Thursday, 12 October 2017

HOW much a pint?

This article in the Morning Advertiser by Pete Brown has sparked a lot of interest and discussion. In it, he’s arguing that people should be prepared to pay £9 a pint if the quality of the beer justifies it. In principle, of course, he’s entirely correct. In pretty much every consumer market, products that cost more in terms of ingredients or production processes, or command a greater cachet, succeed in commanding an often substantial price premium.

However, as I’ve argued here, the nature of the cask beer market makes this difficult to achieve. It may be more the case with “craft keg” beers, but they remain very much a niche product. In general, price premiums apply between pubs, or between beer categories, not between beers within the same category. The most successful example of a premium-priced beer in pubs is, of course, Guinness, which, despite being of fairly modest strength, sells at the same price as premium lagers, and will typically be 20% dearer than a comparable cask stout.

But Pete rather clouds the issue by talking about a beer , Brooklyn Brewery’s Cloaking Device, which is 10.5% ABV. Now, in Stockport, where Robinson’s Unicorn (4.2%) is about £3 or a little more, you would expect to pay maybe £6 for the 8.5% Old Tom. In London, where the £4.50 pint of 4% beer is commonplace, £9 for a beer well over twice the strength doesn’t seem that unreasonable. The main reason Cloaking Device is so expensive is not that it is much better, but that it is much stronger. A far better example would have been if he had found an example of beer of ordinary strength that was selling for half as much again as the norm.

This has also inevitably led some people to say “why are you expressing it as a price per pint when it isn’t going to be drunk in pints?” Well, probably it isn’t, but it’s still desirable to have a consistent yardstick to make comparisons between different beers, and given that the pint is the standard unit for drinking beer then it seems sensible to use it. Even if you compared price per third, or price per gallon, the ratio would be identical. This line of argument comes across as fatuous and tendentious.

Beers of 10.5% only make up a minuscule portion of the overall market, and in most pubs you’ll struggle to sell anything over 5% on draught. From his North London eyrie, Pete should also not forget the drinkers in his native Barnsley whose limited means would make them blanch at the idea of paying £9 a pint or anything like it. Good beer shouldn’t only be the preserve of champagne socialists.

And it should be remembered that, in the early days of CAMRA, it was often the case that there was an inverse relationship between price and quality. The best beers were those sold at lower prices in plain pubs that hadn’t been expensively tarted up, and made by small breweries who didn’t advertise and hadn’t invested heavily in whizzy new kegging plant.

40 comments:

  1. What is it about the strength of the beer that makes it worth more? Surely the only real difference between a 10% beer and a 5% beer is the water content? And less water should mean a cheaper beer, no?

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    1. Much higher duty, for a start, plus effectively twice as much raw materials.

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    2. Forgot about the higher duty.
      It doesn't take more raw materials though, does it? Beer is watered down to get the desired abv. For a higher abv, less water is required

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    3. a) most cask breweries don't brew at high gravity and water down and b)say you water down by 50% - then your output is two pints of saleable beer, not one. So it cancels out. Malt and hops are far more expensive than water.

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    4. Even if they did parti-gyle, which most brewers don't, they wouldn't throw away the rest after diluting it down!

      Stronger beers use more malt. Hoppier beers use more hops. New world hops are more expensive than twiggy Fuggles. Barrel aging, souring etc all cost money, take time and take up space. Some beers cost a lot more to make than others. Really.

      It amazes me that people still expect all beer to cost roughly the same. We don't have this expectation with wine of whisky. We don't even have it with burgers any more. People know that a quality product costs more for a reason. But when it comes to beer, the message stubbornly refuses to sink in.

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    5. What is it that's 'stubbornly refusing to sink in'? I didn't know, so I asked the question and it's now been answered. beleive it or not, it's sunk in

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    6. it depends how you go about making it, so for the stupidly high ABV beers craft brewers will use fractional freezing, you freeze the beer & because alcohol doesn't freeze at 0, but the water which is the main component does, if you hoick out the ice, whats left becomes increasingly higher abv beer. But you might end up with a lot less beer than your original raw ingredients could have produced, hence a higher price.

      where I think Pete Brown was most wrong, because I don't agree as a rule of thumb that beer should be as expensive as other drinks it should be as expensive as market forces dictate, is comparing it to whiskys or wine, just because they are stronger ABV.

      whisky costs more, because to be a whisky it must have spent at least 3 years in a barrel, though actually most are 10 year old, so you aren't paying for the high abv, you are paying for the time and effort that goes into making it. Similar with wine, you have to grow vineyards, harvest grapes and stick the wine in a barrel,most do for at least a year, whereas Beaujolais nouveau is in for a few weeks and will sell incredibly cheaply in comparison, again its the time and effort not the ABV that determines the cost and misses the point that actually wine is stupidly expensive in the UK for some reason, decent bottles of wine are often cheaper than bottled water in mainland Europe as is "craft" beer in lots of places.

