Why bottle shares are great

Bottle shares are a wonderful way of discovering new beers, and sampling brews that might otherwise be out of reach, writes Anthony Gladman

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When beers cross the threshold into my house they can end up in a number of places. I put some straight into the fridge and take them out again to drink not long after. These beers won’t be with me for long. I put others into a kitchen cupboard where it’s nice and dark. Maybe they’re a bit stronger so I’m less likely to drink them on a whim or with a meal. Maybe they’re just a bit darker and don’t need to be chilled as much. Either way, most of these beers will go within a couple of weeks.

And then there’s a third category: the weird and wonderful, the special beers in big bottles that are not for everyday drinking. I put these into the cupboard too, but in the furthest corner right at the back. Sometimes I’ll have a particular occasion in mind for opening them. More often, I won’t. These beers stick around the longest and after a while they start to play on my mind. There’s a bottle of Burning Sky Saison de Pêche in the cupboard right now that I want to try, but I can’t bring myself to open it just yet. Partly because I rarely feel like working through a whole 750ml bottle of beer on my own — but even more because drinking a special beer like this alone feels flat, hollow, empty... It feels like a waste. Beers like this needs to be shared to be enjoyed.

Enter the bottle share, where people meet to explore beer with likeminded companions and give special bottles the send-off they deserve. Sometimes these events are put on by bottle shops, pubs or breweries. Sometimes they’re less formal and run by groups of friends. Either way the concept is simple: a bunch of beer lovers get together and each person brings one or two beers to share with the group. At smaller events it’s pretty common to drink one beer at a time and usually the group will be small enough that everyone can get a taste of every beer. Sometimes people will introduce the beers they have brought along and say who brewed it, how they got hold of it and what it means to them. At bigger events there might be an element of the night during which a brewer or the shop staff introduce a few beers to the group and talk about them, before people open up the beers they’ve brought themselves and everyone gets stuck in.

“I’ve headed to a few where it has just been a free-for-all,” says Nic Crilly-Hargrave, an Aussie photographer based in the UK. “It seemed that most people were a hundred miles in front of what I knew, all speaking about these special bottles and breweries that I’d never heard of but giving no backstory to help me understand why they loved them, why they bought them — it was all just tasting notes chat with little else.”

Bottle shares can seem like — can sometimes also be — the preserve of the geeky. This can make them intimidating for people just getting into beer. Lotte Peplow attended her first bottle share in 2016 looking for a way to broaden her palate and sample beers that she would never normally try. “It was a daunting prospect because I knew absolutely no one and assumed it would be full of trendy young dudes with beards. Being a woman who is neither trendy nor young, I couldn’t be further from the stereotypical image of a male beer-drinking hipster.”

In Lotte’s case, heading to a smaller informal bottle share, her fears turned out to be misplaced. “Other members of the share were super-welcoming and most were completely normal beer lovers rather than beer experts,” she says. “I was concerned that everyone else would know more than me, but this wasn’t the case at all.”

In fact bottle shares seem to be one of the more diverse and accepting aspects of the beer scene. Ruvani De Silva, a Londoner with Sri Lankan heritage, says she has always felt welcomed and included at the bottle shares she has attended. “I have never felt like an outsider in relation to my gender, race or beer expertise (or lack of it) and there’s always been space to have discussions, ask questions and express opinions without fear of beer-snob ridicule.”

The common element here is that it’s the smaller shares that seem to be the most welcoming. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. But what might be unexpected is the extent to which this can be true. Lexie Newlands didn’t have any ‘beer friends’ before attending her first bottle share. “I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I knew I definitely wanted to meet more people who liked beer, and that’s exactly what I got,” she says. “I was immediately pleased to see how many women had turned up, and that it was a far cry from the CAMRA GBBF crowd. For me, the bottle share was a refreshing, accepting space, away from the male-dominated beer festivals and beer miles, that offered non-condescending knowledge sharing, and the chance to talk, drink, and make friends.”

Even though she has since moved away, Lexie still keeps in touch with the friends she made at her bottle share. She has been on holiday, to gigs and to beer festivals with them. “Beer brought us together in the beginning, but it’s the real human connection that keeps me lurking in the WhatsApp group after all this time.”

Although the situation is generally pretty good, and we should celebrate that, there is still work to do to make bottle shares more welcoming for people who might usually feel marginalised in our beer culture. This is particularly true in the larger, less personal shares. Kat Sewell mainly goes to shares organised by her local bottle shop. “I’ve been asked in the past if I’ve been dragged along by the other half when in actual fact my other half wasn’t even there,” she says. “It’s pretty frustrating. It is happening less now, but that’s because I tend to see the same people at events and shares and we all know each other and respect each other.”

People who don’t fit the profile of a stereotypical beer lover — those who are not white, not male, not straight, not able bodied — can often feel they need to prove themselves at every turn in order to participate. Thankfully there are people working to provide the welcome that some beer lovers still feel they lack. Lost and Grounded brewery in Bristol has just launched Sharin’ and Carin’, a women’s bottle share, and there’s also the Black Malt Bottle Share Club, one of the few in the country to be run by a black woman, which makes a point of being open to anyone and everyone ‘including people of colour, woke men, women and non-binary folks to come and explore a different side to the beer drinking experience’.

Attending a bottle share can provide some of the best fun to be had in beer. And while access to unusual beers definitely plays a part in that, it’s the people that really make them special. “I love the commitment and energy of the bottle-share communities I belong to and the genuine excitement with which everyone presents their offering,” says Ruvani. Everyone deserves to experience the joy of exploring special beers with fellow beer lovers. If you’re lucky it can create deep and lasting bonds. And at the very least you won’t feel like you’re wasting that big bottle of something special when you finally crack into it.

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