Editor's note: This story has been changed from its original version in order to clarify which beers Rob Lowe intends to sell.
Rob Lowe has more than 100 bottles of the world's hardest-to-find beers on a cellar rack outside his kitchen. On a nearby table are more of the same — beers that serious enthusiasts across the world would go to great lengths to get their hands on.
But he has no plans to drink the beers on the table. As an active player in the burgeoning beer-trading scene, these bottles are his inventory.
A look through his personal stock reveals several brands that are not only unavailable in Florida, they're unavailable almost anywhere. Vintage fruit lambics from Belgium's Cantillon, limited-release Porters and Saisons from Vermont's Hill Farmstead, and rare, bourbon barrel-aged versions of barleywines and imperial stouts from some of America's top craft breweries fill the shelves. Nearby, large boxes filled with Styrofoam and newspaper give a clue as to where some of these bottles came from, and where others are going.
"It's a way for people to enjoy rare or highly sought-after beers that wouldn't normally be attainable for them," said Lowe, 31, of Tampa. "It's a hobby of sorts."
A regular participant in BeerAdvocate.com's beer-trading forums, he recently organized a tasting event at Peg's Cantina in Gulfport for fellow beer traders to share some of their most prized beers while simultaneously sampling some of the barrel-aged beers from Cycle Brewing that were released at Peg's that day.
Although Cycle beers are produced locally on a tiny scale and are currently not distributed outside of Peg's, they are among the most highly rated beers on BeerAdvocate, with its Rare D.O.S. and RareR D.O.S. Imperial Stouts both listed in the top 250 beers in the world, according to user ratings.
By the time the restaurant opened at noon, a line had stretched around the block, made up of both locals and beer enthusiasts who had traveled from all over the country — Ohio, New York, Wisconsin, even as far west as San Francisco and Portland. Many were eager to snag a 16-ounce growler of Cycle's Nooner batch #2, a version of the RareR D.O.S. aged with vanilla beans. To the beer trader, this one is a "whale" — a beer that commands an exceptionally high trade value.
Doug Dozark, founder and head brewer at Cycle Brewing, estimated that at least 75 percent of the growlers sold that day were purchased by traders. While the practice of beer trading is controversial among some small-scale brewers who fear excessive demand makes it hard for locals to get certain beers, Dozark is flattered by the attention, and sees beer trading as a positive source of growth for small brewers.
"Some of the beers that people have traded my beer for are hard to get, cost more and are exceptional beers. To think that people would place something I made alongside such beers is a great feeling," he said. "We are small, our reach is very limited, and it is great to hear that our beer is going to people who appreciate it. I can understand how people would say that it hurts the locals, but the beer traders are local enthusiasts. Many are regular customers who come to drink and hang out at our place weekly."
Lowe has a similarly positive outlook. "It creates an awareness of them outside of their small market," he said. "When beer geeks come to the bay area they visit these places and spend money."
By 1 p.m., the entire outdoor patio deck at Peg's was consumed by BeerAdvocate traders, with tables littered with half-full bottles of some of the world's best and most difficult-to-obtain beers, along with plates of food from Peg's, and, of course, snifters of the just-released Cycle brews. Samples were passed around generously, and the traders — many of whom knew each other only by online handles — exchanged stories of big trades along with passionate opinions of the beers currently being sampled.
While many of the beers sampled were extremely rare — and thus valuable in trading — the discussion rarely centered on trade value and nearly always focused on the quality and nuances of the beers being sampled. For these traders, it's not all about the score, it's about the beer itself.
Of course, there's always the thrill of future trades, and these talks often veer into the subject of "white whales" — beers so hard to come by that a trade opportunity is highly unlikely. To the average beer enthusiast, these beers exist only in mythical terms, but to the trader, they're only barely out of reach; there's at least some small potential that a trade could occur.
"Almost every trader will tell you about that one beer that they want to trade for but think it too unattainable," says Lowe. "My personal white whale would be Cantillon Soleil de Minuit. It's made with Cloudberry fruit and was only sold at one spot in Sweden, that I know of. I can't imagine what it would taste like, but ambrosia comes to mind."
The following afternoon, I caught up with Lowe at Cigar City Brewing for the annual release of its Hunahpu's Imperial Stout. In front of him were half-consumed bottles of Lawson's Finest Liquids' Double Sunshine IPA and Russian River's Beatification sour ale.
"You've gotta try this," he says, handing me a small tasting cup of Emmit Fitz-Hume Berliner, a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel-aged Berliner-Weiss brewed by acclaimed Miami homebrewer Johnathan Wakefield.
The beer is good — tart and pungent, but also very complex. Wakefield's beers are currently not available commercially, but he's well known amongst Florida BeerAdvocate traders, as well as those who have tried his beers while visiting from out of town. Word on the street is that he'll be opening a brewery in the Miami area soon.
If and when that happens, Lowe will know about it.