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Vermont brewers applaud as eBay shuts down black market beer


Published August 15, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.

When Shaun Hill first noticed a bottle of his beer for sale on eBay last fall, it was a jolt. “I was like, what? People are trying to sell our beer for $100?” recalls the Hill Farmstead brewer. “Then it just started getting worse.”

In subsequent months, a bottle of Hill Farmstead Mimosa, a saison, sold for $199.99, and bottles of Damon barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout — named for Hill’s childhood Labrador retriever — went for $154, $179 and even $249. The prices were inflated 10 to 15 times beyond those at Hill Farmstead’s limited bottle releases, events where fans trek to the Greensboro brewery and wait in lines to score a few bottles. Some go home empty-handed. Others, Hill says, are “buying as much as they can simply for the sake of selling it all.”

Hill makes beer on land that his family has owned for generations, and he names some of the brews after his forebears. That he sees the work as part of his family’s legacy, and part of the resurrection of the Northeast Kingdom’s agricultural landscape, made him resent the profiteering that much more sharply. In April, Hill went public with his concerns, writing on Facebook, “We encourage beer enthusiasts to look within their own community — the community of enthusiasts — [and] stare at the folks that are hoarding beer until it is far beyond optimal, scowl at the people that are disrespectfully and illegally reselling beer on eBay in order to gain a significant profit.”

In response, Hill decided against releasing Ephraim imperial IPA in bottles, instead opting for draft only. And he tried to contact eBay to let the site know such alcohol sales are illegal. (Transporting alcohol over state lines is illegal, and both federal and state laws require permits for alcohol sales.) But he got no response, and Hill Farmstead bottles kept popping up for auction.

That is, until late July of this year. After a flurry of commentary in the online beer media, full bottles of beer on eBay suddenly vanished over the weekend of July 28. Their removal was as mysterious as it was swift, coming without much explanation from the auction giant.

Yet given that the cult status of Vermont microbreweries continues to grow — and Hill Farmstead and other breweries, such as Lawson’s Finest Liquids continue to rake in accolades — it’s worth asking whether eBay’s apparent policy reversal will end the illegal exploitation of our local brews. And why does it matter, anyway?

Beer forums such as BeerAdvocate and RateBeer are peppered with posts from people offering up rare bottles for trade. Yet the phenomenon of craft brews commanding high prices at auction is relatively new; it started last fall and increased in step with the cultlike anticipation surrounding releases from Hill Farmstead, Belgium’s Cantillon and other artisanal breweries.

Like Hill, Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids first noticed his beers for sale on eBay last fall. Worried that the practice was illegal, he tried to contact sellers with his concerns. “I would send them a message: ‘Hey, I’m the brewer. Please don’t illegally resell my beer,’” Lawson says. But he didn’t hear back from a single one.

Bottles of Lawson’s Finest Liquids famously sell out quickly, and some ended up on eBay listed at four or more times their sale price. In July, a pair of Lawson’s bottles (his Fayston Maple Imperial Stout and Seared Palate Barley Wine, the latter signed by the brewer) sold for $129.66 through a reseller in Essex Junction. One intrepid vendor paired the Alchemist’s Heady Topper with Lawson’s Double Sunshine IPA for a $110 sale on July 12.

Lawson says he was “slightly baffled” that people had that much money to spend on a bottle or two of beer. And he was bothered that profiteers circumvent the numerous taxes and fees that he must pay on every bottle sold. “As a small-business owner, I pay a lot of money for licensing and taxes,” Lawson points out. “There’s a layer of taxation at every turn.”

Yet what seems so logical to Hill, Lawson and other brewers whose beers turned up on eBay — the illegality and disrespect inherent in the practice and the potential quality loss involved in reselling improperly stored beer — appears to be immaterial to buyers who believe that, once they’ve purchased a beer, they can do whatever they want with it.

One commenter wrote on RateBeer: “In the end who are we to tell or dictate to someone else what they can or cannot do with beer. If someone buys it at the brewery or beer store its there [sic] beer to do with as they see fit. If they want to sell it at an astronomical price I don’t have to buy it but if someone wants it that bad then why should I care?”

Another commenter put it more bluntly. “Why are breweries upset that their beers are desired and traded for? Oh my god, a couple of growlers sold on eBay! Let’s f*** over our local consumers and anyone else who might like to try our beer! That will show them! What’s that, someone’s drinking one of our beers with more age on it than we think it should have?! Let’s screw them over, too!”

But not all resellers are so obdurate in their views. One of the early resellers of Hill Farmstead beer was Adam Jackson, a beer blogger from White River Junction. Jackson trekked up to Greensboro for some Damon last spring, then resold a bottle on eBay for $145.

“I had some bills to pay, and it seemed like a normal thing to do. I did it before I ever met [Shaun Hill], so it was not a personal thing,” says Jackson, who began blogging about beer this past winter.

When Jackson’s car became stuck in the mud on a visit to Hill Farmstead in April, Hill and his father helped pull it out. Only later did Hill find out that Jackson had auctioned off some of his beer. He tweeted to Jackson, “Please don’t sell our beer on eBay ever again.”

What followed was an epiphany of sorts for Jackson, who began to use his blog to evangelize for Hill’s case. He also reached out to someone at eBay, writing, “There are some local brewers that are upset about this,” he recalls.

Whether it was Jackson’s contact who finally compelled eBay to take down the beer listings, the company is not saying. “We often rely on the expertise and reports from the brewing community to help determine whether products are valuable as collectibles or intended for consumption,” writes Kari Ramirez, a media contact for eBay. “If we find any listings that are in violation of our policies, we will remove them, and we will continue to enforce our policy.”

Since then, full bottles of beer have not appeared on the auction site. Yet bad feelings linger among those who think Hill is being elitist. “The most frustrating thing is that people don’t understand where we’re coming from. We get a lot of hateful, argumentative comments via email or Facebook from people who are just really angry at us and don’t understand,” Hill says. “They think we disagree with the principles of a consumer-driven economy. The amount of misunderstanding makes me feel helpless.”

To those who think increasing production is the answer, Hill is adamant that the brewery will grow at its own pace, not in response to increasing demand. “We don’t want to grow right now, and we make a small amount of product the best that we can,” he says. “That’s not a blank card for being able to illegally resell it.”

Lawson, too, is happy with his brewery’s size, which allows him to work at home and be close to his family. Yet he acknowledges with apparent resignation that beer profiteering will crop up again in another form.

So is there a solution to inflated beer prices?

Hill thinks one option may be decanting beer into smaller bottles, so there is more of it to go around. (“We’re looking at 375-milliliter bottles,” he says.) Another solution: selling beer directly to consumers via his website. “We’ve been in touch with the state, and we hope after next year we can change laws so we can sell beer via website or mail,” he says. “That would help remedy the complaint that people in California aren’t going to get to taste this particular beer.”

William Goggins, the chief of education, licensing and enforcement for the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, says no such option is on the table yet, but he has heard a “rumor” that “one or two Vermont brewers may try to introduce legislation that would put breweries on the same page as wineries with regards to internet sales.”

Sean Lawson hopes that beer lovers with spare cash will simply come to Vermont and track down and taste the beers in person. “They can translate that passion into visiting small, local breweries,” he suggests. “Beer tourism is just awesome.”