Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 2, No. 6
The challenges of shipping beer

Nov. 8, 2001

Here's a hypothetical: You live west of the Mississippi and are visiting the East Coast. You fall in love with Midas Touch from Dogfish Head Brewing Co. in Delaware and buy a case. You don't want to hassle with it on the airplane flight home so you decide to mail it back. You go to the post office, and they tell you it's illegal to send alcohol through the mail. You go to UPS, and the clerk says they can't ship beer. You try FedEx, same thing. Discouraged you go back to your brother's house shaking your head. Let me try, he says. He takes the beer to FedEx, and they ship it. Of course he doesn't tell them exactly what's in the package.

And that's for beer you bought yourself and intend to drink in your own home. The challenges of shipping beer only get more confusing from there.


At the heart of the matter is the three-tier system of alcohol distribution enacted in 1933 at the end of Prohibition. The three tiers are producers, wholesalers and retailers -- with wholesalers established to separate producers (such as brewers) from retailers and eliminate many of the abuses of producers-retailers relationships that existed before Prohibition.

Except for general guidelines in the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, the control of alcoholic beverages is a state matter. Regulations and laws vary by state. It's actually a lot more complicated, because state lawmakers receive pressure from many directions -- those who claim to be worried about minors ordering alcohol through the mail, their own tax collectors, wholesalers who don't want to be cut out of the equation by direct sales, legislators in other states intent on opening markets for their own constituents, etc.

Why should this matter to somebody who wants to ship beer to themselves, or friends who want to trade beer with each other, or homebrewers who want to ship beer to out-of-state competitions? Because the easiest way for shippers to make sure they are delivering beer that is not being SOLD outside the three-tier system is to avoid most beer deliveries. Sometimes their policies may seem inconsistent because a clerk at the shipping window will tell you they have a "no shipping" rule, but that rule is flexible for those who offer proof they are shipping legally.

Those attempting to buy beer through the mail, either from stores or as members of various beer clubs, learn this first hand. For instance, a Beer Break reader shared this letter he received from the State of Utah, Department of Public Safety, State Bureau of Investigation about the beer (from a vendor other than Real Beer) that was confiscated when he lived in Utah:

"Dear Mr. (he asked we not use his name):

"I am an agent with the State Bureau of Investigations. Recently, I intercepted 21 bottles of alcohol addressed to you. I have been unable to contact you at your residence.

"The law pertaining to the importation of alcoholic beverages is UCA 32A-12-503: It is unlawful for any...person, to ship or transport or cause to be transported into this state or from one place to another within this state any alcoholic product. This is a class B misdemeanor punishable up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail.

"To my knowledge, this is your first offense. Many people in Utah do not know that sending or receiving alcohol is illegal. Therefore, I am sending you this letter as a warning. If our department intercepts any alcoholic beverages in the future, you will be charged for the violation.

"To avoid problems in the future, I would ask that you contact whoever sends you the alcohol and cancel any orders you may have coming.

"Respectfully, Agent (name withheld)"

The reader asks: "How they can legally confiscate a federally legal product is beyond me, and furthermore, how could they possibly prosecute someone who was receiving a gift from a friend?"

Which brings us back to our original question: How should you ship beer when you just want to send a little to a friend? First, we remind you that it is illegal to mail alcohol via the USPS, and questionable when you use other popular shippers, whether or not that seems fair.

Now, on to what others do. For starters, most choose not to reveal beer is in the package. (Most homebrewers use UPS to send their beer to competitions, and may label it "yeast samples for evaluation.") It is not possible to be too careful when packing. Some readers suggest wrapping each bottle individually. That way if a bottle is broken the beer won't leak through the cardboard box and tempt the shipper to confiscate what is inside.

Here's what one Beer Break reader wrote us: "I typically use the same boxes I received from beer-of-the-month clubs - they work great! Ingenious Styrofoam packing holds a 12-pack 'suspended' and secure. I send and receive beer from friends in the Midwest, and as far away as California, and I've never sent or received a broken bottle - knock on wood.

"The only negative of shipping beer is its high cost. I briefly looked into UPS prices and found them to be pretty high. USPS Ground was much cheaper. For example, I've sent a 12-pack (of bottles, of course, who would bother sending anything in a can!?) from Virginia to Indiana for under $10. Then, a 12-pack from Virginia to California for about $20. They took a few days and a week, respectively."

It seems like a lot of trouble, but we are talking about beer.

Tasting notes
Brewed in Austria

Michael Jackson writes: The world's most famous Christmas beer. Famously strong, too. Dark amber color, almost cherry-red. Predictably, not much head retention. Slight fruit and yeastiness on the nose. Rich, clean, maltiness. Slips down with dangerous ease. Very smooth. Perhaps a little nuttier than last year, and less yeasty. Soothing, very warming.

Brewed by New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo.

Real Beer tasting notes:

Pours a deep red with a lingering pinkish head. Big fresh-picked raspberry nose. First sweet taste quickly gives away to balancing tartness. If you take in a full swallow and swish it around your mouth the sweetness remains on the front of your tongue and the tartness hangs on the sides. Refreshing.