An entirely gratuitous and not quite related chart used to enhance credibility.
What was I thinking? Where was my head when Lew
all joined hands and sang Kumbaya (I’m a Minister’s kid so that has more levels for me allowing me to use the word in that way) for the cause of higher craft beer prices. It seems that Stan was noting
the prices of some Lost Abbey brews, which got Stephen thinking
that “the only reason a $30 beer is considered expensive is because it’s “just beer” rather than wine” which made Stan say
“she’s backing wines in the teens and above – and saying we should pay more for beer. Which we should…” to which Lew said
And Beaumont’s absolutely right: don’t ask how much the beer is worth. Ask how much the experience is worth. If drinking an absolutely fabulous drink is not worth that much to you, don’t buy it. Buy something else. And don’t complain about the price being too high for you. It was just a price you weren’t willing to pay, for your reasons, which are just that.
I respect these wiser and more experienced guys but, frankly, no way. Nuts to that. They have made a leap I just can’t follow. First, beer is bread. Beer is craft, a mass product. It is not art. And, as a craft in the medium of food to boot, a consumable that depends on its destruction. Second, while I admittedly have a very high level of sensitivity to it, this line of discussion could really be taken to smack of snob (not something I associate with the three gents mentioned so please leave that alone) or at least it is an idea that is paying a visit to the Neighbourhood of Snob and, you know, is finding it somewhat attractive. Fergit it. Almost twenty years ago Andrew Barr nailed the wine trade, primarily in the UK, in his book Wine Snobbery pointing out especially how champagne created false value through the control of hype and trademark. Let’s not see great beer go there. Third, snobby is a mechanism, like any branding, to make that which is not, something that is – like a 15 dollar beer. Wait for them to say if you do not get it, you don’t understand it. In my current job, I have helped by new technologies so I can see that one coming from a mile away.
But to be fair and, as this is where I wash the laundry, I really have to admit participating in a form of snob. Before blogging and before law, I worked in the other family trade – wholesale cut flowers. Trained in Amsterdam and everything…which means I can also order beer in Dutch: “Kleintje! Meer, meer, M’neer!” And if we florists were in a pinch and needed to shift something in a hurry, top quality flowers being the most perishable commodity going, we sometimes…raised the price. Price point can be king making the $8.99 bouquet become the $13.99 one to get them out the door. [Ed.: It was the ’80’s, OK? People listened to Rick Astley…who I remain surprisingly fond of.] See, by making something artificially exclusive, you can increase its attractiveness. It works in law, too. Sometimes, people do not like the advice they get at 50 bucks an hour. The same advice at $250 can be surprisingly well received. Go figure.
Hey – let’s be clear. I am all for the hard work of the great craft brewers we love being compensated in a meaningful and generous way. I also, however, believe in an honest beer at an honest price. The theater of the mind that is craft beer only exists in the drinking – it is, after all, the drinker who is noble. So please tell me the craft beer movement is more than a way to convince people that authentic is rare therefore pricey. Let’s have a little rule, then, shall we: a big format beer that costs more than, say, ten bucks has got a problem or at least needs some ‘splainin’. Same with the 12 buck six pack. While we may quite rightly drink a rare beer that is more or we may also be paying for the service – which is quite rightly earned – most craft beer isn’t really that rare. It’s just local to someplace you ain’t. Having one at home should not be an exclusive event.
[And the 75 original comments from 2007…]
Buttle – October 26, 2007 12:20 AM
I suspect some people think that $30 bottles of beer will add credibility to beer vis a vis wine. Well I don’t want to impress people with in that way. Besides, I don’t want to forfeit the right to make fun of wine snobs.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 1:04 AM
Why ten bucks? Completely arbitrary number, just because?
And I’d add, why bother ‘splainin’ when from what I’ve observed, the beer geek who would listen and learn is fairly rare. Tell them it’s because the beer has more materials — lots of specialty malts, expensive hops — and you’ll get hooted down by a homebrewer who’ll tell you how little it costs THEM to make a beer that tastes “just as good!” Tell them it’s because it’s rare, and they’ll tell you to make more, they’ll buy it…at a ‘reasonable’ price. Tell them it’s because it’s aged, and aging costs money, and they’ll tell you you should have sold it to them young for a ‘reasonable’ price, and they’d have aged it themselves. I’ve had these discussions, and what it really comes down to is folks who just don’t want to pay.
But you know? The Sam Adams Utopias is wicked expensive. They sell every bottle they ship. They make more, and people buy it. If you don’t buy it, someone else will…assuming it’s good beer.
I just don’t see what the big deal is about some beers, almost always rare and hard-to-make beers, being more expensive, when the big majority of beers are very reasonable. $10 a sixpack beer is okay with you for every day? Hey, Alan, I’ll go you better: I want an explanation from the retailer when a sixer of every-day-drinking quality beer is over ten bucks, too. Why not? I’m still seeing plenty of $8-$9 sixers out there, what makes your $10 beer so damned special?
Like I said. If you don’t like the price…don’t pay it. But price increases are a fact of life. Materials are spiking — malt, hops, glass — brewers are getting paid more (after years of dirt-cheap labor), transport is getting more expensive, for U.S. drinkers the exchange rate party on imports is over, and there are more and more people drinking this kind of beer, which means scarcity and expansion expenses. If you’re going to set price limits on beer, be prepared to change them — upwards — quickly before you look like a fool.
Honest beer at an honest price? There’s plenty of it out there, scads of it, lakes of it. Don’t be surprised to find some honest beer at honest prices that are quite a bit higher than others.
Alan – October 26, 2007 8:35 AM
Ten bucks is not arbitrary at all. It is the price point in the market just above the 8 to 9 buck sixes of quality beer. In my other life, I buy. I buy pencils, electricity, ice hockey arenas, sewer systems, computer software and consultant services. I want explanations for each and every aspect of what goes into price and have happily informed vendors that their story is not good enough. That is what ‘splainin’ is.
But in a low value retail market, the individual buyer doesn’t get that say. There’s no dicker. It’s suck it up or walk away. Yet if craft beer drinkers are supposed to be part of a special movement in partnership with brewers and others, surely it can’t be that we are just to suck it up and buy what we are told when it comes to the transaction.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 9:05 AM
So…you want to buy beer as a commodity? As pencils and electricity? Is some electricity significantly better than others? If some companies pencils were significantly more expensive than the going market rate, I’d want some answers, too, but if a beer is more expensive? The only answer to whether it is worth more money is to buy it and taste it.
Truly, Alan, all the ‘splainin’ doesn’t mean a thing if the beer doesn’t taste a whole lot better, or different in a worthwhile way. Otherwise it’s like a crap car with beautiful leather seats. I can see why it costs more, but I don’t want it.
And doesn’t it make a difference if you just walk away, and someone else — a whole market of someone elses — walk up and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy it at that price, gimme two.’? Does that mean the person who bought the two is dumb enough to pay that price, or is it that you value the beer in the bottle differently, because it’s not just another lot of electricity?
As far as being in a ‘special movement in partnership with brewers’…we are? And we become part of that relationship just by drinking their beer? Why? I don’t feel any relationship with a cheesemaker when I buy their cheese, not even when I bought Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam at the Cowgirl Creamery stand in San Francisco on Tuesday. I feel like I bought a piece of cheese. Cost me over ten bucks, too.
Beer, good beer, is too easy to find these days for me to feel any kind of special relationship or partnership with brewers. I used to, back in the 1980s or early 1990s, when there were very few craft brewers, and I had to put serious work into finding their beer — work they would help with, and other drinkers would help with. But now? There’s lots out there, and I have a lot of choices, at a lot of price points. My choice.
Alan – October 26, 2007 9:20 AM
Everything is special, Lew. Electricity is one of the more interesting procurements due to the range of distinct commodities within the area as well as the demands of electrons that disallows expected forms of buying.
But you write: “I don’t feel any relationship with a cheesemaker when I buy their cheese…” I sure do. But I do not want to get sucked by that affinity, or fall into a trust relationship. I am content to avoid “big cheese” as long as I understand that sheep’s milk cheese from a rural farm has extra <i>real</i> costs. But a buyer should never accept high price = higher value. Prove to me the costs.
I recently read the owner of Allagash state that we drinkers should be trained to buy more expensive brews and I see that the special brews that brewer puts out cost 10 to 15 bucks in Maine. Yet Smuttynose’s special brews go for 4 to 6 and are as excellently made. I need to know specifically why the difference exists. I suspect there is not ten bucks more input. I suspect I am being told that I do not understand. If I can understand electricity, I can understand.
Stan Hieronymus – October 26, 2007 10:15 AM
This banter is moving so quickly that I suspect that by the time I post this comment there will have already been another . . . and all before the sun is up here. So I’m not sure which sub-topic to join in on.
