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Price Check! Looking beyond rare boutique beers

Should we really be outraged over a $60 bottle of beer?
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shutterstock_300303869Breweries don’t really want to talk about price. It’s not sexy. Read the labels or the magazine ads or the websites and tell me how often they mention price. They want to talk about quality and “passion” and the latest seasonals and new aroma hops and barrel-aging…and whatever else it takes to persuade us that there is value in what we buy.

Ultimately, we decide what we pay. Then we decide if it was worth it. If you’re paying too much for beer, it’s more your own fault than anyone else’s.

That’s nothing new, but occasionally the “beer is getting too expensive” chatter rises above a murmur. This usually happens after some well-known brewery announces a very special release with a price tag that raises eyebrows. It started happening almost annually in 2002 when Boston Beer announced its Samuel Adams Utopia would sell for $100 or more. More recently it’s Goose Island’s Rare Bourbon County Stout, which should retail at $60 per half-liter bottle.

I happen to think those are absurd prices for drinks that are not especially drinkable, but that’s beside the point. If you’re paying that much, you’re paying for more than the liquid in the bottle. You’re not even trying to buy a commodity. You’re trying to buy an experience. That experience is what the brewery and the shop are trying to sell you, no doubt dressed up in a fancy package — which, notably, also adds to the cost.

If you have that experience and decide that it was worth $60 or $100…then it was. Your opinion is the only one that should matter in that case. There may be some cognitive dissonance at work—assuming that something must be worth doing because, after all, you did it—but if you end up with lasting, happy memories of that beer, well, we’ve all spent stupider money on stupider things. Good for you! Life is short.

But it’s weird that those outliers are what raise the price discussion every time. That’s not what most of us pay. There are always outliers, and they don’t have much at all to do with what 99 percent of us spend on beer 99 percent of the time. I’m far more interested in the high-quality, low-price corner of the Cartesian plane.

So I checked in with one of the most popular beer shops in the city where I grew up: Springfield, Missouri. Springfield is a middle-sized city in the middle of America, and it enjoys a below-middle cost of living. Most Americans who buy beer are not doing it in places like Brooklyn or Boston or Portland. They’re doing it in places like the Brown Derby, known locally for its wide selections of wine, liquor and beer. Going there to browse is part of the fun. It’s a happy place.

Eric Carter is the beer manager. He’s the friendly one—actually, that word is almost redundant in Springfield—he’s the mustachioed one who comes out and asks beer-browsers if he can help them find anything in particular. I contacted him by email and asked for a price check.

First, I wanted to know about the standard six-packs from a few Missouri craft breweries: Boulevard (usually $8.49, on sale this week for $6.97), Schlafly (usually $8.49, on sale for $7.47), and Springfield’s own Mother’s (usually $8.99, on sale for $8.47).

What is the Derby’s most expensive six-pack? Bells The Oracle at $18.99. That’s a special release. Two higher-cost sixers that sell year-round are the strong import EKU 28 at $16.99 and Rogue for $14.49.

What is the most expensive bottle in the store? That would be the 1.5-liter magnum of St. Bernardus 12, for $39.99.

Price is less of a concern for some. Carter says that there are always a few looking for something new or highly rated; sites or apps like Untappd have been influential there. These people are shopping for boutique beers at boutique prices. They’re shopping for experiences. The usual market rules don’t necessarily apply. Think of your local coffee shop that likes to display paintings from an unknown local artist, and you try not to choke when you see the asking price. To someone else, it may be worth that cost. The artist doesn’t have to please everyone with that painting, only that one person who takes a shine to it.

Likewise, the boutique brewer that puts a costly special release into a few bottles only has to please a few people. Then it’s on to the next special thing.

“I rarely hear customers complain about price,” Carter says. “If they do, it’s usually regarding the price of a bottle on the mix-a-six. Something like five-, ten-dollar single bottles will sometimes shock people. I would say the vast majority of drinkers nowadays know what they’re getting into. I actually hear more people talk about good deals rather than prices that are high.”

He offers this additional insight: “I have noticed that brand loyalty is becoming a thing of the past with this most recent boom. It seems like the average craft drinker can find a great six-pack of beer at a great price any time, and that’s what they tend to gravitate toward. For example, if someone really loves IPAs and maybe Two Hearted is their favorite, but Odell is a buck cheaper, they’ll most likely go with the Odell. Or if Rampant is two bucks less than Odell, it will go into consideration as well. Price is becoming a factor for the breweries who want to be big players…A lot of times the best bargain wins out.”

So, are we living in a golden age for flavorful beer at reasonable prices? If so, most of us should be pleased.

Just for comparison, I also asked about a six-pack of Budweiser — it’s $7.49. I found that shocking, possibly anomalous, so I asked about 12-packs ($10.29), 18-packs ($14.49) and cases of 24 ($18.49).

Carter said that prices on domestic beers like Bud have been increasing about 20 to 50 cents every autumn. “I would be willing to bet that we’ll see it at $10 in our lifetimes.”

So each Bud from a sixer costs about $1.25, while one from a case costs 77 cents. Let’s call it the six-pack tax, spending an extra 48 cents per bottle simply because you don’t want to carry a case, don’t want to commit to it, or don’t have room in your fridge. I find that weird.

But what’s far more interesting is that—this week at the Derby, anyway—you can get sixers of Boulevard Pop-Up Session IPA, for example, for 52 cents less than a sixer of Bud. Pop-Up is a lovely beer, a personal favorite of mine. Maybe in your own local shop you can find similar examples of tasty specialty beers that are as cheap as—or even cheaper than—run-of-the-mill domestic lagers.

A reasonable hypothesis: Regional specialty breweries are ramping up volume to meet demand, so sometimes they can get away with lower prices. Meanwhile, larger domestic brewers continue their habit of modest price increases, possibly to help compensate for lost market share, or to please shareholders, or for some other reason that may be tone-deaf to the changing market.

We appear to have crossed some sort of threshold, and on the other side—if you like these interesting specialty beers—it doesn’t make much sense to complain about price. Good. It’ll free us up to talk about something sexier. Like quality.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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