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Three Examples of Why Some Good Beers Cost More

One of the biggest frustrations for brewers is when people who self-identify as lovers of good beer insist that it should always, without exception, be inexpensive. Is it fair to condemn this inverse snobbery? Or could the industry and beer communicators be doing a better job of explaining and justifying the high price tags attached to some beers?

The ‘special’ shelf in my cellar.

Notwithstanding the steady descent of Twitter generally into a platform for people to get furious over trivia and hurl abuse at people they don’t know, there’s been a spat going on over the last few days between a couple of contrarians and a bunch of beer people over the ‘outrageous’ price of a beer someone mentioned.

I immediately intervened on the side of the industry people defending and justifying the expense of some beers, tweeting:

“I find it amazing every time someone who claims to love beer asserts that beer can never be worth more than what you pay for the average pint. I’ve never heard a wine lover declare that Chateau Lafite, for example, should cost the same as Blossom Hill.”

I steadfastly believe in the validity of this comparison. But looking at the sheer ignorance of the people we were debating with, two things occurred to me. One, yes, it’s probably not worth bothering engaging with people who for some reason have chosen to spend their precious time on this planet arguing with people they don’t know about subjects on which they are entirely ignorant. But two, the frequency with which this particular attitude surfaces suggests that perhaps we’re at fault too. It’s not just on social media: in pubs and bars, when there’s some strong, rare beer being sold in thirds or halves only, there’s always someone who works out the cost of a pint (even though you can’t buy a pint) and decries how outrageous it is. Sometimes it even makes national news. And yet, we never see stories about what a rip-off it is that a pub wine list has a house white at 13.5% ABV for £14 and another wine at £65 that’s also £13.5% ABV. Even those (perhaps especially those) who are ignorant about wine are quite happy to accept that some wines are intrinsically worth more than others. If asked to explain why, they might invent an answer, but they would probably be more likely to come up with an explanation that sounds plausible to their ears rather than crying foul on pricing.

That such people are unable to do the same for beer surely says more about them than it does beer, but we can’t let them shoulder all the blame. Some of the replies to these people have been impatient, perhaps even condescending, and I thought: why would we assume people would have this knowledge when, unless they’re avid readers around beer or visitors of breweries, no one has told them?

So, in a blog post that won’t make a blind bit of difference to the professional contrarians whose only motivation is winding people up on Twitter to afford the illusion that their sad little lives mean something, here are three examples, offered with the best intentions, to explain why some beers cost more than others. These are not the only three – but they’re the three that came to my mind first.

1. Some beers have more stuff in them than other beers.

Here’s an interesting stat: in North America, craft brewers account for around ten per cent of total beer volume brewed. But craft brewers buy 25 per cent of all the hops grown in America. That means on average, craft brewers put two and a half times as many hops into their beers as mainstream commercial breweries. That means the cost of the hops going into each pint is at least two and a half times higher. (Possibly more when economies of scale and sizes of contracts are taken into account.) If you don’t like hoppy beer, or don’t want to pay a premium for it, that’s your choice. But surely the financial logic is undeniable. And that’s before you take into account the extra expense of ensuring a very hoppy beer remains chilled from the point of packaging to the point it’s bought by the drinker, to preserve the freshness of the hops.

2. Some beers take longer to make than other beers

There are various examples of this, but let’s look at lager. The word ‘lager’ means ‘to store’, and it’s generally accepted that a good quality lager should be lagered, or conditioned, at low temperatures for at least four weeks. This is because the yeast throws out various flavour compounds as it’s fermenting and conditioning. But left long enough, the yeast will then reabsorb these compounds, leaving a fresh, clean beer that’s crisp and refreshing but still has flavour and character. Not only does the lagering process tie up your capital for weeks because you can’t sell the beer you’ve just bought all the ingredients for and paid someone to make, it needs to be stored at cool temperatures – around two degrees Celsius. Keeping huge rooms full of tanks at that temperature consistently costs a serous amount of money. Budweiser Budvar lagers its beers in this way for at least ninety days. Some mainstream commercial brands go from brewing to packaging in 72 hours. If asked, they’ll tell you that modern technology has removed the need for lagering time. But taste a properly lagered lager alongside one that’s been made in a few days, and you might be sceptical about this.

3. Some beers use rare or special ingredients or processes

Lambic and geueze beers were at the centre of the recent Twitter spat. There are many, means reasons why these beers are expensive compared to a mainstream lager, but I want to focus on just one.