<b>Cheese.</b> If we buy cheese at Whole Foods (and we don’t often) it will be a lot more expensive than the beer (and they have an excellent beer selection). Is this snobbery, hype or just recognizing the cost of quality products?
<b>Kinship with brewers and cheesemakers.</b> We buy cheese from the <i>women who make it</i> at the growers’ market. It’s as expensive as cheese at Whole Foods, but it seems like more of a bargain. We also buy goat’s milk from them to make cheese. Kind of like homebrewing. Do you save money? Not if you were paying yourself for the time. But it’s a HOBBY, cheaper than golf.
Yes, I sample a wide range of beers in the name of work – and fun, with a group of people who bring in beers they’ve picked up here and there – but I know people involved with making the beer in a startlingly large percentage of the beer I buy. They work hard and they aren’t rich. (That includes the owner of Allagash.)
Consider $13.99 for a 6-pack of Bam Biere from Jolly Pumpkin. It’s only 4.6%, not even much buzz for your buck. I <i>love</i> that beer. I feel like Ron Jeffries’ website should have a “support this brewery” button that I’d click on to send him a few extra bucks to make sure he keeps the brewery open.
Keep the conversation going and I’ll be back.
Stephen Beaumont – October 26, 2007 10:23 AM
Okay, let’s talk cheese for a moment, then. I can buy any one of three perfectly good pieces of cheddar over at St. Lawrence Market: An Ontario-produced, aged white cheddar; a similar but frankly better tasting cheddar from England; or a sublime, raw milk cheddar from Quebec. (The last of which I actually discovered several years ago in London, when it was yet to be available in Canada outside of Quebec, but I digress…) Each step up the flavour ladder will cost me more, and sometimes, frankly, it’s not worth it. When I’m buying sandwich cheese, I’m going to cheap out and buy the perfectly tasty Ontario cheddar. When I’m making up a cheese board for friends, on the other hand, I’m going raw milk. What goes into the crafting of these cheeses means nothing to me — why should a cheese from Quebec cost more than one shipped all the way from England? I have no idea — since what I’m paying for is the TASTE. For all I know, the owner of the Quebec dairy is driving a Jag and dining nightly on caviar and foie gras, and good for him or her if that’s the case. All I know or care about is that for a cheese board at a meal that I’m hosting, the cheddar has to be the best, and I’ll pay what’s necessary, within some frame of reason, of course.
Now, beer. Black Oak Nut Brown Ale is a perfectly good beer. A damn good one, in fact. And I’ve some of it in my beer fridge right now, alongside some Fuller’s Porter, Pilsner Urquell, Duvel, Orval, Sinha (Lion) Stout and a bunch of other beers of various prices. None cost me more than about $3 a bottle, which I think I may have paid for the Orval and Westmalle Tripel, and all are, I think, worth the price. These are the beers I drink on a daily basis.
In my wine fridge and cellar space, however, I have beers like Firestone Walker 10, DeuS and Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze and Kriek. These are beers that I view as being suited to special occasions, rather than every day, like the raw milk cheddar in comparison to the Ontario cheese. And for each one, I paid significantly more than $3 a bottle, sometimes a lot more.
Would I buy Lost Abbey Cable Car for $30 a bottle? Damn right I would. It’s a spectacular beer and worth every cent, just like the Champagne Maggie and I enjoyed last Sunday was worth every cent of its notably higher price. Last I checked, Tomme Arthur wasn’t driving a Jag or a Rolls, but I hope he sells enough beer and makes enough money that some day he can if he wants. He deserves it because he’s a damn fine brewer, an artist, even!
Bottom line: Like Lew says, nobody is forcing me or you to buy expensive beers, and if we don’t do it there are plenty of folk who will. (Iron Hill consistently pre-sells their special edition beers at $20/750ml.) There are a great many cheaper beers out there, really cheap if you don’t care too much about taste, and most will suffice quite nicely for day to day drinking. But when it’s time for something special, I’ll pay the necessary price not because I’ve done the background research and discovered the exact cost of the malt and hops and aging barrels and packaging and transportation and retailer mark-up, but because it’s worth it to me to from time to time have something that tastes truly extraordinary.
Alan – October 26, 2007 10:35 AM
Jolly Pumpkin is an excellent example. I will pay fourteen bucks for roughly two litres as I have had oen bottle and was astounded. Fourteen bucks represents, say, 50% more than your basic CNY craft six and only one or two more than picking up a McAuslen oatmeal stout or Brooklyn lager through the larceny that is the LCBO. But the Allagash (not picking on them) special beer price point is three times the Smuttynose one. I need a good bit more information if I am ever to be a repeat buyer of that beer and I am only a first time buyer as I write about beer and have kind sponsors who give me money to buy beers I otherwise would not. Based on one bottle of Bam, by comparison, I am travelling about ten hours west in a few weekends to visit the brewery – it is that compelling and the brewer has told me enough to intrigue me about the 20-50% premium. No one has convinced me of a 300% premium or, far worse, how the insane price of Utopia is anything but hype and snob stoking. That being said, Allagash’s white in the seafoody taverns and restaurants of my beloved Portland Maine which I visit regularly is an amazing phenomena of honest and exciting beer at an honest price.
And what do I mean about information? Only this.
Alan – October 26, 2007 10:43 AM
Thanks for that, Stephen. I may not have been clear enough. I am not talking about cheap beer or special occassion drinks. I am talking about justification. Have you ever said to a brewer I like your $30 beer fine but the price point is whacked? I think we have to ask that question to find out if the answer is “then don’t buy it” or “do you know what? The following rare and expensive elements go into that beer justifying the price…let me tell you how it works…”
If I am going to be told that buying a product is a luxury, I do not want to be blind in the transaction. Luxury – in part – is based on exclusion through the power of price. I want more than that if I am going to engage in its acquisition. And educating beer buyers on that point is a challenge we are going be dealing with in the next few years. And not explaining price point well wrong could be fatal because, as Lew points out, there are many others waiting in the wings to get my dollar.
Stephen Beaumont – October 26, 2007 11:04 AM
We have to agree to disagree, then, Alan. Do I ask my Quebecois cheesemaker to justify the price of his or her cheese? No. Do I demand that LVMH explain the prices of their Champagnes? No. Have I a letter from Diageo outlining all the costs associated with the expensive bottle of cask-strength Caol Ila whisky that sits in my liquor cabinet? Again, no.
I do not pursue any of the above because what matters to me is the value of the taste and experience alone. I can live without raw milk cheese, Champagne and single malt. My health will not fail and my hair will not fall out. Each of these, and Cable Car, is an indulgence and, as such, their values to me lies not in the ingredients or process, but in what I personally gain from each in terms of pleasure and satisfaction.
If neither I nor the vast majority of consumers who buy all of the above products ask for justification of their prices, I frankly don’t see why you feel compelled to demand it of brewers.
Stan Hieronymus – October 26, 2007 11:16 AM
I was going to chime in on the original headline – are the prices too low, but Steve had already done such a good job.
But I should point out that the Lost Abbey beers we are talking about are ridiculously rare. Put Cable Car or Cuvee de Tomme on eBay and see what the market tells us about their value. It will be far higher than Lost Abbey sells them for <i>when</i> it has them to sell.
Yes, Smuttynose makes great beer. But they don’t make a beer like Allagash Interlude. Bam costs about twice what I pay for New Belgium Mothership Wit (another not too strong beer, but more expensive than Sierra Nevada Pale). I last bought Interlude for $19.99 (in New Jersey). I think if you asked the brewers at Smuttynose if they could make an Interlude “clone” they would laugh in your face.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 11:30 AM
Okay, quick aside: Beaumont, I hate you for being able to go to that fabulous market any damned time you want. Hate you in a good way, but… Damn.
The Italian Market is 40 minutes away, and parking’s a crapshoot. Jeez.
Alan – October 26, 2007 11:35 AM
Hmmm…that is interesting as I would take an Smuttynose Big A IPA over Musette regardless of Musette being 320% more expensive. And I would take Insanity over Musette at half the price. Allagash is merely an example in this case. I could also speak of Cantillon v. De Ranke or others.<p>That being said, I have four big bottles from Allagash in the stash that need opening.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 11:53 AM
Alan, like the guy says in “The Incredibles,” when everything is special, nothing is. I don’t buy that argument.
