Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lookin' for #WhalezBrah? The is where you will find them!

The Beer Exchange fills a community need.

Tell someone not in the craft beer community that there is an "underground trading market for beer" and they'd likely think you're pulling their leg. Craft Beer imbibers want to try every beer they can but lack of production or distribution prevents some of the best and rarest beers (#whalezbrah) from making it out of the region they are brewed in. That was until the last few years when the beer trading market exploded. Craft Beer fans, whale chasers and the various shipping companies are all reaping the benefits. The Beer Exchange is a great website and app that fills a community need. The website and app are both user-friendly and constantly evolving to make trading easier.

InTheBeerAndNow™ had the pleasure of speaking with Mark Iafrate, the founder of The Beer Exchange (BEX).

We put a couple guys on the case but have yet to uncover any Dead Sea Scrolls or cave drawings indicating beer trading before the Modern Era. Until that happens it seems that the birth place of modern-day beer trading would have to be traced back to the posting boards of beer websites. What was your first beer trade? Walk us through it from the inception to pouring the first beer.

Hahaha I’m imagining FT:ISO posts on cave walls now. Well it took me a while to really get into trading, mainly because I was never all that concerned with hunting down whales. We have such a great selection of local beer here in the North Carolina area, not to mention a solid distribution from out-of-state breweries. If there was something I really wanted to try, I was usually able to sample it at events or bottle shares. One of the perks of having friends with great beer cellars!

The first trade was actually an in-person one here in Charlotte. I honestly don’t really remember what it was for exactly; but it did spark the addiction. Most of my initial interactions were done through Instagram because one, I was already on there, and two, I wasn’t a huge fan of using online forums. Nothing against them, but for me it was just a pain to keep up with all the threads and miscellaneous conversations. Not to mention all the other BS that can go on when you start a public conversation on the internet. Sometimes you just have too many people chiming in where it isn’t necessary, and that can get real annoying real quick. 

So, after doing a few beer trades, what was the “A-ha Moment” when you said to yourself “I design web and mobile applications for a living...a website and mobile app to facilitate beer trades is a no brainer?”

Well you said it! For my day job I work for a mobile software company designing web and mobile apps. Like most people, I assumed there was a dedicated place for trading beer, but everything that was out there just didn’t cut it. 

I started doing basic sketches and writing down some ideas. I sat on the idea for months and just let it develop in my head and on paper. I finally decided to pull the trigger and get the ball rolling back in late 2013. I honestly just thought it was a good idea and was tired of not having a dedicated place to trade. I had most of the resources to get it off the ground myself, and I knew people who could help with the parts I wasn’t able to handle. There was no real reason not to go for it. 

You are one of 3 co-founders of BEX. Whose idea was it to create BEX? Who are the other two guys and what roles do each of you play?
Mark (in his favorite shirt) at Sourfest with friend Justin.

Well like I mentioned I came up with the idea, got the functionality and design together and then set out to find Rethesh, my technical co-founder. He’s an experienced IT guy here in Charlotte and has some experience in the startup world. We met up after work one day and talked about the idea over some beers. He isn’t hugely into craft beer, but he loves building software and liked the idea so he agreed to come on board.

He’s the one responsible for the development execution and making sure the system works from a technical perspective. Most people don’t understand how difficult it is to architect a system that not only works well now, but scales well into the future as you grow. He’s much more “behind the scenes” but anyone who uses BEX has enjoyed the fruits of his labors.

Luke, on the other hand, is a huge beer guy like me. His role is much more community focused and he helps do a lot of the marketing, including overseeing our Ambassador Program. He and I are the ones you’ll see out at events, talking about beer, and actually trading on the site. 

The truth is, the three of us all do about 1,000 different things each. Anyone who is familiar with the life of a startup knows that your title doesn’t mean much, and it’s all about getting stuff done. Sure we have a couple areas where we specialize given our respective talents, but at the end of the day we all share in the day to day responsibilities. 

BEX founder, Mark Iafrate.

We know there are some ads on the website so that must bring in some money but other than that is there anyway you guys make money from BEX or is it mostly a labor of love?

Right, the ads contribute some money but not a lot. We also have a Premium Membership that costs $5 per month (or $55 per year), and comes with some special features, functionality, and perks. There’s also the store where we sell some branded merchandise, but that only brings in a tiny bit too since we need to pre-purchase the inventory. All in all we actually lose money every month (and none of us pay ourselves anything). For anyone who’s started a company before, that’s completely expected.

