If you thought brewing beer was tough, just try figuring out how to ship it. Whenever it comes to alcohol, the law is especially strict. Every facet of the industry is closely regulated affecting all parties involved, from the manufacturers to the marketers to the men and women who distribute it. So when it comes to shipping beer, things can get particularly confusing. That’s why we’re taking a closer look to decode and demystify the muddled details—and trust us, there are plenty.
A Brief History Lesson
Once upon a time, the federal government thought it would be a brilliant idea to constitutionally ban all production, importation, transportation, and distribution of alcohol within the U.S. Thankfully, the concept didn’t last too long, and prohibition was overturned in 1933, thanks to the 21st Amendment. However, its passage also gave states absolute power to create their own legislation pertaining to the regulation of alcohol (including shipping laws).
To this day, there still isn’t one overarching set of rules that clearly explains the dos and don’ts when it comes to shipping beer. Instead, every state is essentially left to its own devices. And in some cases, the laws can vary from one county to another within the same state. Because of this, the major players in the shipping space (think: FedEx, UPS, USPS) are very specific about outlining their own policies and who they choose to work with. In fact, according to the Postal Service’s shipping restrictions, alcohol is listed as a restricted domestic item, along with cigarettes, firearms, poison, and live animals.
If you thought shipping beer was as simple as tossing a six-pack into a box with packing peanuts, paying for postage, and dropping it off at your local FedEx branch, think again. Believe it or not, the typical consumer is not permitted to ship beer on their own accord to another consumer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a New Yorker mailing a few brews from Brooklyn to Queens, or a Floridian sending suds to a buddy out in California. We, the common folk, are simply unable to do so. (Legally, that is.)
It all comes down to what’s known in the industry as the three-tier system. You have the suppliers (like AmBev and Diageo), the wholesalers or distributors (such as Southern Wine and Spirits), and the retailers that sell to the masses (i.e. bars, bottle shops, and convenience stores). Only retailers can sell directly to consumers—and in order for them to be permitted to ship beer, they need a special license. They also typically need to have an alcohol shipper’s contract with a company like FedEx, which comes with its own set of strict policies.
So, Who Can Ship Beer?
According to UPS alcohol shipping guidelines, “UPS does not accept shipments of beer or alcohol for delivery to consumers.” The verbiage continues, “For shipments containing beer or alcohol, shippers must enter into an approved UPS agreement for the transportation of beer or alcohol as applicable, must be licensed and authorized under applicable law to ship beer and alcohol, and may ship only to licensed consignees.” Meanwhile, the FedEx alcohol shipping service guidelines outline a very similar process. Some additional requirements include that all shipping labels must clearly state if a package includes alcohol, and an adult (at least 21 years old) must be present to sign and receive any such package.
So, while you can’t surprise your friend with a shipment of birthday brews or send out your favorite craft brewery’s latest release on your own, the good news is that you can work with a local, licensed retailer to handle the dirty work for you.
Shipping Beer In-State
But still, there are even more factors you’ll need to keep in mind. In the majority of cases, shipping beer in-state is typically the easiest scenario, since you only need to worry about that one particular state’s laws. The exception comes with those states whose laws vary throughout its municipalities (like in Kentucky, where 38 of its 120 counties are “dry”). Either way, your best bet is to go to a trusted retailer and speak with an expert in person. They should be fully informed on the state’s laws and can help fill you in on the specifics (for example, if there’s a limit on the amount of beer you can ship). But as you can imagine, shipping beer from one state to another can get even more troublesome.
Crossing State Lines
Remember how we mentioned that each state has its own beer laws they abide by? Well, all of that starts coming into play when you want to ship beer from state to state. Not only do you need to comply with the origin state’s laws, but you also need to take the destination state’s rules and regulations into consideration. So even though your state might let a local retailer send beer across state lines, the receiving state might have a law that specifically prohibits consumers from accepting such out-of-state packages. You can see how things can quickly get hairy. For a deep-dive into the nitty gritty, read up on the direct shipment of alcohol state statutes.
Noteworthy Loopholes and Workarounds
Luckily, there are an impressive slew of websites and services that help make the beer-shipping process a bit easier. In fact, you can check out a few of our favorites here. Apps like Drizly can be a lifesaver when it comes to local or cross-country beer deliveries. So how do they avoid getting nabbed by local law enforcement?
“We’re just a gateway, connecting the consumer to the retailer,” explains Drizly co-founder and CEO Cory Rellas. “Drizly never touches the alcohol. We’re simply a software platform that happens to specifically deal with alcohol, and works to solve the problems facing consumers in the three-tiered system.”
Beer fanatics can also join one of the countless beer-of-the-month clubs available to consumers online. These subscription services cater to virtually every whim and preference. They also provide an easy, legal way to get beer shipped directly to your front door. Some solid services worth checking out include The Original Craft Beer Club, The Rare Beer Club, and The Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club. Again, it’s worth noting that the exact areas they’re willing and able to ship to will depend on each state’s specific laws (for example, Utah firmly prohibits alcohol shipments from any delivery service).
Of course, there will always be the rebels who claim that rules were meant to be broken. While we would never suggest or recommend intentionally breaking any local, state, or federal laws, there are plenty of people who claim to have found some creative solutions to the aforementioned shipping obstacles. And their tips and tricks are just a Google search away if you’re curious to read more.
One man, who requested to remain anonymous, claims he and his friends regularly trade their favorite local beers by sending the contents using inconspicuous packaging. “Instead of spelling out ‘Beer’ on the shipping label, we just write something like “Fermented yeast in liquid solution,” he says. “It’s like a white lie, and nobody has slapped us on the wrist yet.”
Your Best Bet
The laws for each state are constantly changing and being updated. If you dream of one day being able to legally ship your own beer from one state to another without worry, then try to stay informed and keep yourself educated on the latest developments. Who knows, that dream may become a reality some day in the near future. But for the rest of us, it’s a deceptively cumbersome task that comes with lots of fine print. If you ask us, your best bet is leaving this one up to the professionals.