But there are some cheeses I just don’t buy: they’re too expensive for me at this point in my life. I look at the price, and I shudder, usually when it gets over about $24/lb. But largely, that’s because I haven’t educated my palate enough to want them. See my recent barbeque posts: when I first ate ‘que, I was too stupid to know what what was good. It was hot meat, I ate it. I’ve got one guy who e-mails me pretty regularly to tell me I’m still too stupid; hell, maybe he’s right. But I do know that there are ‘que places that are more expensive than most where I WILL go and pay the charge, and there are more expensive places where I will NOT. But it’s not because of anything they do, or buy, or treat: I don’t know anything about that, never asked, never got into a relationship with them. I just went, and tried the ‘que, and liked it, or loved it, or was bored by it, or — occasionally — was disgusted by it.
Once I’ve determined why I like ‘que — or beer — I might ask questions about it, but not to justify the price. We’ve already determined that I’m willing to pay it. I just want to know more, and maybe find benchmarks to find other beers/’que I’ll also like.
We’re looking at this in two different ways, but not completely differently. If we’re talking about 90% of craft beer, I think we agree that there’s a reasonable price, depending on the local market: standard-grade IPA, pilsner, brown ale, hell, even imperial stout, should be fairly closely grouped around a pricepoint. If it’s substantially more than that, but not substantially different, I’m probably not going to buy it.
But when a beer’s significantly more expensive AND significantly different…we diverge. I’m going to want to know if there is something significantly different about the beer on my palate to justify that price. You’re going to want to know if there’s something significantly different in that beer’s manufacture to justify that price. Is that correct? Because I don’t want to put words in your mouth, I want to understand your position.
Another difference between beer and cheese: I’ve found cheesemongers MUCH more willing to dispense a sample of wicked expensive cheese than beer stores. Bottled beer has a portion problem. Let me sample and find out if it’s something I want to spend the money on. I do not like dropping huge bucks on a beer sight unseen. Not after a couple notable “I got taken on this one” incidents.
Oh, and Utopias? I got taken on Triple Bock. But Utopias? I’ve paid similar prices for bottles of vintage port — not often, but I have — and I find it to be of a similar price/flavor value. And I did just talk to Grant Wood, one of the brewers, at length, and there’s a LOT of materials, research time, aging time, and rarity that goes into that one. Have you sampled it?
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 11:56 AM
“Hmmm…that is interesting as I would take an Smuttynose Big A IPA over Musette regardless of Musette being 320% more expensive. And I would take Insanity over Musette at half the price. Allagash is merely an example in this case. I could also speak of Cantillon v. De Ranke or others.”
Well, see, that is personal preference. And there are occasions where I’d be right with you. But there are occasions when I definitely want the Musette, not the Big A or the Insanity…so I buy it. On MOST occasions, though…I drink a beer that falls in the $8 sixpack range. That’s why they sell so much of that. Are there any times when you would take Musette over something?
Stan Hieronymus – October 26, 2007 11:59 AM
<i>I would take an Smuttynose Big A IPA over Musette</i>
That’s the choice we all make. In this comparison I would too, but based on the beer, not the price.
Matthew – October 26, 2007 12:02 PM
Like it or not, high gravity craft beer is going to cost as much as wine. It costs a lot to make and age and the demand is high relative to the supply. It’s not a matter of snobbery, it’s a matter of economics.
You’re right to point out that “rare” just means local to somewhere else. I think sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate are really changing the market though. I can get a lot of world class beer where I live… enough to keep me satisfied. But, what if there’s an example of style X on the east coast that rates heads and shoulders above anything I can get around here, that seems worth a 200% markup for a bottle. Maybe “rare” means “a fantastic example of a beer which happens to be local to somewhere you aren’t.”
Chris – October 26, 2007 12:18 PM
Just a random bystander stepping into the fray. While I hardly have the breadth of knowledge those posting prior to me do, I felt I had to chime in on the side of Alan. While I most definitely agree with Lew that as the cost of doing business increases therefore so must the cost of the product. However there’s a distinct difference in my mind between a fair price for a well made product (you may say the market will determine this) and an exorbitant price based more on marketing, snobbery, and so called rarity. Albeit you may say that this is prevalent in all consumable items (cars, cheese, sake, hell even salt) and it’s just the way it is – so suck it up. It’s this mentality that Alan touched on that so irks me “if you don’t get – you don’t belong”, which has to a degree become so prevalent in the wine world, and slowly creeping into coffee and now beer. I my opinion it seems to be a first world disease – the need to luxurize (a word I think not – but I’m using it) everything to create exclusivity and a way to spend all this extra cash floating around. One last thing, while I most certainly respect Stephen’s work he has done for beer, I find it slightly rich that he who owns one of Canada’s premier beer bars is pushing for even higher prices.
I know my ramble didn’t really add more to the discussion other than – here’s one average guy who enjoys reasonably priced craft beer and feels that he will be slowly priced out of this world. As Mr Jackson once said…”consumers face a choice between drinks that come from nowhere, taste of nothing much, and have a logo for a name; and drinks that come from somewhere, have complex aromas and flavours, and may have a name that’s hard to pronounce…” While it sounds like I may not have a choice, if some get there way.
Paul of Suffolk – October 26, 2007 12:19 PM
Rick Astley ?
You don’t need to worry about the price of beer Alan, you need help ! 🙂
I suspect beer prices in the UK, like everything else, are so much higher that most other places (Scandinavia excepted)so I expect most of you would be horrified by the price of our beer. When I had the beershop we had litre bottles of strong ale at around £9.99 which is approx $20 US, that was two years ago. I suppose all these things are relative.
I am also happy to frequent certain pubs where the beer is good quality and the prices are above average. High prices keep ruffians and nerdowells away. Much more effective than the Basil Fawlty aprroach of a sign saying “No riff raff”.
Chris – October 26, 2007 12:25 PM
A side note on the chart that Alan posted I hope this is not used as an a reason by our homegrown breweries that there’s lots of room for prices to move up – ie. just look at Finland. Those prices are high not because brewers are making more money, but the state is getting more tax revenue.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 12:47 PM
“So-called rarity,” Chris? On what do you base your disbelief? I mean, if there’s just not that much… And I don’t agree with rare is just local somewhere else: some beer’s just rare. Small brewery that doesn’t want to get bigger, long aging process that just takes up too much space, pain in the ass brewing process, or chance of fate in the brewing process.
It also pisses me off to hear the blithe assumption that any beer that is priced “too high” by someone’s arbitrary standards is priced that way because of “marketing, snobbery, and so called rarity.” Seems to me that the brewer could just as easily respond that your idea of “honest price” is based more on your being a cheap bastard. Not saying you are — I like a $2.50 pint as well as the next man — but it’s a similar level of insult.
This is not about snobbery, this is not about “if you don’t get it, you just aren’t sophisticated.” It’s about what you want, as I see it. Mostly, I want a good pint of draft for under $5, something tasty, fresh, and interesting enough that it’s not just an alcohol carrier. Sometimes I want something different, and I’ll pay more for it. So will you, Alan, and maybe you, Chris. The difference is that I’m willing to pay more based on subjective taste, you’re looking for more objective reasons. Okay. I’d just say that taste is not objective. If the beer I want costs more, I’ll have to take that into account. I can’t afford to drink Musette every day, for instance. But I couldn’t bear not being able to drink it on occasion…which might happen if Rob can’t get the price he asks for it. Might. Dunno.
Stephen Beaumont – October 26, 2007 12:51 PM
Chris, the opinions I express here are, as they say, my own and not those of beerbistro. While you’re right in saying that I’m a partner in that establishment, the percentage I own is a very small one. Yes, at year’s end it makes me a bit of money, but it’s effect on my income is dwarfed by the amount of money I spend there.
Alan – October 26, 2007 1:00 PM
<i>…Like it or not, high gravity craft beer is going to cost as much as wine. It costs a lot to make and age and the demand is high relative to the supply. It’s not a matter of snobbery, it’s a matter of economics…</i>
My point is that it is potentially a blend of snobbery and economics and I need to know about real cost imputs to differentiate and assess. I do not, however, agree with brewer as artist as opposed to brewer as craftsman. I will not buy beer artificially inflated beyond a generous return because of brewer celebrity or branding or tenuous claims to exclusivity. Therefore above my benchmark, I need to have questions answered.
I will, however, always eat at Stephen’s beerbistro when I can as it is a most excellent spot to have an honest beer at an honest price for downtown Toronto rental rates, for the innovative food and service and for the quality of the beer selection and handling. Their pull pork is the second best in Canada…after my own dear smoked pork shoulder off the backyard charcoal BBQ.
As I said at the outset, this position of mine has nothing to do with a question of integrity of my three “persons of interest”. I generally do not speak of those without integrity.
Alan – October 26, 2007 1:06 PM
[I cross posted with Lew and Stephen…and, you know, I am starting to think I actually have a Musette in the stash waiting for the right moment. Maybe I will put an old Rod Stewart album on and have a personal experience with it.]