Now that we’re getting bigger, our job is to figure out a sustainable business model that will grow with us. The good news is we believe we figured something out that will do just that. It still doesn’t change anything, our job is to make BEX awesome and solve a problem for our community.

There are a few other beer trading platforms that we assume you are aware of; BottleTrade and the BeerXChange (whose name is VERY similar to yours). Have you ever had contact with the guys that run those services? Are you fighting with them to be the go-to platform for beer trading or are you just happy to be making it easier for beer geeks to facilitate trades?

I’m a huge fan of competition. It makes our team work a lot harder and in the end, that’s better for our users and the community at large. All that being said, I’m confident in what we have. I haven’t had any contact personally with the guys from Bottle Trade, but I’m sure they’re good guys. I’ve tried using their platform and I just don’t see it being something I’d go back to.

The BeerXChange founder is Chris and he’s an awesome dude. I’ve gone back and forth over email with him a few times and don’t have anything bad to say about him. He’s another passionate craft beer person who’s working on his own app. It’s true what they say: “great minds think alike.”

There will always be a lot of places to trade. Some people are all about Rate Beer or Beer Advocate. Others will keep to trading on Instagram, Facebook, or Reddit. I’m cool with that. I just know I really prefer trading on BEX, and thats because it was designed for trading. Everything else has been tweaked or hacked to make trading possible but  we’re doing it the other way around. That’s why we, and so many others, enjoy trading on BEX. 

Where do you see TheBeer in the next 3, 4, 5 years? Is there an end game here? Have you ever had any interest in someone in the industry wanting to partner with or buyout

Haha…that’s quite a ways out! We’re big into being nimble and agile, so our product roadmap and plans don’t extend much further than a few months. However, we do have long term goals and plans.

Mainly, we want to be the easiest way for people to find and acquire the beer they want. That means improving the trading system in general. It also means providing better ways to search for beers and trading partners, determine the value of beers, and discover new beers. We also want to be the best way for individuals to manage their own cellars.

There is a lot we have planned, but at the end of the day, when someone wants to find a beer they normally can’t find, I want them to think of using BEX to get it. If the best way to accomplish that is through a partnership or industry buyout, so be it. However BEX is our baby, and we’re not going to do anything that puts the community we helped build in jeopardy. 

Alright, let’s lighten things up a little bit and talk beer over business. You just got back from Cigar City’s Hunahpu Day Festival. Had you been before? If so, how have you seen it change over the years and which has been your favorite experience?

Haha “Cigar City Sucks! Cigar City Sucks!” No but seriously this year it was a top-notch experience. This was my third year and after last year’s issues, they really stepped up their game. My hat is off to the Cigar City people.

The first year I went was fun because you had to get there super early to get in. I was in line at around 5:30 AM or so and we were all drinking by 7:30 or 8:00. It was a bit tougher once inside because you needed to pay for beers, but a lot of the people who were there were true craft beer fans. That’s something special. 

Last year they meant well and had good some good ideas, but crapped the bed on execution. Going to a festival-style release along with pre-sales I think is a great idea. However, you can’t have an oversight that allows people to photo copy tickets. It really put a damper on the day and some of the backlash was justifiable, but the real blame should be on the people who copied tickets. 

This year it was great! We (my father and I) didn’t have to wait long to get in, there were plenty of great breweries serving awesome beer, and the lines were short. Not to mention getting your Hunahpu at the end was extremely easy. That is the kind of event I’ll go back to. 

What other beer festivals have you been to and could you give us a little color as far as the differences you’ve noticed and which ones you like best?

I’ve been to a bunch. I place festivals into three categories. Some are just craft beer fueled drunk-fests. The ones that you can tell are there to make some company money and that’s about it. Nothing special, no real theme, just all you can drink beer. This is where you see a lot of people looking for something to do and decided to get wasted outside at a festival. Not really your die-hard craft beer drinkers. I try to avoid those. Not because I am against getting drunk (I’m all for it, in fact), I just can find betters ways to spend my money. 

Then you have local festivals highlighting what’s in the area. These can be a blast, especially if the breweries all decide to serve their year round or seasonals along with a special beer for the event. Usually not very expensive, but also not offering much out of the ordinary for seasoned craft beer people. I end up going to one a year maybe, but that’s it. 

