Things may not get better, but they definitely become stranger. Lest you think that the title of this post was an attention-grabbing headline, someone actually did pay $1,300 for a bottle of beer on eBay. In fact, it happened twice—first with a Midnight Sun from the Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in California, and then with a magnum of sour beer created by famed Belgian brewer Armand Debelder.
Most of us are vaguely aware that craft beer has been the rage for a few years now. Like all rages, it has attracted large amounts of passionate excess, along with collectors who are willing to pay any price for the best and rarest. In both of the above cases, the shipping charges for a single bottle were enough to purchase a case of Budweiser.
One of the easiest ways to stimulate demand for an item is to tell consumers that they can’t have it. In the universe of craft beer, this tactic seems to have backfired. According to Christian DeBenedetti, who has been writing about beer for nearly two decades, the scarcity of some craft brews has spawned a vibrant black market. Nothing similar exists in the wine world, perhaps because the most sought-after small production wines sell for thousands of dollars to begin with, leaving little room for middlemen.
The epicenter of this black market appears to be eBay, although there are many other sites solely devoted to selling rare craft beers. The brewers are starting to revolt, and many are demanding—successfully—that eBay remove products offered by profiteering entrepreneurs. Not all of the black market sites even offer the sanitary protection of beer in commercial bottles. Stories abound of individuals who visit bars or breweries and surreptitiously fill canteens, then resell them.
If you want to sample the top craft beers in more elegant surroundings, look no further than the country’s top restaurants. New York’s Gramercy Tavern charges $65 for an aged Swiss beer; at Eleven Madison Park, the priciest brew is a 1995 vintage pale ale from Belgium for $130 (in both cases, you do receive a 750 ml bottle). Nor is the craze restricted to Michelin-starred restaurants. The Monk’s Kettle, a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District that specializes in craft beer, charges as much as $83 for a large bottle of Belgian stout.
The silver lining here is that the recession may indeed be finally over. A guy walks into a bar and orders an $83 beer…
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.