Maybe my practical disagreement, perhaps, is how am I supposed to go through all these 15 dollar beers to experience them to know if I should buy them? Are they only for the few, the elite drinker? Isn’t the concept of an “elite drinker” something like saying an “elite socialist”? Surely they are made for and should mean more than a tick on a beer spotter’s list. And surely relative price must relative to relative superiority?
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 1:15 PM
As far as the integrity goes…I’ll readily admit that I get more “free” beer samples than I know what to do with. As Stephen can attest, I had a party this summer just to get rid of the backlog (along with a lot of beer I’ve bought, to be fair; probably more of that, come to think of it, but the samples were a significant fraction). And that may twist my perspective, but not because I want to wash the balls of them what sent it; just because I don’t buy as much beer as most people who love it as much as I do. But I do buy a lot of beer, and I don’t stint on the expensive stuff. Truly.
Now, about that, how am I supposed to taste all these beers to know if I should buy them? That’s a real problem, like I said, one that cheese has solved with samples. How do wine people do it? Tough to get really pricey ones by the glass. Tomme Arthur gave away a ridiculous dollar amount of beers at GABF this year; he didn’t have to, he could have rationed the Cable Car or not even brought it, but he poured ases of it. I think that’s what brewers/retailers have to do. If you want me to buy a $30 bottle…I want to taste it. Somewhere. Somehow. Maybe split a bottle with friends? Buying it sight unseen? Okay, maybe I do want to know more about it. If this is what you’re basing your objections on, I can see your point.
But once you’ve tasted it? Given your Jolly Pumpkin obsession, obviously your decision process changes, no?
Chris – October 26, 2007 1:22 PM
As I said – my thoughts were not the most coherent, and therefore it can make it difficult to defend. If anything it’s more than a feeling (because of what I see around me in most aspects of my consumer life) that we the consumer get taken for a ride – that much what goes on today is smoke and mirrors, and I see this starting to creep into beer. This nonsense about paying for an experience whether it’s beer, wine or coffee is the same as all this crap about “lifestyle” I am not saying that I will not as you mention pay a greater price for something “different” then a decent sessionable local made beer by Wild Rose, but at what cost – 300 odd percent, I think not. The most glaring example I can think off is the Rogue nonsense with the ceramic bottles. Pure skulduggery in my opinion – what does this have to do with the craft of making beer? Stephen – while I do frequent, when in Toronto, the bistro because I think it’s a well put together establishment and I’ve never been disappointed, you must see the consumers perspective…here’s another owner rallying for higher prices. Please don’t let my remarks be taken as disrespectful, just probing.
Alan – October 26, 2007 1:37 PM
Unreasonable and expensive packaging is an excellent example of where things can go wrong and where my hackles get raised. My worst experience of that is Hockley Stout which <a href=”I complained about at Bar Towel and did not review here out of the principle that I will not be taken. Sadly, they are a very fine brewer of beers. I just hate when half the value of the ten buck beer [Ed.: <i>which makes 10.40 USD – hehe</i>] is the thing I pour the beer out of and then throw away.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 1:39 PM
Ah, Chris, to take my turn at clarifying what I said: when I said “a beer experience,” I was NOT referring to the service/atmosphere/’Fretalian’ thing at Starbucks, for instance. I meant solely the experience of taking that beer into your mouth, the flavor, the aroma, the look, the sensory experience. Not who was serving it to you. I think that’s crap too, unless I’m deliberatly looking for it. Over 99% of the time I’m buying coffee, I’m…buying coffee. I could give a damn about the experience — and the service usually sucks at Starbucks anyway, because they’re so damned busy making those silly poofy drinks for everyone else, and they’re pissed at me because they know I’m not going to tip on a large cup of joe (or whatever they call it).
I’m paying for what’s IN the bottle. A nice bottle is fun, a cute/informed/graceful server is nice, but…I’m here for the beer.
Brendan – October 26, 2007 2:14 PM
I and my friends have found a fun way to get over that fear of picking a loser at the liquor store. We get together and do a tasting. Each brings a bottle or two of some interesting special occasion beer and share around. This way we get to taste more than we could ever justify to our personal comptrollers.
Stephen Beaumont – October 26, 2007 2:52 PM
<i>Maybe my practical disagreement, perhaps, is how am I supposed to go through all these 15 dollar beers to experience them to know if I should buy them?</i>
Alan, I could say the same thing about single malts, cognacs, Champagnes, “Super Tuscans” and hundreds of other drinks. Foods, too. (Think caviar, foie gras, high-end sushi, three star Michelin restaurants…) Which reinforces for me the notion that we are only having this discussion because we’re talking about BEER. Robert Mondavi isn’t asked to justify the price of Opus One, and Jim McEwan isn’t under any obligation to explain away the price of Bruichladdich “The Valinch.” So why must Tomme or Vinnie or Rob or anyone else rationalize their prices? Simply because beer is supposed to be “just beer” and so shouldn’t aim to rise above its station?
So, to answer your original question, do what the wine and whisky and food guys do and read reviews, split bottles with friends, visit the breweries for on-site tastings and just treat yourself to a bottle from time to time.
Bob Kunz – October 26, 2007 3:12 PM
It would be great to see more actual brewers chime in on this forum, because I think some of this talk is just absolutely ridiculous. I’ve been a brewer in a small craft brewery for the past year and a half and the way some of this discussion is going makes it seem like brewers are arbitrarily raising prices just to make money. This is sick that some of you are thinking this.
I recently quit my job as a brewer and had to resign myself to bartending, not because I lost my passion for beer, but because it just doesn’t make sense to be an educated, proficient worker and then make chump change for busting my ass 60 hours a week. And my boss, the owner of the brewery, didn’t make much more than I was making and he was the freakin’ owner putting in 70 hour a weeks. Until recently, they hadn’t changed there wholesale cost of of kegs ($105) in 4 years.
In Los Angeles, where I live and work, inflation seems to be the norm in almost every facet of life, but brewers are expected to keep there prices the same so that joe-shmoe is happy that he still gets to pay the same price for a beer that he did 5 years ago.
In the past 5 years the beer market has totally changed, there is now a demand for different, unique, and complex beers. These beer are usually barrel aged which mean they take longer to make, require more square footage (and when your paying $2-3 bucks a square foot, this really matters), and are much more labor intensive. The price on these beers is justified and consumers recognize this, that’s why most of these expensive beers are in demand and hard to get.
All this aside, I’ve never met a craftbrewer who is in this business for money, because there actually isn’t very much money in the craft beer business (even at $9 a sixpack or $14 a 750ml). Brewers have chosen there profession because it is something they are passionate about.
So, you can take your demand for a commoditized beer and go drink yourself silly in the land of light lagers. Here, in the world of craft beer we’ll stay focused on making unique, interesting, and complex beers in the hopes that we can actually make an honest living where our bills actually get payed.
Alan – October 26, 2007 3:14 PM
<i>…beer is supposed to be “just beer” and so shouldn’t aim to rise above its station…</i><p>No, I just do not accept that. All those products are equally subject to snobbery. Just because champagne has successfully asserted it’s foolishly accepted claim to superior quality does not give it superior quality. The market will bear in large part what vendors will convince the market will bear as much as their product justifies. In response, consumer advocacy groups in relation to all products challenge the asserted value by testing for actual value. Beer is maybe just at the point where the claim to luxury has become such an issue that noting the need to be wary in the face of luxury claims is timely.
So just as beer advocacy (to not coin a phrase) to this point in craft beer growth has been about informing the consumer of the great and wonderful diversity of taste, beer advocacy also has to be about value. This is how we learn, in other consumables, of J Cano in relation to cigars, Te Bheag whisky and Kopke port as value propositions. Wonderfulness is always relative.
Alan – October 26, 2007 3:18 PM
<i>…This is sick that some of you are thinking this…</i><p>Thanks for that Bob but you can’t be suggesting that the consumer has no place in asking about the value proposition of a craft beer. It is, after all, our money. And this has nothing to do with light lagers. If there is an issue here it is as much about education by the vendors as anything. Hardly “sick” – and, if you don’t see that, then this is a great example of the disconnect between craft brewers and the drinker.
Jeff Alworth – October 26, 2007 3:28 PM
Beer costs do matter: an honest beer at an honest price. But here’s a weird deal in America–we charge the same price for an extra pale ale as we do a doppelbock. Never mind that the pale ale takes a third the malt and is in and out of the conditioning tank in a blink of an eye. The tyranny of the market forces breweries to charge the same price for a sixer of beer no matter what they brew. I’d love to see beer priced by cost of production. If I went into a pub and a pint of session cost $3 and a pint of strong was $4.50, it would affect my decision.