Instead of adding laboratory-cultured yeasts to start the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, lambic brewers rely on the natural yeasts in the air around them. It’s not quite the same thing as sourdough versus regular bread, but it’s close enough for comparison. The air around us is filled with a swirling cocktail of microflora, and its composition changes depending on where you are. There are certain parts of Belgium where this airborne biome produces great results in beer: other parts, not so much. So beers in this style are tied to particular places. But the cocktail doesn’t just change depending on where you go; it changes depending on the time of year, too. In warmer months, the party gets a little crowded, and as well as the ‘good’ yeasts you want in your beer, there are lots of uglier critters floating around that will spoil the beer and made it undrinkable. This means lambic producers can only brew during certain months of the year. The traditional season runs from October to April, when the average temperature is between -8 degrees Celsius and +8 degrees Celsius. But global warming means this window is now narrowing: the unseasonal warm weather we’re having now is catastrophic for lambic brewers. At Cantillon, the world’s most famous lambic brewery, the limited brewing window has contracted from 165 days in the early 1900s to about 140 days today. Within that period, sudden spikes mean a beer has to get poured away. This is a small, family business – the beer you brew over 140 days – once it’s been stored for three years, matured and blended – has to support people’s livelihoods for the whole year round. Prices have to rise, or the company will go out of business.

I’m not denying that there are opportunistic brewers and retailers who are cashing in on the craft beer boom to sell beers at artificially inflated prices because there are people who are willing to pay them. But I offer these three stories as examples that not all beers are the same. Brewing is an extraordinarily complex process and the ingredients of beer are each complex in their own way.

As with anything you buy in the supermarket, there are cheap versions and expensive versions – if all you can afford is an Iceland spag bol at £1 for an individual portion, it would be wrong to judge. But surely you’d appreciate that a scratch-cooked version using better quality tomatoes and beef is going to taste better? Brewers face similar decisions to you. If you’re not interested or not able to afford the better quality stuff, fine. But it’s simply inverse snobbery to criticise those who would rather splash out.

If anyone is interested in learning more about beer’s complex and wonderful supply chain, and the incredible lengths growers, breeders and scientists go to help brewers produce great beer, try Miracle Brew:

You’ll never see beer in the same way again. I know I didn’t.

12 Comments

12 Comments

Bob Cooper

What you are saying is that we should bring the same snobbery into beer drinking that wine drinkers have. Some cheap beers are well prepared and are nice to drink and some expensive beers are not nice to drink; even with their more expensive ingredients or long winded processes, which don’t improve the flavour but do increase the selling price.

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PeteBrown

I never fail to be staggered by comments like this.

“What you are saying is that we should bring the same snobbery into beer drinking that wine drinkers have.”

No. I’m not.

I go to great pains in my beer writing to avoid obfuscation and say exactly what I mean. If my intention was to say that beer appreciation should be as snobby as wine appreciation can be, then I would have said that in no uncertain terms. Given how controversial such an opinion would have been, I would have then provided compelling arguments as to why that should be the case.

I did not do that, because I don’t believe it.

So basically, you’ve read something I’ve written, and then accused me of writing something I didn’t actually write.

Why would you do that?

What I did was provide you with three factual examples of why some beers can cost more than others. What you have totally failed to to do in your lazy comment is explain why any one of these examples demonstrates proof of a tendency on my part towards snobbery. Either make your argument properly, or shut the fuck up.

I’m listening.

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Chris Hampton

I thought it was well written and brings up some good points especially regarding the cost of ingredients. The large breweries agree prices with suppliers years in advance and plantings can be done in order to fill their specific orders. The small Pico and nano brewery’s cannot afford the space to store ingredients at any capacity to warrant the kind of prices they get. The result is as you say a much more expensive beer or less income for the brewers.
I find it hard to know myself when looking for new beers to buy in Britain if the shop or pub are milking the consumer or if it is getting back to the brewer.
Unfortunately after seeing what happens to farmers and milk in this country I doubt it’s going any further than the shop unfortunately.

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Ian Woodford

Great article. I’m always willing to pay that little bit extra, rather than not enjoy some of New Zealand’s larger breweries products. (yes Dominion Breweries I’m looking at you and your Double Brown!)
Tell me more of this ‘special shelf’.
Do you do guided tours and tastings? 😀

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Dan Moskovenko

Great article.

I understand the increased price, particularly when more ingredients are involved, or barrel ageing. However, I was a little surprised to pay £11 for a 440ml can of Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast Stout at the newly-opened Mikkeller bar in London… Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it. Having said that, not only is it not barrel aged, but it also appears to be a semi-regular brew. Also, at 7.5% it isn’t exactly earth-shatteringly high ABV. I was a little perplexed…

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Jo Lilford

Great article Pete, thank you. We smaller brewers are always up against it, price wise and the market doesn’t want to stock beers that come in over a certain price per barrel, irrespective of the cost to us. But we use incredible ingredients, often hand foraged (seaweed stout from our own beach for example.) It’s time consuming, expensive and entirely worth it to make really outstanding beer. The market is, slowly waking up, but thanks for a great piece that articulates it so well. Jo Lilford, Tomos & Lilford brewery, Vale of Glamorgan

