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KAI RYSSDAL: Munich, Germany, is the center of the beer drinking universe this week — Oktoberfest wraps up there on Sunday. The traditional fall festival of beer and other delicacies draws millions of visitors every year. If you’re not one of the faithful who’s been able to experience authentic Oktoberfest for yourself, there are plenty of options here in the states.
But beer’s not only a party drink — it’s a commodity, too. Kate Golden discovered as much when a guest left a case of Bud Light behind at a party she threw.
KATE GOLDEN: I don’t drink beer that comes in cans. But I figured other people do, and might be willing to trade something to get it — so I turned to the online bulletin board, Craigslist. I went to the barter section and typed in “beer.”
The list bustled with potential trades, things like body jewelry or deer sausage. People will move furniture, tile bathrooms and crochet for beer. Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster reads zillions of postings and says beer barter is a universal medium of exchange.
JIM BUCKMASTER: Most people like beer, and also it adds a lighthearted note to the posting — because there’s this some notion of “I like beer, you like beer, everyone likes beer… let’s have some beer.”
The Craigslist barter section is just the cyber-version of long-standing tradition. Beer historian Horst Dornbusch:
HORST DORNBUSCH: We surmise that beer became a human commodity right after mankind stepped out of the fog of prehistory.
Which was about 10,000 years ago, in Iraq. And it stayed that way — 5,000-year-old hieroglyphics describe how the Sumerians rebelled over the state-controlled barter price for funeral services:
DORNBUSCH: Seven urns of beer. And the ruler of the day was king Urukagina, and he decided to appease his unruly populace by lowering the cost of funeral to three urns only.
Dornbusch said beer has always been highly tradable.
DORNBUSCH: Because it was universal — everybody drank it. Also, as a liquid, it was easy to measure and apportion. And finally, it also kept well, because alcohol and certain beer flavorings serve as preservatives.
In modern times, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’s worked the beer trade more fully than Rick Mahos. Just starting out as a young bike mechanic, he made most of his living in beer.
RICK MAHOS: This thing started happening like one of my friends, I fixed their bike, and they bought me a beer… And then, people started figuring out that I would do mechanic work for trade.
Mahos laid out some rules for me:
GOLDEN: So what kind of beer do you like?
MAHOS: Uh… alcoholic beer?
GOLDEN: Would you be insulted if someone gave you cheap beer for the work you had done?
MAHOS: I guess if I did an extensive job, I wouldn’t want, like, a Pabst or something.
Mahos says there were times clients never delivered — this is an informal system. But now that he works at an established Bay Area bike shop, his boss pays him in cash…
MAHOS: …which then I translate into beer.
Mahos says getting actual dollars is kind of a drag, because he’s just going to convert them into beer anyway.
MAHOS: But I don’t think my landlord would want me paying my rent in Pabst.
I, on the other hand, had no problem finding another mechanic to fix my broken bike for that case of Bud Light. In Oakland, California, this is Kate Golden for Marketplace.