But Alan’s right–good beer shouldn’t be priced more just because it’s good. Why add a premium to a product you want the masses to enjoy? That is a marketing strategy–high fashion employs it. Beer should not be high fashion!<p>
I don’t relate to this whole cheese business, but let’s get one thing straight: beer’s art. I don’t know how you make cheese, but I do know that the variables that go into making a beer are so vast that what results is (at one end, anyway) art. I’ll take an easy example: Orval. I suppose it’s possible to clone Orval, but that’s just reverse engineering. Arriving at Orval in the first place–that’s art. It isn’t just the maturation of a culture in particular conditions–it’s the conscious decision to add this ingredient at this time, that ingredient at that time, and so on. Art is the transcendent expression of form. If Orval doesn’t meet the standard, what does?
So how much would you pay for Trappist monks to produce a work of art? Is it the same amount you’d pay your local brewery to produce a pale ale? What’s honest? If Orval cost $30, I’d pay it (not often) because <i>there’s only one Orval in all the world</i>. To me, the preciousness of that product means I’d pay a premium to encourage the monks to keep brewing.
(Fortunately, they brew that amazing beer, ship it to the US, and charge me only six bucks. Amazing.)
Of course, it’s not just monks in Belgium who produce art. There are at least five beers brewed in my city (Portland, OR) that I’d pay A LOT of money for if it all of a sudden became extremely rare. They’re unique, they’re exceptional, and they’re one-of-a-kind.
Alan – October 26, 2007 3:35 PM
I have no issue that if you think beer is art that the rules are different. Just be careful for what you wish for, though – remember art rock? Emerson Lake and Palemer anyone? Just sayin’.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 3:44 PM
Actually, Stephen, distillers do get asked to justify the high prices on whiskies (and even whiskeys) these days. They have a simple answer: it’s really good, it’s really rare, and we had to keep it a long time before we made any money on it.
But just as aged, rare whiskies are not for everyone…so it is with beer. I don’t see that it has to be a sophistication issue. It’s just a preference issue. I have no problem with it. I do have a problem with people who don’t want to pay the price — but obviously do want to drink the whisky — slagging the people who set the price and the people who are willing to pay it.
Alan? There are some beers/wines/whiskies I definitely believe are overpriced. I don’t buy them, and I don’t generally drink them if someone offers. If I can find a beer that tastes truly similar to another that is 3 times the price, I’ll happily buy the cheaper one. But if there’s a beer I love, and I know of nothing else like it…am I not going to pay the price, just because the brewer can’t satisfactorily answer some questions about why it costs what it costs? When I know I love the beer? That’s what I don’t get. Am I going to not buy the beer, the beer I can’t get anywhere else, because I don’t think the brewer has justified the price? Tough stance.
Bob Kunz – October 26, 2007 3:55 PM
Alan. I think you answered my point. Is there a disconnect from craft brewers to drinkers? My two cent were pointing toward the value added aspect that craftbreweries put into their beer. If consumer don’t get this, then there does need to be more education to bridge the gap between brewer and drinker. However, I think consumers do get this, that’s why prices are going up and sales of craft beer are going up. Pricing relies on what the market will bear.
And I think light lagers do come into play here. You are demanding justification for craft beer pricing. Well, the justification is the quality, diversity, and the overall value added experience of the beer. If you do not care about these things and want to focus more on pricing, then the domestic light lager category is where you find yourself. Because there, you will find beer as a commodity, a place where you can expect to pay a particular price for a homogeneous product.
Stan Hieronymus – October 26, 2007 3:59 PM
Jeff – A point of order. The monks at Orval do not brew. Never have. Rarely have monks even worked in the brewery at Orval.
Then it is curious that you don’t get the cheese analogy but pick a monastery where the same lay person who oversees beer production also is in charge of making (excellent) cheese.
Admittedly, those are asides to the real conversation.
Alan – October 26, 2007 3:59 PM
I think it is not a tough stance with either over packaged brews like Hockley Dark or insanely priced ones like Utopia.
You are quite right that it gets tougher the lower the price gets. But I can think of times on my beer runs to the states that I simply put down that Norwegian pale ale or the Japanese white beer at $7.50 for 12 oz because so much of that value is in the shipping (plus shipper) and therefore I realize the fluid is really the equivalent of a local and less assaulted en route $2.50-$3.50 brew. I learned that lesson myself in 1986 or so when I bought 24,000 Dutch roses at a certain price before Valentine’s Day. Over a buck a stem. A freak snap in the winter brought out local greenhouse roses at less. Both great quality but the customer would be crazy to spend the higher cost that included the shipping. And they didn’t. I was a very popular guy at the parties on Friday the 15th as I was giving out 20 rose bundles to anyone who wanted them for free. I still watched 10,000 rot.
I admit, it gets much tougher when you are comparing local craft (say NE USA for me) with local. When I see the brewers putting out a special run and see bombers raging from 5 to 15 dollars I really wonder what goes into the difference. Think of my access to Unibroue, Ommegang as well as Allagash. I want some back up justifying the difference or the red flag will and should go up. The frustrating thing as a consumer is that many times there should be a good story telling me why the price difference is there…but all I get is the high price and the assumption that more money is “more quality” – keeping in mind that quantities of quality are usually problematic.
Alan – October 26, 2007 4:01 PM
<i>If you do not care about these things and want to focus more on pricing, then the domestic light lager category is where you find yourself.</i><p>You seem disappointed, Bob, that I question price at all. Is the only proper questioner of price the cheapskate drinker of crap? That can’t be right.
Eric Wallace – October 26, 2007 4:06 PM
Hi Stan, Lew, Stephen and the rest of you I haven’t met. Since I’m a brewer and in the midst of trying to figure out how much we’ll be increasing our prices for our beer/craft/art for next year, I thought I’d chime in. (We received an immediate 40%-48% price increase on some of our specialty malts this week. Base malt is going up 70 some odd percent in 2008 and there aren’t enough hops being grown to satisfy world demand. That means an $8 or $10 six pack will be a bit more next year because I need to feed my family and the families of the 20 others that work here full-time.)
Let it be disclosed that if I had to pay for all the beer I’ve drunk since I started our brewery, I’d be a lot further in debt than I am now. Let it also be disclosed that I could have made a lot more money in the tech business over the last 14 years without risking everything I saved in 8 & 1/2 years in the Air Force (and a lot more) to get a brewery up and running.
Speaking of “special” and “limited” beers, those are the top end of the beer spectrum. They pump up the excitement beyond the beers we usually drink, like porter, pale ale, bitter, pilsner, or whatever strikes your daily fancy. They are fun and interesting to make and drink. But – they require R&D, more ingredients, sometimes oak barrels, days if not weeks in ingredient prep (i.e. smoking malt by hand, or zesting hundreds of pounds of oranges or whatever), long conditioning times, art design, screen/plate charges, POS materials, and a lot more all spread across relatively small runs of beer. I love these beers and I enjoy pulling them out of the cellar when I’m heading to some friends’ house for dinner or when I want to impress some fellow beer fanatics. I don’t hesitate to drop $15 or more on a bottle of something special or rare made by somebody else. I have several cases of old lambics in the cellar, along with a mish mash of all kinds of beers. I just bought 2 bottles of a great Imperial Stout from a small brewery in the Netherlands last month for 13 euros each! The guy I bought it from has everything on the line like most of us running a small brewery. I certainly don’t feel like I got gouged. These types of beer are for sharing and enjoying in good company. These are not mass produced “products”. They are art and craft together and they give us and our customers joy and satisfaction (now if we could only get some world peace in there somehow). There are a lot great people in this business putting their hearts into what they do, and most of them aren’t driving Lamborghinis.
I hope this helps ‘splain both the economics and soul behind where these beers come from, because to me, as both a brewer and drinker of great beer, they’re worth it. And if this is inadequate as an explanation. . . well, then don’t buy them.
Cheers and thanks for letting me ramble
Jeff Alworth – October 26, 2007 4:12 PM
Stan–crap, a beautiful example spoiled by truth. I employed monks as added poetry to my example, but you’re right–the point is there’s only one Orval, and it comes from a small brewery in Belgium. The more people who want it, the higher the price will go. It’s not actually possible to have another brewery just go into production. In this way it’s very different from macro-pilsners.
Alan, I also wonder if you’re failing to take in some of the costs to brewing big beer. It’s not just ingredients–in fact, this is the least of it. In most cases, you have additional aging, and this costs big bucks. If you have two conditioning tanks and can get a batch through them in ten days, you can produce six batches a month. If you put a high-gravity beer in one for a month, you’ve just cut your production to four batches. That comes out of the bottom line.
