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Sept. 6, 2012 | Trading on eBay's absurd booze loophole
LAST MONTH , San Francisco's Toronado bar celebrated its 25th anniversary with T25, a commemorative beer brewed by California's Russian River Brewing. The supply of about 100 cases of the strong, sour, barrel-aged ale, priced at $25 a bottle, sold out in three days.
Like many one-offs, it was here today, gone tomorrow . . . And then resold the following day on eBay.
One bottle has already been auctioned for $159, and more are sure to follow.
It's a common practice that has several small brewers up in arms.
After a bottle of his Texas brewery's La Muerta imperial stout was sold for $50 on eBay, Freetail Brewing CEO Scott Metzger posted a notice on the company website vowing, "If I find out who you are, I will make sure you are banned from ever buying our bottles again."
Alpine Brewing of California took things a step further when growlers of its popular imperial IPA started selling for $60 on eBay.
"You have seen your very last growler of Exponential Hoppiness ever to be dispensed," owner Pat McIlhenney declared as he announced he would no longer fill bottles with the IPA. ". . . The fact that people drove down from L.A. to make a quick buck and denying the locals the chance to buy some is just plain wrong."
Wrong? I'm not sure I agree.
First, anything you buy - say, tickets to a Phillies game - you have the right to resell at any price. It's your property; you do what you want with it within the law.
Second, buyers are willing to pay such inflated prices on eBay because the supply of these one-offs is so scarce - and whose fault is that?
Breweries create a ton of buzz with their once-a-year specialties, at least partly because they're so rare. Boasts of one-hour sellouts are shared like badges of honor.
Still, I sympathize with the brewers.
They're the ones who've spent thousands of dollars and countless hours building their brands, creating their products, obtaining licenses and paying taxes. Then some boob comes along and gloms onto their hard work.
Even if you have no sympathy for the brewer, you have to admit that $200 for a single bottle is downright un-beerlike, yet another twit-ish step toward the winofication of suds.
"You've got people purchasing your beer with no intention of drinking it," Shaun Hill of Vermont's Hill Farmstead brewery told me after seeing a bottle of his Mimosa sour ale sell earlier this summer on eBay for $199. "It's pretty disheartening."
When Hill threatened to sic his lawyers on resellers, a vocal online minority slammed him as a "whiner."
Small brewers will never change the laws of supply and demand. If they want to end profiteering, they oughta start bringing some heat on the one party that's raking in the big bucks: eBay.
The auction site ostensibly prohibits the sale of alcohol, yet hundreds of bottles are nonetheless sold each month through a glaring, utterly absurd loophole in eBay's policies.
The loophole simply requires sellers to state that "the value of the item is in the collectible container, not its contents," and that "any incidental contents are not intended for consumption."
Russian River tried to underscore that provision on the label of T25, which reads, "The beer inside this bottle is for consumption only. This bottle is not a collectable bottle unless it is empty."
Russian River brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo wondered, "Who is going to pay $400 for an empty bottle of beer?"
Nobody, of course, which is why, as he watches one bottle of Russian River after the next go for hundreds of dollars, Cilurzo calls the provision "crap."
I'd use the word "duplicitous." It's a two-faced disclaimer - no doubt written by a lawyer - intended to allow eBay to profit from booze sales while protecting it from such indelicate matters as underage liquor sales and the collection of alcohol taxes.
A spokesman for the company, which recently banned the sale of magic spells, sidestepped any questions about eBay's liability. Instead, she directed me to its alcohol-related policies and said it's up to buyers and sellers to follow federal and state laws.
Several brewers told me they'd contacted eBay to challenge the company over the resale of their products and got little satisfaction.
However, Russian River President Natalie Cilurzo told me she'd successfully persuaded the company to cancel the sale of some of its products. When I told her about the sale of T25, she immediately notified eBay, and the items were removed from the website within a day.
The Brewers Association, which represents small breweries, has discussed the issue but hasn't taken a stand on it because, according to director Paul Gatza, "it is a matter of [law] enforcement, not policy."
So far, though, neither the feds nor individual states have gone after eBay, at least partly because the sale of alcohol online remains an unsettled legal issue.
Here are some of the biggest eBay sales in the last 90 days: