Every now and then a pub or bar in London gets hold of a keg of limited edition, high-ABV craft beer, sells it with its usual margin, and, for its pains, finds itself spilled across the newspapers for hawking “Britain’s MOST EXPENSIVE Pint”.
This tends to be a “silly season” story, which is why it usually does the rounds in August. Last year it was Borough Market’s venerable beer bar The Rake, which got roasted for retailing Cloudwater’s North West Double IPA Citra for the equivalent of £13.40 a pint. This year, in a sign of rampant inflation, it was the Craft Beer Co, pouring Alesmith’s “Hawaiian” limited edition of its Speedway Stout for £22.50 a pint.
Tabloid outrage at the price of good, honest beer being pushed up by the gentrifying, moustachioed hipsters of Shoreditch and Hackney is met with howls of derision from the craft-beer community, which scoffs at the idea that anyone would buy 12% ABV Imperial Stout in pints.
One should compare these beers with fine wines, the argument goes, not with a standard cask bitter. They are made with expensive ingredients. They require much more malt to achieve their higher alcohol content. They are imported! They are rare!
I believe beer can be a noble, complex and refined drink. It is difficult for me not to feel sympathy with these arguments. In the final analysis, however, I do not think they stand up.
In short, it probably is healthy to ridicule—or at least question—the £22 pint.
Here are four reasons why.
Beer isn’t wine.
If it is absurd to price a beer like Cloudwater North West DIPA or Alesmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian in pints, as if it were comparable with a standard stout, bitter or IPA, what ought we to compare it with? According to reports, The Rake suggested we should compare Cloudwater’s beer to “fine wine”.
Winemaking is rather a pre-industrial process. It is very labour- and land-intensive, with many costs that do not amortise. By contrast, brewing is an industrial process. It is quite capital-intensive, and when it is done well, many of its costs amortise.
The main ingredient of wine is grapes. The main ingredient of beer is water. But even if we take the main ingredient of beer to be malted barley, it remains the case that grapes are three- or four-times more expensive than malt. Grapes are exposed to much greater variability and risk than barley. And the vines that provide grapes for finer wines might be decades or even hundreds of years old.
In other words, their respective ingredients and processes suggest that wine ought to be substantially more expensive than beer.
We tend to buy wine in 75cl bottles. That’s also how Alesmith bottles its Speedway Stout Hawaiian, and in that package it retails, mail-order, at around £40, the equivalent of £27 a pint. In the pub, at £22.50 a pint, 75cl would come in at just under £35.
Now, I would consider £35 or £40 to be a decent amount to spend on a bottle of wine. More precisely, on nearly every occasion when I have spent £40 on a bottle of wine I have felt that the quality was very obviously superior to the average supermarket plonk. Four- or five-times superior? More often than not, I would say yes.
My suggestion is to impose that same comparison, and that same standard, on an expensive beer. Is Alesmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian five-times better than a beer of similar strength that retails at around £7 per 75cl, a beer such as Rochefort 10, for example? Or is it three-times better than the 2010 vintage J W Lees Harvest Ale, which prices at around £12 for 75cl? If Speedway Stout Hawaiian is a £40 Burgundy Pinot Noir or Alsatian Riesling, does that make Rochefort 10 a bottle of Blossom Hill or Blue Nun?
If the answer is no, then a big premium is being paid for scarcity and social-media bragging rights, or perhaps for rare and decadent ingredients, or, which is worse, inefficient business practices.
A £4 pint doesn’t have to be bad beer—or even simple beer.
Rochefort 10 retails at around £4.60 a pint, then. But this beer sits under the floor at the abbey for a few weeks and then flies out the door. It doesn’t mature in big oak barrels or foeders for months or years, taking up precious real estate and delaying cash flows.
True. But Rodenbach Grand Cru does, and that retails at less than £5 a pint. One of my personal favourites among foeder-aged beers, Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne, will set you back a princely £4 a pint. A Belgian Oude Gueuze requires a space-intensive process of wild fermentation and barrel-ageing for three or four years. Its wild yeasts make it very local and scarce, and the process of blending Lambics to create the Gueuze requires skill and experience. And yet one of the finest examples, 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze, can be yours for £6.50 a pint. If you try hard enough, you might be able to blow the equivalent of £15 a pint on a limited-edition fruit Lambic from one of the leading producers. (It should be noted that these are online retail prices, and that, unlike with the Speedway Stout Hawaiian, which is even more expensive online, getting these in a London bar could double those prices—although you would still struggle to spend more than £15 per pint).