There’s also the R&D costs, which are hidden. I know of a brewery in Portland that had to dump two or three batches (they were never clear) of a fresh-hop ale because the hops didn’t behave like they expected. A lot of these specialty beers like Utopia go through a lot of test-brewing before they’re ready to release. There’s a lot of cost before you even get the first bottle out in dumped beer.
My only point here is that from the production side, all beers are definitely not the same cost.
Alan – October 26, 2007 4:15 PM
Thanks Eric. Can you tell me if you can differentiate between the quality in a 8 buck bomber special edition and a 15 buck one and a 30 buck one? I mean from the taste, and the awareness of who the brewer is and the techniques. Obviously the storage and the form of the storage is an element but when you try a new high end brew can you disassemble the costs in your mind in this way?
Jeff Alworth – October 26, 2007 4:15 PM
But don’t take my word for it–listen to the brewer! (Simultaneous commenting…)
Alan – October 26, 2007 4:20 PM
Jeff – good point…but is the opposite true for session beers? I suffer in many things craft beer living in Canada but I do not see the same proposition working directly in the opposite direction. In fact a brewer somewhere around here told me I should not expect a mild to be cheaper than a ESB, say, as too many other things go into price than ingredients.
Put it this way – when I buy vintage port, I know why it is priced higher and along a graduated path of price compared to LBVs or rubies…and even other vintages. I do not have that knowledge or see any gradiations amongst the higher end beers and their variety of prices.
This is a different proposition from Eric’s point about increasing general costs – which is a very good point.
Tomme Arthur – October 26, 2007 4:26 PM
It’s Friday afternoon and I am sitting at Cambridge Brewing Company following a rather lengthy conversation about pricing. Seems I’m guilty. Of what, I have yet determined.
Let’s start at the beginning. We at Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey make numerous beers that command a premium price. This is neither by design or by accident. Stan mentioned Ebay. Our bottles of The Angel’s Share batch # 1 are approaching $100 on ebay these days. They sold originally for $12. We produced 150 cases of this beer.
More recently,I have a patron who purchased three bottles of Cable Car from a friend for $180. He was stoked to find someone willing to part with three bottles. The beer was originally offered for $30 at the Toronado during their Anniversary party.
It’s true,our beers have become more expensive, and over the years, we have developed a reputation for beers outside the boundaries. These are what I refer to as flavor driven beers.
Are they expensive? Depends upon what value you place on them. Stephen is obviously a fan and feels compelled to say so. For me, they are not expensive, they are merely priced at a higher point than conventional beer. And I don’t believe we make conventional beer.
What is conventional beer you might ask? It’s a commodity. It’s a beer produced day in and day out without regard for timing, persistance and a committment to the extraordinary. It doesn’t require things like Brettanomyces, oak barrels, Blackened Raisins or Pizza ovens for toasting malt. Nope, conventional beer isn’t all that.
I am about order a glass of Will’s Kriek de Cambridge. At 9.3% ABV and barrel aged, I doubt very much it is anything but extraordinary. It isn’t cheap but then again, I’m not even worried about the price.
Will has proven that he has the chops and doesn’t make crappy beer. My friends Vinnie, Rob, Sam, Ron and Adam all fit into this boat. We are not part of some conspiracy theorist group hell bent on raising the price point of beer. Far from it. But my baby needs new shoes sometimes.
Together, I think that we are interested in is making sure that each of us makes a living (no jaguars) and can do so for many years to come. There’s a measure of irony in this conversation. Last week, I had $5K in the bank with a mound of debt for the new brewery.
I needed to purchase glass for our Older Viscosity. The bill for the glass was 8K. This beer will retail for $10 per 375 ml cork finished bottle. It certainly is expensive. Yet, the bottle costs almost $2 for the glass, cork, hood and wire and label. That’s before we even put an ounce of the 12.5% ABV 8 months in a new boubon barrel beer in the bottle. I think it’s too cheap given the amount of effort to produce this.
Except, we’re not charging for effort. But we should be. At the end of the day, I think I’m guilty of being part of a changing craft brewing scene that places a very large amount of importance on the artistic impression in the bottle vis a vis the guy who made that bottle of beer. And make no mistake about it, I am an artist first- One who understands the rules about making beer and works at breaking them with cause.
Each and every bottle of beer we make these days bears my artistic stamp, reputation and in the case of our Cuvee de Tomme, my name. It’s an 11 year journey that allows our beers to be distinctive.
Returning to the scene of the crime,Cable Car may very well be the best bottle of beer that I ever made. We blended exactly 100 gallons of beer not paying attention to yeilds or “distributor needs.” This blend yielded 35 cases of 750ml bottles and one 1/2 bbl keg. I can tell you that my experience with our beers and blending was a HUGE part of that bottle.
Surely that has to be “worth” something?
Eric Wallace – October 26, 2007 4:27 PM
Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. Everyone perceives value based upon their own experience and knowledge. There are $6 & $8 bottles out there that I would never buy, while there are $10 and $15 bottles that I do buy. Likewise there are $6 & $8 sixpacks I would never buy and others I would. $30 is getting pretty high for me, but it would depend on the beer. Under the right circumstances, with the right group of people I’d do it. Just go to Akkurat in Stockholm – it’s easy to do there!
I look for beers that I like, and I have different preferences than others. There are beers out there that demand high price and enjoy significant acclaim (at least among beer geeks) that I think are poorly/shabbily made, while there are others that I think are brilliant. I generally resist naming names in public forums like this, but I second (third – whatever) the props for Jolly Pumpkin. Go Ron!
Bob Kunz – October 26, 2007 4:36 PM
Alan, I understand your argument. I just think that industrial beer has set the price of beer at that of a commodity, which they can do because they make so freakin’ much of it. However, the pricing of almost everything that goes into making beer for a small producer (which even a brewery at a 50,000 or 100,000 bbl capacity is still minute compared to the big boys) is so much greater than that of an industrial brewer. With the smaller breweries you get greater diversity and a more hand crafted product, something truely artisanal. If these small producers are putting a price tag on their product that is too high, the market will tell them this and they won’t sell product or they will go out of business.
I think I would look at this different if breweries were getting filthy rich from their product, but they aren’t. Their pricing correlates not only with the actual cost of the product, but also with the markets willingness to participate. If you don’t want this market to continue to move upward, don’t participate.
I mean I’m a consumer just like you and I always want the best price, but if I’m looking for a value added product, I usually understand that this means price added. I mean I don’t go to payless looking for shoes of birkenstock quality.
Alan – October 26, 2007 4:37 PM
Thanks for that excellent comments. I see the discussion settling into three categories of beer:<ul><li>crap – commodity, cheapest is what will be bought.</li><li>craft workhorse – better quality costs but there is quite a direct relationship between inputs and cost.</li><li>special releases – not really craft but art therefore price is really no object and there is a less direct relationship between input and final cost.</li></ul>My question is really not about the first two classes but quality differentiation and price in the third – except maybe whether there are different rules in each price/quality class. Does the consumer simply accept what is on the sticker or should they be able to suggest price is overblown?
Eric Wallace – October 26, 2007 4:42 PM
In the end, the consumer/market will determine whether the price is overblown. It will sell at that level or it won’t. You can’t fool all the people all the time. People vote with their wallets in a free market.
Bob Kunz – October 26, 2007 4:47 PM
Eric is right. You make your vote with your wallet. This will always be the deciding factor.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 4:50 PM
“To me, the preciousness of that product means I’d pay a premium to encourage the monks to keep brewing.”
Jeff pins an intangible that I often put in the price I’m willing to pay: keeping the doors open on the other end. Alan, I’m sure you’re counting this in the full panoply of costs, no?
But then, I’m with Eric on this, too: “There are beers out there that demand high price and enjoy significant acclaim (at least among beer geeks) that I think are poorly/shabbily made…” Oh, yes indeed. Just don’t like ’em. Similarly, there are some high-priced beers that are beloved of people I respect — whiskies, too — that I simply do not get. I don’t buy those, either. Which kind of brings it back to that personal taste thing again.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 4:58 PM
<i>My question is really not about the first two classes but quality differentiation and price in the third – except maybe whether there are different rules in each price/quality class.</i>
I would say there are clearly different rules in each class.
<i>Does the consumer simply accept what is on the sticker or should they be able to suggest price is overblown?</i>
Wouldn’t you say that’s what the individual consumer does whenever they make a decision based even partially on price? If someone is torqued enough to question the brewer, well, okay. But I don’t see this special relationship that you do. Mostly what I see is guys who don’t want to pay more than they did in 1995.
