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?
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.