another strong criticism came from Shaun Hill of Vermont's Hillstead Farm Brewery, who took an eBay seller to task on Facebook, resulting in a snide response from the seller criticizing Hill for his "pathetic business practices" and commenting that he is following eBay's official rules by "selling the bottle … the contents are not of value."

Indeed, this latter clause seems to be the loophole with which beer resale has been made possible via eBay. On any given day, it's usually possible to find rare and high-demand beers like Founder's Canadian Breakfast Stout and Three Floyds Dark Lord Imperial Stout on sale for astronomical prices. In many cases, locals living near the breweries themselves were unable to get bottles, as supply quickly sold out. As I write this, you can even purchase a bottle of various Cigar City releases for $100 each, including the 2011 release of Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, a beer that is released at a special event each year with limits of two $20 bottle purchases per person. Of course, you're only bidding on the bottle itself, not the beer (wink, wink). My last taste of the 2011 Hunahpu's came earlier this year, when a bartender friend of mine poured me a sample from a bottle he had saved to share with friends. What a concept!

I'm aware that I'm tilting at windmills by griping about a practice as commonplace as scalping, but it pains me every time I'm made aware of cracks in my beloved craft-beer scene's utopian façade. The fact is, if true beer lovers stopped paying scalpers, the problem would cease to exist. I myself have bottles in the fridge that are ripe for resale, but I want no part in a market that's, in my opinion, counter to the spirit of craft beer. Instead I'll remain an idealist and enjoy those beers with friends.

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Scalpers get in on the craft beer game 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 11:50am]
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