Alan – October 26, 2007 4:59 PM
<i>…keeping the doors open on the other end…</i><p>That is one reason have have a ton of t-shirts from brewers I support as I figure there is a better margin on the profit!<p>How, then, best to inform my dollar. This is an odd question for a drinker with 1,000 posts on beer but hopefully an honest one. Many a greater beery mind than mine has posted above. Can anyone summarize the categories or elements of finesse, for lack of a better word, we drinkers should look for in the “art beer” category to assist in our evaluation? Is it even possible to do that?
I know there is much “let the taste guide you, Luke” and “it’s all about the experience” above – which is fine – but what are the components a great brewer would hope a thoughtful drinker would put into his or her appreciation?
Chris – October 26, 2007 7:00 PM
**Warning – more rambling**
Now I’m sure I’ll get crucified for the following comments if I’m not careful. Why this elevation to “art”, what is it about our commodities (many other now refined luxury products were just that) that we desire to take them out of the realm of the daily and make it so called extraordinary. Did the farmhouse brewers of the past exclaim that they were artists, was their beer viewed as a definitive expression of their passion…I’m not sure, but I tend to believe not. I imagine they were respected (as I appreciate the skills of todays craft brewers exhibit) but their product was viewed as just that, a commodity to be consumed. Again I stress I am not saying that those who brew should not be compensated fairly and be able to make a living – it’s not like I’m asking for bud light pricing. The pricing over all is not even the real issue (to me at least) – it’s this subtle move that’s happening to encourage people to view beer as a luxury (the first time in history?) and we partially have prohibition and industrial brewing to thank for that. As I mentioned before – it’s wrapping the beer up with words such as art, experience, expression – these are things that are unquantifiable and leave the consumer wondering – create that disconnect between drinker and brewer. Now things like inputs, efforts, time – these in mind my are reasonable things to base price on. Leave the other stuff behind with those ceramic bottles and I’ll be happy.
Chris – October 26, 2007 7:02 PM
Just wanted to say great reading and discussion by the way. Thanks for letting a nobody take part.
Alan – October 26, 2007 7:10 PM
Hey! There ain’t no “nobody” on my blog, pal. Feel free to post anytime.
Chris – October 26, 2007 7:26 PM
Thanks Alan, it’s always a pleasure reading your blog. It’s great that the brewers took the time to respond, and certainly made for a lively debate….look at me with all my qualifiers, lest I be labeled a whiny ungrateful jerk.
Stephen Beaumont – October 26, 2007 7:41 PM
Chris, the reason the farmhouse brewers of the past were not viewed as artists is because they were creating something that was then viewed as a necessity, a food. Like today’s winemakers, distillers and multi-starred chefs, brewers today are crafting something that is an indulgence rather than an essential, and as with a great chef who trades on his or her skills and originality, the imagination, skills and, yes, artistry of todays brewers has to count for something. To put it another way, I can go to any number of sushi joints around Toronto and have a relatively cheap meal, but I’ll also happily pay top dollar for the sushi of a master like Vancouver’s Tojo or Philadelphia’s Morimoto. Not every day or every time I feel a craving for sushi, but when I can and feel like it.
The point being that there’s the brewer’s expense aspect of it all — like Eric, Bob and Tomme said, premium ingredients and barrels and square footage ain’t cheap — but there’s also the time and effort and artistry involved. And personally, I think that’s something worth paying for.
Alan – October 26, 2007 7:48 PM
And, like other arts, all that claim artistry are not good artists but, unlike other arts, it is in a sealed bottle you buy before you experience it. That is why, for me, it is most like theatre…if it is an art. You won’t know what it was worth until it is over.
Jeff Alworth – October 26, 2007 8:08 PM
Two super quickies and then I’m off to a pub. On art. We don’t need to get bogged down in semantics. Not all beer is art, clearly. But I think some of it is–I don’t see any reason to denigrate it just because it has in the past been a necessity or a blue-collar drink. Art ain’t just for the wealthy. And this is a key point–I’d separate the idea that art requires great expense. My argument for expensive beer is based on the market, not some kind of cachet.
Point two: some breweries deliver when they charge big bucks. In Oregon, Deschutes is a sure bet. They don’t release semi-successful experiments, as do some other breweries. Hair of the Dog, same thing. So it’s not purely a blind bet. Those breweries that do deliver will be rewarded with sales, making the experiment worthwhile. And around and around it goes.
(Okay, those weren’t super quickies.)
onewink3 – October 26, 2007 8:25 PM
On the subject of square footage not being cheap, there was an interesting post a while back on the babblebelt from Vinnie Cillurzo that’s directly relevant. He was responding to comments that his barrel-aged beers weren’t cheap, at $10 per 375 ml. The gist of it is that he got only 55 bbl that year out of a space that could have given him 2000 bbl had he simply put in more conical fermenters instead of oak storage. So in addition to direct costs, there’s the opportunity cost as well.
Jeff – October 26, 2007 9:07 PM
Chris makes an interesting point about luxurizing everything. I have seen this happen in the B&B Industry, with everyone using the term “upscale” so casually that I don’t think they know what it really means anymore. They are using it to mean, “better than what my neighbor got last week.”
Thirty dollar beer? I’d try it once. If it was good, I might try it again. But I’d have to think about it. My palette isn’t that demanding.
Lew Bryson – October 26, 2007 9:15 PM
Chris, as long as you make sense (!), no reason why you aren’t as welcome as anyone else, and generally you’ve made sense (good of me to welcome folks to Alan’s blog, ain’t it?!).
And to Chris and Stephen…and pretty much anyone in the “art” end of it…I think this is where the whole “craft” part comes in. The small farmhouse brewers were not so much artists as craftsman, individual artificers who took pride in their work, the kind of thing that is becoming celebrated again in so many areas, and was celebrated in the Gothic Revival and other movements. It’s a lot like that. I’m a little iffy on “art,” but I’m all for “craft.” Craft is when you make something for use or consumption; art is when you make something solely for aesthetics; and sometimes you get a sublime crossover. Er, maybe.
Alan – October 26, 2007 9:31 PM
For me (while I still control this blog) art conveys a message though the medium of its structure. The Oro de Calabaza certainly spoke to the vitality of life as I just took it in…but is that art? And is there any beer in North America that can make a better claim to art?
Stan Hieronymus – October 26, 2007 10:54 PM
<i>And is there any beer in North America that can make a better claim to art?</i>
As the person who introduced Jolly Pumpkin to this thread something like 59 comments ago and one who is at this moment drinking Oro I would say yes.
Well, at least an equal claim. That’s an amazing thing about standing in the middle of this crazy little revolution. There are pub brewers cranking out amazing one-off batches that never get any love on the beer sites and probably not from their regulars but are spectacular artisan products.
Those farmhouse beers of a hundred and some years ago might be inspiring, but you’d probably rather drink what they inspired.
Travis Miller – October 27, 2007 12:42 AM
The arguements that I’ve been reading here about some of the high end/world class beers being overpriced are almost precisely the same arguments that I’ve heard macro-beer drinkers make about the least expensive of craft beers. There are people who think I’m out of my mind for paying $12 for a twelve pack of Harpoon IPA when I can get a 30 pack of what they call “perfectly good beer” for $14.
I think most craft beers are underpriced, particularly the high end beers. How many brewers are working without medical insurance, a 401K or have a salary lower than median income? A lot of them. That alone causes me to believe that craft beers are underpriced.
Mr. Mcleod, I am curious if you have called up the local distributers and retailers about what their costs are so you can factor that into whether or not you are going to buy beer from them? Do you go to the local restaurant and ask the manager to show you the restaurant’s food costs before you can make a decision about whether or not to order? To me, it seems a bit absurd to expect a brewery owner to justify his pricing in such a way. Obviously, you don’t feel that way so there isn’t much more I can say about that to convince you otherwise.
On the matter of farmhouse ales, might I suggest “Beer and Brewing Traditions of Norway” by Odd Nordland. I think that this book makes a pretty good case that brewing was in certain cultures much more than craft or art.
Alan – October 27, 2007 9:26 AM
<i>Do you go to the local restaurant and ask the manager to show you the restaurant’s food costs before you can make a decision about whether or not to order?</i><p>Actually, I do at least in the sense I take them into account. I am fortunate to be from a family of good cooks (great-grannie was a cordon bleu chef trained around 1900 and it got passed down just like the Sgt. Major on the other side passed curries through) and I have left many a restaurant thinking it was a waste of time because I could have made it better. That’s not vanity – I’m just a pretty damn good cook, brewer, baker, gardener and I even made the best damn cream cheese I ever had – but only once…who the hell lives to a decent retirement if there’s ten pounds of herbed cream cheese in the house.<p>But don’t get me wrong – I am quite happy to have this discussion (rather than “debate”) and learn. I am certainly wanting to know more and, like all discussions here, this is a great education. Yet the value proposition has to, in my mind, always be on the table. Craft and art are economic issues and if a brewer lacks a scheme for health care or retirement planning, maybe that is something they obtain through a trade association.
