In my morning edition of The Globe and Mail newspaper yesterday, wine critic Beppi Crosariol wrote about the Sam Adams Utopias, Boston Beer’s high-end, high-alcohol, outrageously complex beer, the tenth anniversary edition of which has just come up for sale in Ontario at a price of $114.95 for the 710 ml bottle.
While he does a pretty good job at describing Utopias and placing it within the current state of beer and brewing culture, Crosariol does get a little hung up on the beer’s cost, variously employing such phrases as “nosebleed prices,” “exorbitant prices” and “stratospheric prices,” and comparing it to “Rolex watches and Prada purses.”
A Rolex goes for tens of thousands of dollars, and although I know nothing about the cost of Pradas, I’ve got to assume by dint of their reputation that they hit the same sort of price points. So how, pray, does that equate to a $115 bottle of beer, one which is intended to be consumed in small potions over days or weeks, rather than minutes or hours. Or, in other words, more like a single malt whisky or cognac than a Coors Light or Bud?
To answer that question, or at least further the debate, let’s take a look at what it all means. The last time Crosariol wrote about something to be sipped and savoured over a lengthy period of weeks or months, the Balvenie 17 Year Old Double Wood, he described the $167.95 bottle as “expensive.” Not stratospheric or exorbitant, just expensive. Before that we had the 15 year old Nikka Miyagikyo with nary a mention of the cost, despite the Japanese whisky’s $189.20 price. So, double standard?
Now, how about breaking down the cost of Utopias on a per drink basis? There are 24 ounces in a bottle and, at 29% alcohol, a generous pour would be about 2 of those ounces, making for a dozen total servings. Do the math and that comes out to less than $10 a serving, or about what one might pay for a glass of ho-hum wine in a restaurant. Still stratospheric? I think not.
By coincidence, on the same day that Crosariol was simultaneously adulating and excoriating Utopias, Clay Risen was over at the New York Times bemoaning the rise of big bottle beers, suggesting that, counter to every indicator imaginable – store sales, restaurant sales, brewery sell-throughs – there is some sort of backlash brewing against “expensive” 750 ml bottles of beer.
Jay Brooks does a thorough job of dismembering Risen’s story here, so I won’t go much into it myself, but in keeping with the tone of this post, I would like to take a moment to address the supposed price-based revolt.
At a high of $30 in stores, these beers are in the same price class as many wines, including a good number that lack complexity equivalent to the best of such brews. (And to be fare, many that provide equal or better value.) Yet it would be a brave writer indeed who took issue with $20 – $30 wines as a group, implying that drinkers are sick of such high prices and long for a return to jug wine. Which is not to say that I in any way agree with Risen’s characterization of the emergence of 750 ml bottlings of beer as being part of “what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer” – really? By whom, exactly? – but rather that I see no reason to discriminate against beer simply because you can still buy a twelve-pack of Bud Light for ten bucks.
And as for those individuals interviewed by Risen who suggest that they recoil at the notion of sharing their big bottle of beer with anyone else, I have but one piece of advice: Grow up!