There's a thriving beer-trading scene out there. A scene of collectors and enthusiasts who go to great lengths to mail each other the rarest, most sought-after beers. A network of avid beer drinkers, all of whom regularly and cheerfully violate federal law every time they make a trade.
It's true: Shipping beer across state lines is illegal. And just about everyone involved in the beer-trading scene knows it.
Part of the problem is the wealth of misinformation on the topic. Common beer-trading wisdom tells us that it's illegal to ship beer via the Postal Service, but that shipping via FedEx or UPS is merely a violation of those companies' internal policies and that no laws are broken in the process. Unfortunately, this is not the case — shipping beer without a proper license is illegal, no matter the carrier.
The legality of shipping beer gets discussed in trading circles with about the same level of seriousness that people give to jaywalking or going 5 miles per hour over the speed limit. Traders joke about their creative explanations for package contents: Collectable glassware, homemade olive oil, snow globes and — my personal favorite — yeast samples.
But while the threat of legal problems concerns only the most worrisome of beer traders, it can be a little too real for those keeping a higher profile, including — ironically enough — companies who are licensed to send and receive beer via private carriers such as FedEx and UPS.
Portland's Cascade Brewing has long operated a thriving mail-order business, allowing residents all over the country to enjoy their Northwest-style sour ales by ordering online and having beer shipped directly to their door. But last month, Cascade announced that it would no longer be shipping beer "due to the legalities of sending beer across state lines."
See, even if a business is licensed to ship and receive beer, the business of shipping across state lines is dicey at best. This, it turns out, is also one of the primary reasons why the shipping of beer between adults is technically a no-no.
When beer is shipped from one state to another, the state it arrives in doesn't get its proper share of taxes, which could be why some states simply prohibit incoming alcohol shipments, regardless of the source. Other states have restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can enter; in some, it's even illegal to have more than a case of beer on you when crossing into the state by car.
The good news is that, although a third of all states don't allow alcohol shipments, Florida does. So if you find a company that has a license to ship and you're over 21, you can probably order beer at home and not worry about its legality.
The bad news is that beer traders are still out of luck. Until the laws regarding private shipments of alcohol are revisited, the seemingly innocent act of buying a local beer and shipping it to a friend who lives out of state is illegal. With the continued growth of beer trading and craft beer in general, it may soon be time to do just that.
Until an acceptable option appears, though, it looks like beer traders will just have to keep shipping snow globes and hoping that their package arrives at its destination safe and hopefully unopened.