These days, there are endless choices beyond the basic can of Budweiser (not that there’s anything wrong with that classic). By joining a beer club, you can have all kinds of brews – ale, stout, lager, and more – delivered right to your door.
Similar to wine clubs (see Are Wine Clubs Worth It?), beer clubs are not a new idea; in fact, they back to the 1950s. But they "exploded in the mid-'90s, as savvy craft beer drinkers sought obscure, hard-to-find microbrews" – the artisanal, small-batch beers that were just becoming big, says Jim McCune, executive director of the craft beer division of EGC Group. And the then-newfangled delivery system called the Internet "made ordering simple and discreet." Now, with microbrews bigger than ever (see The Future of the Craft Beer Industry), so are clubs and their options: Members can receive two, four, six, 12 or more bottles or cans of hard-to-find beers from brewers all over the world.
Two of best known clubs are The Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club (founded in 1994) and The MicroBeer Club (1995). If you like craft beers, the Original Craft Beer Club will deliver 12 (12 oz.) bottles of hard-to-find craft beer to your door. If the larger clubs don’t appeal to you, then check out Noble Brewer, an online craft beer club based in Oakland, Calif. This unique club works directly with home brewers, replicating their recipes with a professional producer that it then sells to its members at three different subscription levels from $21 to $63, in both 12 oz. and 750 ml bottles. In November 2015, its offerings included a Nevermore Chocolate Porter and a Wry Rye Imperial IPA, according to the website. Another craft specialist, The Rare Beer Club (owned by Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club) was offering an Oatmeal Milk Stout and a Celtic Red, among others, in November.
First and foremost, a monthly club is a lot of fun. The anticipation of new, unique beers arriving at your doorstep from microbreweries all around the world can be a great source of entertainment, not to mention education. Along with the beer, a shipment will typically contain tasting notes, and even suggested food for beer pairings at mealtimes. Even if beer isn’t your thing, a beer club might surprise you. “I didn't even like beer when I started,” shares Jessyca Frederick, a professional online reviewer of beer clubs since 2012. “By receiving shipments of these beer clubs for many months, I began to understand my beer palate – what I like and don't like –and now happily drink beer a few times per week and frequently order it in restaurants that have boring wine lists.” And of course, there's the chance to sample original concoctions that might never make it into bars or brick-and-mortar stores, the "new seasonal and one-time batches [brewers make] to test ideas and celebrate the variety in beer-making styles,” says Frederick.
Worth the Price?
It’s not cheap to buy beer from a club, so if you are thinking of a beer-of-the month-subscription as a holiday gift, take note. “Monthly beer clubs range in price, from $30 consisting of more commonly available beers, to $50 [and up], designed for beer connoisseurs looking for the most tantalizing and rare offerings,” shares McCune. Even light beer weighs a ton. “Beer is heavy, so each order is topped with a $12 to $20 shipping/handling charge, not included in the monthly membership.”
In addition to overall cost (the price of the brew, plus those shipping fees), other factors to consider when shopping around for a beer club are the frequency of delivery, the range of beer choices (do you favor IPAs or hearty stouts?), membership minimums and auto renewals. The last item is important if you are giving a membership as a gift: If you don’t work out when it ends or when you have to terminate it, it truly will be the gift that keeps on giving, and costing your budget money that you might not be willing to spend.
As with wine clubs, you have to make sure your state will allow you to buy beer from a club, McCune cautions. “Most states in the U.S. have a three-tier system for alcohol distribution, which was established after the repeal of Prohibition. This system enforces that producers (brewers, winemakers, distillers and importers) can sell their products only to wholesale distributors, who then sell only to retailers – and only retailers may sell to consumers. In 2005, after a lengthy legal battle, the three-tier system was weakened, loosening the rules for breweries prohibited to sell beer directly to consumers.” However, several states still ban the delivery of any alcohol by mail. See Beeronomics: Factors Affecting Your Pint.
The Bottom Line
If you live in a state that bans shipping alcohol – or lack the patience and the budget to join a club– craft beer is easy to find these days. Artisanal and craft beer have gone mainstream, and beer stores abound in metropolitan areas, among them Beer Boutique in Brooklyn, NY, and The Wine Thief & Ale Jail in St. Paul, Minn. Small-town dwellers, don't despair: The craft beer movement has you covered, too. In one Hudson River town popular with hikers, the local Foodtown supermarket carries more than 100 beers for sale by the bottle. The store puts out empty four- and six-pack containers so customers can mix and match.
Beer clubs can be expensive. And a key part of their appeal – offerings that aren't found in stores or bars easily, if ever – also makes it hard to ascertain how competitive their prices are. But if exotic, unique or limited-edition suds are your passion, bear this in mind: A beer-club subscription certainly is easier than home brewing.