A Question of Value (Again)

Greg raised a hoary old topic on his “Beer, Beats & Bites” blog last evening, and it took no time at all for our favourite beer curmudgeon, Alan, to chime in with his thoughts. (Our second favourite beer crank – that would be yours truly – took a little longer to add his thoughts.) And now, for perhaps the last time, although in all likelihood not, I’d like to address the issue of value in beer.

Greg says that he spent $25 for a 375 mL bottle of Cantillon Zwanze at beerbistro, and while he thinks he received full value for his dollars, wonders what others think. He also notes that he believes the amount to be the most he’s ever spent on a beer.

As someone who has both tastes Zwanze and spent considerably more on beer, I concur with Greg that he did get his money’s worth. Moreover, I’d suggest there are innumerable things we spend money on daily that both cost as much or more and furnish less pleasure, to wit:

  • I regularly spend over $50 to get a taxi to the airport, more than double what Greg spent on his beer. I ordinarily do this to squeeze a few minutes more sleep out of my morning, but do I derive any particular enjoyment from it? No.
  • Last weekend, before a Toronto FC match, my wife and I dropped $56.89 (after tax but before tip) for a mediocre-bordering-on-bad snack and a couple of most ordinary drinks. That could easily have been a much more enjoyable street vendor sausage and a bottle of Zwanze each.
  • Our half-bottle of Möet enjoyed at the end of the night in our hotel room in Montréal cost $45. It was right for the time, but the exact same quantity as was contained in the Zwanze bottle Greg purchased at a bit more than half the price.
  • Also in Montréal, four very mediocre drinks at the bar of Restaurant S cost us in excess of $50. (I know, why didn’t we leave after the first mediocre drink? I have only myself and the principle that a body at rest tends to remain at rest to blame.)
  • In downtown Toronto, at an average pub, I can probably buy three pints of beer for the cost of Greg’s Zwanze and maybe even have a little change left over. And if I’m in a social and thirsty mood, I’ll probably derive the same degree of pleasure from them. But I can pretty much guarantee that they will not have the same flavour impact as the Cantillon.

I could go on, but I won’t. My point is that valuing beer on the basis of it being “beer” is both wrong and disrespectful to the brewer’s craft. There is no “absolute price” a beer should be, only its worth relative to all the other expenses we face in life.

9 Replies to “A Question of Value (Again)”

  1. I entirely agree with you on that… for the most part. It’s just that I find many other things including many other things of relatively more value for the price. [This seems to be your sticking point on this and if you have any chance of being Curmudgeo Numero Uno you may have to work through that. Once you have that down we can work on your lightening speed difficulties.]

    It is not that it is “just beer” so much as running after the increasing parade of the highly priced precious few dulls the true experience of the actually wonderful. And, just for the record, I would likely have been very tempted to buy the same beer at the same moment in the same wonderful place but, still, passed on other experiences you use as comparators. That doesn’t speak to you, just to me. As it can only be “my” relative valuation of things that matters to me as you must be guided by yours.

    1. Mistake not my appreciation of value for price for an endorsement of the ticker obsession with the “highly priced precious few,” Alan. There are a bunch of so-called “special edition” beers out there that are nowhere near worth the price, just as there are great bargains to also be found among the higher levels of beer pricing.

      And as for my list of comparatives, believe me, I have buyer’s remorse about at least two of them.

  2. Well, if we are going to agree on everything this is going to go nowhere!

    It has been a learning experience about these things for me. My “sour beer studies” which you may have had a part in embarrassing me into way back when have taught me the way of lambics even if only at the “junior bottle washer” level of competence. And a rhubarb lambic fits with my worldview so almost completely that I would likely have cross checked Greg to get the last bottle. I might even dream of meeting a bubbly rhubarb gueuze someday, too.

  3. To clarify a bit: I think the $25 was the most I’ve spent on a beer of that size (i.e. what would usually be considered a single serving) for consumption by me and me alone. I’ve had a number of beers that have cost more, but they’ve usually been split between a few people in a bar/restaurant situation along with other food & drink, and the bill split accordingly as well.

    Otherwise – I think that your last paragraph sums things up just about perfectly.

  4. In Amsterdam, where I live, lambic beers (including Cantillon) are priced pretty reasonably. I am certainly not an expert in these matters, but I suspect that the beer business works vaguely similar to the music business: artists gets pennies, while distributors (i.e., record companies) make a fortune.

    The importers, wholesalers, distributors are all taking their share (and perhaps much more) of the pie. I don’t expect any Belgian brewer to be driving off in a Rolls Royce any time soon.

    If you think a given beer is worth X dollars/euros, that’s fine, but at least understand where your money is going.

  5. My fiance and I stopped in to beerbistro the other night and shared a bottle of the Zwanze, and a bottle of Alesmith Mikkeller Stone Tripel, both >$20 for a small bottle. In the past I would probably have balked at these prices, citing both similar arguments as Flavius over on Greg’s blog – “I can get X beers elsewhere for the same price.” – in addition to being somewhat, ahem, thrifty.

    Recently I have started to splurge a bit more on things that are “worth it”, in part because I am growing slightly tired of trying so many “just okay” beers. So what is “worth it”? The above beers are produced by some of the finer craft brewers in the world (and therefore less “risky”), and are one off brews that I am unlikely to ever see again. This adds value for me personally, it may not for others. In the case of the Zwanze, I ended up liking the beer a lot more than I thought I would when I ordered it.

    Another factor for me is the “first time” factor – while I feel I got great value from both purchases, I am unlikely to pay those prices for a *second* visit to it. Similarly, I would pay $25/375mL much more happily than I would pay $50/750mL, or even $45/750mL because part of the appeal for me is the chance to try it for the first time. Again, those are my own preferences and idiosyncrasies.

    Stephen, I bristle at the hoary old comparison to wine. While more apt a comparison than say comparing the cost per litre of gasoline and bottled water, it is similarly flawed in that assumes they have similar utility for the user/reader . The same factors (rarity, prestige of producer) applied to a wine don’t really add value for me – I value wine differently than I value beer, and I value wine quite differently than other people.

    1. Mike raises a good point, in that (in Ontario) we have the government taking a hefty pound of flesh and (in the US) the importer and distributor each take a cut. I can tell you one thing for certain, though, and that is that after accounting for the effort, expense, time, taxes and bother of bringing the Zwanze to beerbistro, the bar isn’t making much on it.

      Also, Mike, you’re a whole lot closer to Belgium than we are!

      Jeremy, it was to avoid direct beer-wine comparisons that I entered the costs of a meal, cocktails, pints at a pub and even an airport taxi into the equation. Although I think that when you begin to speak of personal value, as Alan so eloquently notes, any and all comparisons are equally valid. A non-drinker, for example, would place a zero value on the Zwanze, but perhaps value highly the super-premium gas that she uses to fill up her sports car. Whereas, being a car renter and lambic aficionado, my view is quite the opposite.

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