Nov 11 2010

How to Pack and Ship Beer

I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the years about how to ship beer. The act of shipping beer is a simple thing. The packing of the bottles and cans is the key. And you want your precious homebrew to make it to the competition safely, or that trade you carefully set up with another beer lover to go flawlessly.

I use to have a hastily put together document that I’d forward to people with some tips and ideas, but that rarely seemed to do the job. Peter, over at Simply Beer, came up with the great blog post How Do You Ship Homebrew?, and I would forward that, but it still resulted in some lingering questions. I have no problem fielding questions (it’s good to hear from people out in cyberspace), but I wanted to come up with a more definitive document.

So, it the naïve hope of making this as easy as possible, I decided to do a quick post with some step by step pictures to try to make shipping beer simple.

The Keys to Packing and Shipping Beer

Do not ship through the United States Postal Service (USPS) – It is illegal to ship beer through the USPS. Always use FedEx or UPS. If something goes wrong with a FedEx or UPS shipment, it is a sad story. If something happens to a USPS shipment, you could be facing a legal situation.

Prevent Breakage, Then Prevent Leakage – The key to successfully shipping beer is to get them to their final destination unbroken. That means packing them well and stuffing the box with lots of padding so the beers won’t shift around in the box. This is your first line of defense. But sometimes things go wrong, despite your best efforts, and a bottle might break. When that happens, you want to keep the spill contained and to stop it from leaking through the box. When a box starts to leak, it gets pulled out of shipping process. Often the box gets thrown away by the shipping company, despite the fact that the rest of the bottles in the box might be fine.

Don’t Offer Up to the Shipping Company That You Are Shipping Beer – I’ve never been asked, and there is no reason to tell them. It leads to irrelevant questions and wastes time. If someone does ask, you can say that you are shipping yeast samples. In a very truthful way, you are.

Make Sure You Have the Materials Before You Begin to Pack – This sounds silly, but make sure you have everything you need before you begin to pack these beers. If you don’t, you might be tempted to pack them in a half-assed fashion just to get them out the door. Don’t do that. Your beer, be it homebrew or commercial beer for a trade, is worth doing it right. So, do it right.

Materials – The materials are pretty straight forward. You need a box, packing tape, bubble wrap and lots of, what I’ll call, “stuffing”. Stuffing is more bubble wrap, or waded up newspaper, or (one of my favorites) plastic grocery bags, or anything else that will compress and keep your wrapped beers from banging against each other and the box. Some people and homebrew competitions specifically tell you that they don’t like packing peanuts. I don’t mind them, but you should follow the rules or desires of the recipient.

Isn’t This Whole Process a Little Over the Top? – Yes, yes it is. But overdoing this is suddenly worth it once a beer breaks in shipping and your whole box gets thrown away without being returned to you. If you are trading beers, it is hard to replace a Dark Lord, or a Darkness, or the very last bottle of the most amazing homebrewed IPA that you ever made.. If you are close to the deadline of a homebrew competition, a broken bottle in shipping might mean you will miss the entire competition.

The Steps

Step 1 – Pack up your bottles. At this stage you only need bubble wrap, tape and 1 gallon Ziploc bags for 12 ounce beers. I wouldn’t use duct tape as it is unnecessary on the inside of the box, and many shippers will not take your package if you use it on the outside of the box. If you are shipping a bigger bottle, say a bomber, you can try to find a bigger bag like a plastic grocery or a small (clean) trash bag that you can tie off and keep any spilled liquids inside.

Step 2 – Put the bottle in the bag and roll it up while getting all of the air out of the bag. Make sure you zip it shut, as well, in case the bottle does break.

Step 3 – Also make sure you have marked your bottles, as well. As you can see in the picture below, I have labeled my homebrewed beer so the recipient will know which one is which. If you are sending it to a competition, make sure you are following their rules and attaching your correct entry forms to the bottle with a rubber band.

Step 4 – Cut yourself a piece of bubble wrap. Make sure it is long enough to wrap around the bottle one and quarter times, and leave enough at the top and bottom that you can pull them together to protect the cap and bottom of the beer. (It is difficult to see this in my picture.)

Step 5 – Roll up the bottle and tape the bubble wrap tightly in place. Make sure you are pulling the excess wrap at the top and bottom together so that the cap and the bottom of the bottle are covered.

Step 6 – Get your box. My rule of thumb is that I try to get a box that hold almost 2 times the amount of unwrapped beer that I am sending. The bubble wrapped bottles are much bigger than you’ll expect them to be, and you want to have space to pack padding between the bottle and the walls of the box.

Step 7 – Line the box with bubble wrap. You just need two strips of bubble wrap going in opposite directions for this. Make sure you leave extra wrap at both ends so you can fold over the wrap before sealing and taping the box closed.

Step 8 – Pack your box with your beers and whatever “stuffing” you have accumulated. Make sure the bottles are not touching each other or the sides of the box. Cram in as much as you can without stretching out the box.

Step 9 – Now you are ready to close the box. Fold over the excess bubble wrap you used to lined the box over the top and close the box. BEFORE you tape it shut, pick up the box and start shaking it. If any of the bottles are shifting around in there, open the box again and rearrange the bottles and add more stuffing. Your enemy here is any movement inside the box. You might hear the beer sloshing around in there, but hopefully only very faintly. Is hard to avoid this, but lots of stuffing material in the box will muffle that sound.

There you go. Do the best you can and then let the shipping company do the rest. You can even ask the shipper to stamp the box “Fragile” (which, I believe, is an Italian word), if that makes you feel better.

If there is anything that you like to do when shipping beer that I didn’t mention, please feel free to comment below. I’m completely open to additional techniques, and I might update the post to include your tricks and methods. There are no incorrect techniques, if it gets your beers to your final destination safe and sound.

**Update** 8/5/13

A new wrinkle in the discussion. The USPS might start shipping alcohol. Something to watch….  http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/breaking/chi-post-office-alcohol-shipments-20130802,0,7827563.story