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Dan

Just makes me smile, the way you suppose that an explanation for high cost will make folk on low incomes suddenly okay with spending too much for a beer. It is too expensive. It doesn’t matter why. This is an enforced withdrawal by those who are excluded, which you are countering with accountancy facts. We know why it costs more. We really do. And we still don’t buy it. Because we can’t afford it. Wine has always had a tier system. An elitism. Beer has always been the working folk’s antidote to the status aware world of wine. Beer, until craft, was always a fairly level field, cost wise, affordable to most. Inclusive. Non-tiered. Welcome to all, non-intimidating or exclusive. Let wine be wine and let beer be beer. When the lofty costs of wine closes the door on you, beer should always be accessible. Too many small breweries, each with relatively sky-high overheads, should perhaps merge, combine talent under wider umbrellas to keep their costs manageable. All of these beers would be considerably cheaper to bring to market if they weren’t being made in separate small batches by separate small teams in separate small units, often based just round the corner from each other. Combine, share all the knowledge, the talent and the passion – keep those high costs down and pass the savings on to those who love the stuff but simply can’t join the party. Beer isn’t wine. Let’s remember that and celebrate it. Together. Not in separate 1st and 2nd class compartments that recent years have created.

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PeteBrown

What a strange response. How can it ‘not matter why’ an item is expensive? If it costs twice as much to make, how can it be sold for the same price? I don’t ‘suppose an explanation will make people on low incomes suddenly okay with spending too much’ – people’s incomes have absolutely nothing to do with what I wrote. You may know why some beers cost more, but a lot of people genuinely don’t, and this post was aimed at them. And your entire post pre-supposes that the existence of pricey beer somehow means affordable beer is no longer available. That’s false logic. These super-premium, pricey beers are available as well as the cheap, affordable beers that have always been around. You can buy a super-expensive barrel-aged imperial stout for £3.50 a third if you want to/can afford to. If you don’t/can’t, you can still buy four cans for a fiver in Tesco, or a pint of Cuddles best in Spoons for £1.99. The other day I was in a pub in Barnsley owned by Acorn Brewing and bought one of their excellent cask ales for less than two quid a pint. They also had pricier bottled imports. I made my choice. So can you, or anyone else.

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Chris Clegg

Pete, the hipster brewers are using metropolitan snobbery like yours to charge over the odds for beer, some of it undrinkable fizzy muck. You are a fluffer for that scam and not being objective. You are too close to that world and won’t or can’t see the other side of the argument.
As a Yorkshire man, you should understand ‘value for money’ pricing and never paying a penny more than you need to. I’d sooner pay £2.00 per pint for Sam Smith’s or Tim Taylor’s than pay £ 6.00 + for an ‘artisanal’ beer, which has been killed at source then has to be jigged up with nitrogen. You’re a bit a like those trade writers who used to hymn the praises of the mega-keggeries and their over-priced products in the 60’s and 70’s. All gas and marketing.
Try and look at it from a non-metro point of view. And also support long-standing independents who are doing well to survive at all in this market, created by ludicrous government policies on licensing and tax on alcohol which are still cutting a swathe through our pubs. I heard yesterday that Sam’s has 70-odd tied houses temporarily closed at the moment. Not good. That is more pertinent than sticking five types of hops into a green beer and charging a huge premium for it. I know you think that is the way forward. I have to politely disagree.

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PeteBrown

“Metropolitan snobbery”, “a fluffer” for the “scam”. Thanks for the “polite disagreement.” I’d hate to see the impolite version.

Sorry mate, but this just isn’t good enough. I’ve presented rational facts with no opinion either way. You can check up on them if you like. They are true. Are you actually trying to deny that there are real, tangible reasons why some products cost more than others?

One of the most disturbing trends in discourse today is that having different tastes or preferences is no longer good enough. Increasingly, there’s a sense of “Well I don’t like this, so anyone who does like it is wrong.” Worse, there’s also a sense of “Well I don’t like this, therefore it has no right to exist.”

I respect your choice to swerve expensive beers. You still have a massive choice of inexpensive beers – you are free to buy your two quid pint of Sam Smiths if that’s what you like. Why should people who share views different from yours be barred from making a different choice?

And I’ll thank you for not putting words or opinions in my mouth that I did not express myself.

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Peter Smith

Interesting blog post Pete, in New Zealand we seem to have settled on $9.99 for a standard craft beer bottle and about $15-18 for something special but still NZ Brewed. Special is often barrel aged or soured etc etc. Most people can appreciate the difference and I don’t think we see people making much noise about $18 bottles of beer, after all it you don’t want to pay then don’t.

If there was noise over here, its probably about;

A) the range of “quality” in the $9.99 bottle market.
B) the length of time that bottle has sat on the shelf and in the distribution channel.

Keep up the good work mate you are read the world over.

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