Confessions of a Beer Ticker

The psychology behind amassing alcohol often harkens back to childhood collection obsessions—from baseball cards to Bourbon County Stout, from pogs to Pappy. Aaron Goldfarb on his own collecting evolution and what it means to be a beer "ticker."

I remember one of the happiest moments of my childhood: I was ten and attending Oklahoma City’s largest annual baseball card show. I walked the convention center with my buddy, stopping at booths manned by tubby man-children in ill-fitting replica jerseys, scanning their glass cases, thumbing through cardboard boxes, looking for anything cool. Then, in one booth, I spot my white whale: Darryl Strawberry’s 1982 Jackson Mets minor league card.

As a kid, I was a massive collector of everything. I had the biggest baseball card collection in the neighborhood. I collected comic books and action figures, vinyl and Wheaties boxes. There was even a regrettable pogs phase. All of this eventually segued into DVDs and classic movie posters and books on Alfred Hitchcock by the time I was in college. And then I became an adult, entered the real world and started collecting the ultimate passion of my life: drinking.

You can’t collect drinking, one might say. But beer geeks have a term for it: “ticking.” Ticking is a manic compulsion to try everything good, everything rare, even just an ounce. The word isn’t in the OED, but, if it were, the definition might include this sample sentence: “There was only a sip of Toppling Goliath’s KBBS left when I got to the bottle share, but at least I got the tick in.”

We tickers hit bottle shares and beer festivals and plow through dozens of tiny samples, counting our ticks like Wilt Chamberlain notched sexual conquests via Untappd check-ins—mostly just to say, “Yeah, I’ve had Tree House Good Morning. Sure, I’ve tried Focal Banger.”

Some might consider this kind of compulsive ticking to be some form of drinking problem. But I’m not an alcoholic; I’m a completist. How else am I going to know what’s best if I don’t try them all?

And I am certainly not alone: So prevalent is this silly behavior, a British documentary about tickers was released in 2009. “It’s a form of trainspotting,” explains one man in the film, somehow making it sound even nerdier than it already is.

When I visit a new city, it’s imperative that I hit every spot on both Draft and RateBeer‘s top beer bars lists. (And why not drop by every cocktail joint on the World’s 50 Best Bars rankings, too?) “This bar is great; why do we have to go to another bar that might not be?” my wife often wonders. A valid question, but as a collector of drinking experiences, I’d much rather learn an acclaimed bar sucks while ticking it off my list than spend the whole night enjoying myself at just one place.

This compulsive need of us beer geeks to collect, or tick, often mimics similar behaviors from childhood. Almost always, the beer geeks I know—usually men—obsessively collected something as a kid. One beer friend, Anthony, collected Starting Lineups and mini football helmets as a boy. Another, Derek, stockpiled GI Joe figures, while David amassed “Magic: The Gathering” decks. Joshua Hatton, co-founder of Single Cask Nation, used to collect guitar pedals.

I’m not an alcoholic; I’m a completist.

But unlike baseball cards in their hard plastic holders and comic books in their polypropylene bags—unable to ever be touched—alcohol is inherently meant to be unwrapped, popped, consumed and then trashed. It’s the rare collectible that’s completely ephemeral. Once consumed, it only exists in our memories (and that Untappd check-in). Perhaps that’s why so many of us are loathe to crack those special bottles gathering dust on our shelves. So we just keep acquiring more, the act of building a killer “cellar”—and the resulting braggadocio it affords us—becoming almost as fun as ever drinking the alcohol. In fact, it’s looking more and more like the only difference between beer geeks and wine collectors nowadays is that most people can still afford rare beer.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for big money to impact hobbyists’ simple enjoyment of collecting these rare and beautiful objects, snatching at accessibility, driving up prices. Just as baseball cards were ruined by outside speculators inflating values and card companies adding “chase” cards, whiskey now stands at a similar crossroads. So-called flippers snap up bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and other “LEs”—nerd parlance for “limited editions“—just to make money on the secondary market, with no plans to ever drink the liquid inside.

Beer’s black market is booming, too, with rare beers selling for well over their retail prices via sites like My Beer Cellar. This year, for the first time ever, I noticed men in sharp suits buying cases of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. Are these masters of the universe interested in drinking this limited stout, or has it become a luxury bauble to own? Yet another item to possess and brag about in the same way their baby boomer bosses treated wine, as a means of cementing their economic status?

But the actual beer tickers are just as guilty of creating this mania, even if their compulsions typically come from a more honest place. I frequently hear the angry refrain that rare beer is treated nowadays like kids used to treat rare Pokemon cards (one thing I’m too old to have ever collected, thankfully), with beer geeks snatching them up as mere assets, hoping to leverage them for something they actually want to drink one day.

Well, of course it is. We all used to be those kids. Coveting and collecting, buying and trading—that was almost as fun as actually playing with the cards or reading the comic books. Or drinking the beer.

Which is maybe why it seems today’s beer events are hardly any different from baseball card shows or Comic-Cons (minus any weird cosplay)—all burly, neck-bearded men in branded t-shirts, one-upping each other with arcane knowledge and experiences. The one thing that makes our hobby seem somewhat more “adult” than dressing up like Boba Fett is that at least everyone is getting drunk.

And regardless of the one-upmanship that’s become part of beer (or wine or whiskey) ticking culture, it’s still a type of collecting that can innately bring people together. No beer geek I know spends most of his drinking time alone, staring at his cellar, like so many lonely comic book collectors might have as children. And even if bottle shares and beer festivals are often nerdy, they’re still undeniably fun—at least a lot more so than wandering the aisles of a convention center looking for some obscure baseball card.

Finding that rare Darryl Strawberry card was one of the best moments of my childhood, but there’s another memory I return to often: It was the final day of middle school and we were going around getting classmates to sign our yearbooks. One cool kid, instead of writing the requisite “Have a great summer!”, mocked my well-known hobby by Sharpie-ing into my yearbook: “Trade you my Ken Griffey card for your Barry Bonds.”

Ironically, that cool kid now owns a bar that opened last fall. Over Facebook, he invited me to check it out, surely hoping to get some press. It seems like a nice enough place, but I can’t imagine taking him up on his offer. I’ve already ticked his entire beer list.