On Beer and Its Value

Oh god, we’re back on this. Last month’s Session and a series of subsequent posts has raised yet again the spectre of beer price, exclusivity, scarcity, etc.

In short, the youthful cadre of beer hobbyists is once more feeling pangs of guilt and/or frustration and/or envy. And perhaps stupidly, here I go wading anew into the morass.

You’re quite right, Beer Nut, beer does not matter. Never has. Nor does wine, for that matter, or whisky or any of the countless other foods and drinks that some people make their hobby. Adequate water supplies matter. Social justice matters. Food and education matter. Beer? That’s just a blip, a fine way to expend some discretionary income, as you note.

(Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this, since I earn a generous portion of my income advising others as to how best expend those discretionary amounts, but what the hell, it’s done now.)

Does this mean that no beer is worth lining up for? Perhaps not to you, Mr. Nut, or Alan, but for some hobbyists, the quest is part, sometimes a large part, of the thrill. Ever jumped in a car to drive long distances for some superfluous reason? If not, you’ve missed a stupidly fun experience.

That’s what Dark Lord Day and the like are for some people, harmless bits of fun. And if they help line the pockets of daring entrepreneurs who are crazy enough to start a small business on a whim and a prayer, and produce craft beers which, by all objective standards, should not find a substantial audience among the American public, well, so much the better.

Do I care about people “cultifying” certain beers? Hell, no! Admittedly, it gives me something to write about and thus helps out my own bottom line some – although not much; the mainstream press, who pay most of my wages, are little concerned about such things – but in the greater scheme of things it provides succour to a few and harms no one, save perhaps for the psychological scars inflicted upon the rabid cultists who miss out.

That’s scarcity. As for price, well, that is a many edged sword. Some high prices are certainly justified – Lost Abbey’s Angel’s Share Grand Cru, in addition to being the finest drop of liquid ever released by the brewery, came as the result of a ridiculous number of man hours and reams of expense and thus certainly deserved its elevated cost – while others are not, perhaps in my opinion and not yours or yours and not mine. It’s a judgement call, not a conspiracy to line the pockets of hard-working, barely-getting-by craft brewers.

Personally, I’d rather spend $25 for a bottle of craft ale, knowing that the bulk of the money is going to support the brewery, than $8 or whatever it is for a glass of mainstream foam at a Toronto Blue Jays game, knowing that money is supporting nothing more than corporate greed.

13 Replies to “On Beer and Its Value”

  1. Well, no, I’ve never jumped into a car in search of a beer — the whole cars-and-beer thing doesn’t really work for me. I have travelled hundreds of miles to hunt beers, absolutely. It’s what I enjoy doing most.

    But it’s enough effort to do that. I don’t then want to stand in a queue. Just gimme the beer already.

    I agree with you on the money though: I support the attitude of both BrewDog, who charge vast prices for very hard-to-make beer; and Cantillon, who charge tiny prices for very hard-to-make beer. Either works for me: the market will dictate.

    It’s the taking beer away from the ordinary drinker that bugs me about inaccessible beer. I like to think beer, as a simple, varied and easy-to-produce global drink has none of the pretentious baggage that comes with wine and whiskey. Is that how you’d like beer to be? Something that connoisseurs can use to look down on those who, plainly, don’t take their beer seriously enough? And bearing in mind, beer will never have the cachet that other drinks do, no matter how expensive and inaccessible it becomes.

    1. Frankly, I’ve never jumped in a car in search of a beer, either. When I was young enough to enjoy such frivolity, there were no beers worth doing that for. But I did drive with friends long distances for sometimes inane reasons, and never regretted a single kilometer. (Nowadays my impulsiveness is far more expensive, as it tends to involve planes rather than autos.) I don’t queue, either, but that’s just my nature — I hate lining up for anything — and not something I begrudge others.