I have argued that some of these beers could, and perhaps should, bear higher prices because of their rarity, to bring supply and demand into equilibrium. But that is beside the point here: the producers of these beers, and many of their distributors and retailers, clearly feel that they generate sufficient, sustainable margins with current pricing.
Fancy ingredients are for the label, not for your taste buds.
The most remarkable thing about the price of Alesmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian is not that it is five-times higher than the price of Rochefort 10, but that it is three-times higher than Alesmith’s ordinary Speedway Stout.
That premium buys you some toasted coconut flakes, some vanilla and some rare Hawaiian Ka’u coffee beans, which are indeed three-times more expensive than your bog-standard joe.
If you can taste the difference after those beans have had beer fermenting on them, I complement you on your sensitive palate. If you think it justifies a 200% premium, I have a bridge to sell you.
It’s not sustainable.
I have written about late-cycle dynamics in the beer and brewing economy in a few places already this year. Pimping essentially simple things up to ludicrous latitudes of extravagance is as sure a sign of a business cycle burning itself out as a record high for the Dow Jones or a letter from your bank offering you a £50,000 overdraft.
If the last cycle ended with “NINJA” mortgages (No Income, No Job, No Assets), a decade later this one is cresting with stupid food and drink, from Waitrose’s little plastic boxes containing a boiled egg and three leaves of spinach, through wagyu-beef, white-truffle and gold-leaf hamburgers, to cafés dedicated to serving bowls of cereal.
At the top of a cycle, credit and capital can no longer find adequate investment returns, and the consumer can no longer find sensible things to buy with her disposable income. To adjust, the cost of capital has to rise and investment (which is really malinvestment) has to stop. The result is that people lose their jobs and start to budget for the basics again.
When that happens, we adjust our sense of what is valuable. We start to value Timothy Taylor’s Landlord or Fuller’s 1845 or Rochefort 10 or Rodenbach Grand Cru because they are great beers retailing at recognisable beer prices, rather than devaluing them because they are ubiquitous enough to be found on supermarket shelves.
Our sense of what is moral adjusts, too. The young, the disruptive, the small-scale, the “organic”—we may still admire and harbour affection for these characteristics in a consumer business, we may even continue to assign moral value to them. But we also rediscover the moral dignity of the proven enterprise, the business that has prudently matched its scale, its capital and its processes to the market it wishes to address, and uses the resulting cost-efficiency to deliver a safe, reliable, high-quality, value-for-money product to consumers.
And if that all sounds a bit brutal and Austrian—well, that, too, is just another symptom of the late-cycle bubble we live in.
Sometimes, when a batch of homebrew turns out better than expected, I reflect upon the genuine miracle of the modern marketplace. It is a system that enables all of these ingredients and bits of equipment to come to my door, so that I might create luxurious-tasting beer at a cost of less than £1 a pint and a modest outlay of pleasurable time.
I got the opposite feeling one evening last autumn, when I bought a 75cl bottle of Alesmith’s aptly-named Decadence beer. It was not poor, exactly, but it was aggressive, rough-edged and lacking in subtlety. It might have matured into a decent drink given four or five years in the cellar, and it might not have bothered me had I paid £7 or even £10 for it—but it was never going to be exceptional, and here it was, in a bar, to be consumed today, at £30.
To me, that represented a market failure—more so even than the similarly-priced 33cl bottles of Westvleteren XII at the same bar. And as the consumer, I was complicit in that market failure.
For all their silly-season origins, that is what headlines like “Britain’s Most EXPENSIVE Pint” are really responding to: the growing sense of queasy economic, social and political malaise that lies beneath the credit-drunk, conspicuous-consumption bubbles of our late-cycle excess. To dismiss those headlines is to blunder into the coming downturn wearing a gilded blindfold.