Then you have the really well-done festivals. The ones that have either a) breweries you can’t normally try or b) beers that are rare or not normally available. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with enjoying your go-to local beers, but if I’m paying money to go to a festival, I want it to be an experience. Events that have beers I’m not always drinking are usually the biggest factor for me, and then I take into account the music, food, people, etc.  

We are gonna assume that you have a beer cellar or at least a collection of beers that you are aging. What was the first beer that you decided to age and have you cracked it open yet? What else is in your beer cellar right now? And what are your top 3 prized whales in there?
Mark likes one thing more than beer...Kelsey.

Hmmm. The first one I decided to age. I think I decided to do a three year vertical of Event Horizon by Olde Hickory. I’ve been doing that vertical for some time so it’s kind of an ongoing project. In fact, I’ve done that with a good number of beers - some local and some not-so-local. I wrote an article a little while back on aging for Craft Carolina [] talking about it. It’s a fun hobby but can really consume time, money, and space. 

I have a large variety of beers including some verticals of some of my favorite “whales”. I also have a few bottles of 1989 Thomas Hardy Ale which is a fun beer to break out every now and then. Also have some nice Cantillons I’m holding onto for special occasions. 

The top beers though? That’s tough. I’d say the top three (based on my enjoyment, not ratings) are:

- Verticals of Hunahpu’s Impartial Stout
- Some older barrel-aged variants of Westbrook’s Mexican Cake
- The 1989 Thomas Hardy Ales

One thing we like to ask everyone that we meet in the community is: What are your Desert Island Beers? If you were limited to just 4 or 5 different beers, which would they be? Also, top 3 breweries, in your humble opinion, right now

A Beer Exchange bottle share at Good Bottle Co. in Charlotte, NC.

Good question! To make it interesting I’ll go with stuff that’s somewhat local and avoid all the whales (that just seems like a cop-out). I’m thinking for these that I’ll be drinking the same beers over and over again, so might as well have some variety….

NoDa Brewing Hop Drop n’ Roll - Fantastic local West Coast style IPA.
Olde Mecklenburg’s Mecktoberfest - I can drink this beer for days.
Westbrook’s Gose - This isn’t necessarily “to style” for a gose but it’s a great summer beer and fun to drink.
Triple C’s The Dude Imbibes - This is a really underrated local, barrel-aged sweet stout. 
Wicked Weed’s Black Angel Cherry Sour - Fantastic dark sour beer

It’s impossible to say what the top three breweries are, but I will give you some breweries I think are making a splash right now, tough. 

Carton Brewing out of New Jersey is really making some quality beer. Love their branding and they have some interesting beers (Regular Coffee) mixed with solid offerings like Boat BeerWicked Weed out of Asheville is expanding and making some killer beers, including some really well-done sours. I’m also a big fan of Jack’s Abby - I still don’t think I’ve had a bad beer from them. 

You are based out of Charlotte, North Carolina. What is the beer scene like down there and what would you like to see in the Charlotte beer scene in the future?

The beer scene here is unbelievable. I’ve traveled to a lot of different places and Charlotte has one of the best I’ve ever experienced. It’s still really underrated but you have a fantastic diversity in beers and breweries. Anyone that lives in this area is spoiled rotten when it comes to access to quality beer. I’ll encourage any beer love to make a trip down - tons of local options, great out-of-state distribution, and lots of fun stuff to do. 

As for the future, I imagine a time when every single bar and restaurant has some local options on tap. We’re not there yet, but making good progress. 

The Beer Exchange is a free service to those who want to use it but you do have an "Ambassador Program and a "Premium Membership. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

For sure. The Premium Membership [ a way for users to support BEX while also removing ads and unlocking special features and functionality. It’s not required by any means, but we find more experienced traders tend to upgrade after a while.

The Ambassador program is separate and is made up of our most supportive and vocal users. They work to spread the word about BEX, encourage other beer enthusiasts to sign up, help new members get started, and in general promote an asshole-free environment. Anyone can apply by filling out the form on our site [].

Thanks for taking the time to visit with us and tell us a little bit about We are definitely fans of your website and mobile app. You have a great user interface and you make the process of trading beer fun and easy. Before you go, do you have any of that awesome BeerExchange swag for the guys in the office?

Swag? You know it! We'll send it out your way. Cheers!
All of this is available on The Beer Exchange website.