      I don’t believe that all or even the majority of rare beers are rare simply because of the cynicism of the brewer. Rather, they are available in such limited quantities because they are hard to make and often not nearly as profitable as they would seem.

  2. Let’s be honest. No beers are not “rare” by calculation. Kirtland’s Warbler is rare because none can be made on demand. Beer manufacturing is largely a question of choice so exclusive is a better understanding than rarity. The question is how to make the best return. No one is suggesting that is cynical – it is rational. So it is up to the brewer whether or not to make enough that no one stands in a queue and by doing so get your margins down. Lobbying like this is just the consumer’s way to pressure for that opening up of the beer market.

    That being said, I drive for beer and have done so from Maine to Indiana into Quebec and down to Pennsylvania – but that is because I drive and integrate it into other family activities including seeking out the best value. That’s consumer’s side of equation that is nothing more than rationality as well.

    1. I must disagree with you, Alan, and not just because of the double negative or because I had to Google “Kirtland’s Warbler” to find out that it wasn’t some obscure and long-aged barley wine. To return to the Angel’s Share Grand Cru as my principle example, here is a beer that is rare by circumstance, not calculation, in that it is a blend of a finite number of barrels aged in very specific ways and with particular ingredients added. Tomme did not know he was planning for an ASGC bottling when he put aside barrel #184 for four years — he was doing it for something, but precisely what was then unknown — and neither did he know that the 2007 bourbon barrel containing more Angel’s Share would be some day mingle with it. Without more of the beer contained within these two barrels, there is no way to make more Angel’s Share Grand Cru.

      Similarly, circumstances like available tank space, quantities of certain ingredients, financial wherewithal to tie up revenue in aging ale and the like will limit certain beers by necessity, not design.

        1. And bless them for it! (Although by the time some of their more limited editions reach the U.S., they can get pretty costly. Still worth every penny — I’ve paid dearly for St. Lamvinus myself — but in the greater scheme of things, certainly on the higher end of the beer price scale.)

          1. My bottle of St Lamvinus cost €7 at the brewery. If you got done, it wasn’t by Cantillon. What you were paying the high price for was not hand-crafted lambic: it was some greedy middleman’s getting-away-with-it charge.

            And that’s exactly my point: if people didn’t pay high prices for St Lamvinus, but bought it at the brewery for the brewer’s price then we’d all get cheaper beer — the market would readjust. And if you can’t get to Cantillon, don’t worry, drink something else: there’s loads of really good beer out there that isn’t being handled by rip-off middlemen.

          2. I never meant to imply that Cantillon was responsible for the cross-ocean price jump, of course it was the combination of intermediaries that got the bottle to Buffalo where I bought it. But at the same time, US$40/bottle – which is what I think I paid, it may have been a few dollars less – is still a lot cheaper than a flight to Brussels.

            And IMO, it was worth the price. I regularly buy champagne costing about the same and don’t think twice about it. Both are unique products that can only come from specific places, and so if I want the experience of drinking French champagne — a redundancy, I know, since only the French make true champagne — or traditional lambic, I pay the price, period. If someone else doesn’t want to pay that same price, they can go without in the hopes that the price will drop. Me, I see the value and so I pay.

  3. Well, I will give you that the arc of production has been outstretched by demand but that is not likely to continue. The lines, as with all short supplied products, should ease when production catches up with demand.

    As Cantillon is the proof of. Excuse the hanging participle.

    And “no beers are not ‘rare’ by calculation” is a beauty but the point is made by you. There is a calculation as to risk and capacity being made by the producer. That is design, not necessity as any profitable brewer can expand as many are.

    And demand is pumped through the rock star / event / one chance strategies to ensure the best price in light of all factors (including long term good will). All rational. The appropriate rational response of the consumer is not to line up but to complain to ensure that the best price is a low as possible.

    1. In its early days as an officially government-recognized museum, yes, I understand it did receive some set-up monies. But unless things have changed recently, I do not believe they receive any operating subsidies today.

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