2018-03-01 / Features

A Hop Commodity

Local Beer Enthusiasts Get Crafty In Pursuit of Hard-to-find Flavors
Stephanie Koons

Craft brewing has taken the United States by storm in the past few decades, and Centre County is home not only to four brewpubs but also to a passionate and close-knit group of beer connoisseurs who continuously seek out unique and flavorful beers. While local breweries, bars and bottle shops offer an impressive selection of craft brews, certain brands and varieties are nearly impossible to get — unless you know the right people.

“I think the beer access and community here is getting bigger and better every day,” says Lauren Knoth, founder of Beer Tasting State College, a Facebook group for craft beer aficionados. A Penn State doctoral candidate in criminology, Knoth founded Beer Tasting State College in 2014, two years after moving to State College from Kansas City. She says the impetus for starting the Facebook group was the lack of a centralized beer information hub in Centre County.

“It just kind of grew with word of mouth and talking to people at bars,” Knoth says.
The group, which now boasts more than 640 members, provides a forum for people to discuss beer-related topics. Members post locations of sought-after beers, beer events in the area, and suggestions for new brews to try.

Dante Lucchesi, manager of Champs Downtown in State College, claims that the expertise and free advertising provided by Beer Tasting State College have helped the business flourish. Champs Downtown, which offers more than 50 beers on tap, opened officially in December 2015 and re-opened after renovations in November 2016. When deciding what beers to offer on tap, Lucchesi says he often relies on input from BTSC members. “I have this resource now with fantastic beer knowledge.”

No matter how beer-friendly State College may be, hopheads inevitably covet rare and special beers that are seemingly out of reach. That is where beer trading comes into the picture. The concept is simple: Find a quality beer in your region and trade it for something of equal value in another part of the country.

According to All About Beer Magazine, the internet and social media have vastly expanded the available channels for beer trading. Reddit, RateBeer and BeerAdvocate have entire subsections of their websites dedicated to trading. Smaller Facebook groups are also heavily trafficked by enthusiasts in search of “whales” (particularly rare or sought-after beers) or looking to make dollar-for-dollar ($4$) trades of beers of roughly the same retail value.

Lauren KnothLauren Knoth

While beer trading is a lot of fun for those involved, it is considered a gray market due to legal restrictions on shipping and selling. It is currently a federal offense to send beer across state lines via the United States Postal Service. UPS and FedEx have loosely enforced bans against shipping beer for people who don’t have a liquor license. For all intents and purposes, most beer trades take place off the record.

In addition, Knoth says, Beer Tasting State College forbids outright trades on its Facebook page — members are encouraged instead to “gift” or “swap” beers when there is mutual interest. She added that she personally prefers social events with group members such as “bottle shares” where people meet at someone’s home and each bring two bottles of beer to share.

“Ideally, this is the best way to do it,” says Ryan Houseknecht, a member of Beer Tasting State College. “These are the kind of trusted friends that you know are going to provide exactly what you want.”

“Most people aren’t going to do it for money, they’re going to do it for beer,” Knoth says. “At the end of the day, it’s about being able to trade for something I’ll never be able to get otherwise.”

While Knoth says she doesn’t participate much in the national trading networks, she does enjoy swapping beers informally with her friends in Kansas City and Ohio. When she visits her friends, she will bring them boxes of beers they can’t find locally and vice versa.

“I have this established trade route forever until I don’t want to do it anymore,” she says.

One of the advantages of the State College beer community, Knoth says, is that the transient nature of the town lends itself to building diverse trading relationships among members who visit friends and family across the country and come back with beers from those areas.

I have this resource now with fantastic beer knowledge.”
—Dante Lucchesi

“That creates a really interesting network in and of itself,” she says. “That was part of the reason I wanted to start this group, was to connect people in that way.”

Houseknecht, president of a State College insurance company, is an avid beer collector who is actively involved in a beer-trading forum on Reddit.  

“A lot of the beers I got came from trading with somebody else,” he says.

While working for Marriott Hotels & Resorts and traveling the country, Houseknecht says he was able to amass a sizable collection of diverse beers. He stores about 400 to 500 bottles in a cellar in his Park Forest home and claims that some beers, like wine, actually do get better with age.

Dante LucchesiDante Lucchesi“It’s kind of fun to see, after that initial burst of hops dies down, what flavors are left in that beer,” he says.

While most beer traders aim to trade beers of roughly equal monetary value, Houseknecht says a successful trade is a highly subjective concept. According to All About Beer Magazine, some staple beers that are usually in high demand include Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Younger, Founders Brewing Co.’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Goose Island Brewery’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. Houseknecht says beers from smaller breweries like Tired Hands Brewing Company, Trillium Brewing Company and Tree House Brewing Co. also are highly prized.

According to Knoth, some of the most desirable beers are brewery-only release — the brewery only sells the beer out of its brewery on release day. Locally, Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks offers special releases via events like the Delicious Day of Darkness, and Robin Hood Brewing Co. does brewery-only releases every few months.

Caleb Peachey, a brewer at Robin Hood, is also an active trader on sites like BeerAdvocate and Reddit. He says he frequently trades Robin Hood beers for beers from as far away as California.

“I’m really into trying every single beer,” says Peachey, who estimates he has sampled about 2,000 beers.

Ryan HouseknechtRyan Houseknecht

It is not solely the novelty of trying new beers that makes beer trading rewarding for Peachey — it’s also the relationships built with fellow beer enthusiasts. A member of Beer Tasting State College, he says he’s made many friends through the group. A particularly memorable experience for him was connecting with an online trading partner he had arranged to meet at Dark Lord Day, an annual event at Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana, the only time that people can buy bottles of Dark Lord, a 15 percent ABV Russian imperial stout that is brewed with coffee, Indian sugar and Mexican vanilla.
Indeed, it is the camaraderie that Beer Tasting State College members say they value above the more technical aspects of trading. Houseknecht says he has found about five to 10 group members he can really relate to, and they often visit each other’s houses to share food and beer.

“These groups are a really great way to find people that have similar interests,” he says. “You don’t have to talk politics with someone to be their friend…when you can get straight into beer and argue about why one beer is better than another. Especially when it’s late at night and you’re 10 beers deep.” •SCM

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