Alan – October 27, 2007 10:11 AM
Hmmm…now I see that there may be five categories of microbrew:<ul><li>crap – commodity, cheapest is what will be bought. Does what it generally promises.</li><li>crapft – beer which rely on hype to place them above craft or older craft beers that have not kept up with the challenge of the market. Usually better value propositions are available in crap of craft categories.</li><li>craft workhorse – better quality costs but there is quite a direct relationship between inputs and cost. Worthy.</li><li>special releases – not really craft but art (or attempts at art) therefore price is really no object and there is a less direct relationship between input and final cost. Experimental and worth the price if the experiment is a success.</li><li>snob beer – perhaps an emerging category where price is supposed to demand respect. Related to crapft. Some feel it does not exist but infected or simply dull high end craft beer that still expects too much money is a reality.</li></ul>
Alan – October 27, 2007 11:07 AM
I like “snob” because of its long, abiding and accurate role in all consumables and art. I am not at all uncomfortable with the term but I am quite content if you do not place anything in that category. And beer is entirely subjective as it’s craft or art (or <i>krappht</i>…I am thinking of Germanicizing it) is only fulfilled in the individual’s consumption. There is no objective experience so much as concordant subjectivity. Having a useful scale for a consumer to consider helps in his or her value proposition education.
Plus can’t beers and brewers shift over time? I recall the crap that first came out of Canada’s Granite brewery and the apologetic bar tender but, fortunately, it moved from crapft to craft. What if Jolly Pumpkin never got their act together? Must we praise the failed experiment? For how long? And what if, say, you live in a jurisdiction with limited retail options and know of a brewery that repeatedly places “unintentional lambics” on the shelf as the unwitt’ng buy it through lack of education to counter the marketing? Conversely, I am all for <i>krappht</i> achieving craft.
Adam @ Beerbits – October 27, 2007 12:17 PM
I dunno. The market has a lot to do with it. That and education. Not to mention people wanting to feel important by “understanding” good beer and bragging about it to others.
I’ve reading this thread since it started yesterday amazed. Amazed at how engaged everybody is. Thanks Alan for allowing this unedited open discussion.
As I read what people have to say I’m wondering who the audience is here? Is it the consumer who wants “good beer”? Or is the audience insiders who influence the way the “craft beer” industry defines itself and expands? I think it is the latter.
Alan are you saying that you want brewers, distributors, pub owners, retailers, beer writers and beer geeks to build this emerging industry the right way. Are you saying that you don’t want it to be perverted and exploited? Are you saying that we should do things for the right reasons?
Alan – October 27, 2007 2:34 PM
I think so. It sounds very idealistic but I place the drinker at the center of the brewing industry. When I said way above that there is a relationship between the brewer and the drinker, I still mean that we love the beer not the brewer – or conversely do not love the beer if it is poor or we do not understand it. The relationship teeters on the integrity of the fluid in my glass.<p>Look what Lew wrote above about his growth in understanding BBQ. He now sees that path of his learning what is actual quality meat was critical. So, too, with the education on beer. I say that just as we have to be vigilant about advocating for good beer we also have to be vigilant about pointing out what is not good beer and what is not good <i>for</i> good beer, for our access to and understanding of good beer. Can any overly expensive container assist? Does any ad campaign that does not focus on the actual qualities in the fluid? What other aspects of the trade are like that? Stonch’s campaign against sparklers illustrates for me that there are many more detrimental forces facing good beer. <p>We drinkers are like sports fans, in that we observe, but we are also like art patrons, in that we consume. However, we are somewhat at the whim or, at least, at the advantage of the brewer and have to trust that, whatever the cost, that it is an honest beer at an honest price. I have learned a lot through these comments but more than anything see that there is still a distance between the craft beer fan and the craft beer maker about input costs. It would be best if we knew what all the inputs were but without more open dialogue we can be facing a steep and time consuming learning curve – like Lew’s ‘que. If that means I, as the singular beer fan, display the state of my path of learning on this blog and invite you to do likewise, and we show all the bumps along the road including the potential classifications of craft beer quality, well, that is sort of all we have available to me – unless, on one hand, I subsume myself to the statistical borg of RateBeer or BeerAdvocate or, on the other, simply accept what the brewers tell me but I won’t hand over the reigns in that way.<p>No, I won’t do those things – though those sources inform my education as well. No, if I (or anyone, I would argue) and going to spend as much time or money with beer, I want to know I am being treated well and not being taken for granted. Which, yes, means I do not want and should speak out against it being “perverted and exploited” which, as we learn from brewing history, is always a risk. I think that is the job of any craft beer drinker because it is we, our purchasing power and the state of our understanding that is at the middle of the industry.<p>Gee – that was a bit of a sermon.
Jercraigs – October 27, 2007 4:37 PM
I recently moved from starving student to reasonably well paid gainful employment so things that were just not in my league, are now in the possible but still luxury categories so that may shape my perspective on things.
I have said this before elsewhere, but many of us beer consumers need to better acknowledge that the brewers are running a business. Most of them are in for the love of that business and are not getting rich off it.
As mentioned numerous times above, there are additional costs to special release brew. Pricier ingredients, extra time and space in the tanks, special packing considerations. These simply cost more. Most reasonable drinkers are willing to acknowledge that, even if we bristle at the price tags they come with. At a certain level we drinkers need to just suck it up and accept that it just costs more, and make our purchases accordingly.
That said, as a brewer you need to acknowledge that these things are in your control, not mine. At least one local brewer has effectively said that they are more concerned about making the most money off their existing mid-range brands than catering to the high end specialty beer geek market. Thats fine, but to me its not acceptable for them to turn around and complain that they are not receiving accolades from the market they have decided is not the one they are really catering too.
Similarly, if you are going to choose to price your product at the very high end, you can’t complain if consumers opt for a comparable cheaper option. I was lucky enough to sample Lost Abbey’s Angel’s Share here in Toronto at a fairly high price point, and it was probably the best beer I have ever had. If I could get it for what it costs locally in California I would be buying cases of it. Locally I can get 3-5 bottles of Rochefort that I like almost as much for a comparable price, so I drink those. Similarly, I am a huge fan of Allagash as a company, and their products, but I have twice walked by their special releases at a store in Buffalo in favour of cheaper comparable options.
The brewers skill, the costs of ingredients, the cost of equipment and facilities, whether the local bar pays average or expensive rents all contribute to the cost of the product I am buying. I get that. I understand how that affects the cost to me. All of these things reflect the choices that the brewer made, and I respect those decisions.
I think the point has been glossed over a bit, and I’d like to return to Stephen’s cheese example. When comparing three tiers of cheese of varying prices, and varying quality it makes sense that you will choose based on what you want to use it for, and how much you are willing to indulge yourself. This is a question of indulgence/extravagance/luxury, whatever you want to call it.
But if you are choosing between two products that deliver identical (or at least comparable) levels of quality and satisfaction, all else being equal won’t most people go for the one that costs less? Whether or not they are equal is of course subjective, hence this debate.
Anyways, I have prattled on long enough.
Lew Bryson – October 28, 2007 1:13 AM
You know… on reflection, I believe we can agree on something: there’s a lot more ‘value’ in the current crop of good $20 bottles of beer than there is in the current crop of $30 bottles of vodka. How’s that sound? In other words…things could be a lot worse.
Jay Currie – October 28, 2007 6:29 AM
It is always wonderful to read experts on the subjects they love. To that expertise I, of course, defer. I drink beer as bread and while I enjoy some of the craft brews here in Victoria and in Vancouver I have a huge prejudice in that I prefer draft beer and, in an ideal world, draft beer made within a few miles of where I drink it. While I will pay a slight premium for this pleasure I am not about to drop 10-15 dollars for a pint.
I think the brewers who have written here have a point and it is the same point my friends at Burrowing Owl or Joie make about wine; quality takes ingredients, time and knowledge. And that knowledge reflects batches which failed or, somehow, were simply not up to the exacting standard the brewmaster was seeking.
What transforms craft to art? It is a slippery question and one which is rarely asked in the presence of genuine art. One element is that art requires an engaged audience. That engagement is not about money, it is about discernment and understanding. A $30.00 bottle of beer would be entirely wasted on me simply because I lack the experience to discern the intentions of the brewmaster. (Aged Scotch or Irish whiskey is a whole other story because I have spent the time and the money learning to at least have a glimmer of the distiller’s objectives.)
There is a degree of snobism – in the sense of exclusivity – implied whenever art is being attempted. The artist knows that only a small fraction of his potential audience will get what he’s up to. And, by and large, that’s ok.