      but you don't generally cellar beer like that, there are some vintage beers but are priced accordingly, so the time and effort cost factor is missing.

      there was an interesting article in the last edition of Beer, which I thought at the time would have raised more chat, but didn't, where it stated Tapped Leeds make a 5% beer that cost (exc brewers wages) 25p a pint, and sell it for £5.

      the biggest issue about "that beer" at the Rake costing £9, is that it was the cost of the distributor, ie the middle man, not the brewery who ultimately set that price, and I don't understand why that aspect didn't receive the attention it deserved

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    7. Does anyone actually read BEER? A far better way of CAMRA saving money would have been to not distribute paper copies of that to the membership.

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  2. I don't understand the issue. Breweries and pubs are free to charge what they want and customers are free to purchase it, or not. Whether people in Barnsley are able to afford to spend £9 on a pint is irrelevant.

    Its my belief that the future of pubs is in higher margins but lower volumes of beer but producers are still free to try the pile it high and sell it cheap route if they think they will get a return on it.

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    1. Stuff the plebs, then. Keep the pubs safe for us well-heeled beer snobs.

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    2. Hell yeah. My ability to pay for, and enjoy a £9 pint should not be determined by whether people in Barnsley can do likewise.

      Equally, if pubs and breweries want to appeal to less well off customers with cheaper pints they are entirely free to do so.

      Nobody would suggest a exclusive bar in a swanky part of town can't serve the best wine on the market at many multiples of a glass of Spoons Chardonnay, so why should beer be any different?

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    3. I have to say I am bemused at beers that sell for the price of wine. What is it that some brewers/pubs don't understand about 'austerity'? The UK is still in an austerity so it seems ludicrous to me that any business thinks it can sell any product for a high price. It's a little like opening up a Porsche dealership in the impoverished north-east. Let's just recognise that this premium/luxury tag is just a fad. And a niche one at that. Most if not all High Street pubs will not not touch beers like this as they will just take up space and not move. Bars in the City or Canary Wharf can get away with it but for the most part, beer drinkers will just ignore beers like this.

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  3. The continued existence of the "premium lager" market has long fascinated and troubled me. I find it amazing that people are willing to pay more for a bland (but well-marketed) foreign lager than for a locally-made, flavorful cask beer.

    If people associate the cask dispense method with cheapness, maybe the cask brewers should align with the craft keg people by focusing on their superior flavor compared to lager. Then again, I don't think everyone appreciates the difficulty of keeping cask beer. Why should the most fiddly, highly-perishable beer on the bar command the lowest price point?

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    1. I enjoy my ice fizzy loveliness all the more knowing it troubles you.

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    2. I really enjoy a decent foreign lager. Peroni, Coors, Mythos being my favourite. I only discovered such pleasures after getting tired of the bad hangovers from bitter and diversifying a little

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  4. Possibly because its fiddly and highly-perishable nature makes it difficult to ensure consistent quality.

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  5. In the sub four pound market there is absolutely no correlation between price and quality. For example the two pound OBB I recently had in 'mudges favourite Stockport pub was far superior to a four pound craft beer I had in another hostelry. Given that lack of correlation why should I risk spending most of my beer budget on a single pint in the forlorn hope that it will be life enhancing experience?

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  6. Is it fair to compare the prices of these products by the pint when nobody drinks they buy this unit? Surely that's like comparing a pound of sugar to a pound of steak, they are different products consumed differently.
    Whilst I prefer session strength cask by the pint usually, I often go out with people who drink stronger craft and they would routinely drink a half of 7% craft IPA on a round while I was having a pint

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    1. More like comparing prime steak with a cheap cut. But the point is that it is useful to consumers to be able to make a price comparison using a consistent unit of volume. What that unit of volume actually is, is largely irrelevant. All the prices of meat in the supermarket are shown with a price per kg. But you don't (presumably) eat a kilogram of steak at once. They also show the cost per litre against all the different beers. It puzzles me how supposedly intelligent people are unable to grasp this simple point - maybe it is a surefire sign of someone being a "craft idiot".

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    2. If you are buying commodities in a shop, then yes, price per unit of measurement is relevant and consumer use that to compare value.

      In a pub you are buying a service, a drink. There is no weight to a sandwich or portion of chips. It's a plate of food, not a measurement of it. Large or small.

      In a pub you are buying a drink. The price per drink is meaningful at the measurement simply informs you whether it's a large or small.

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  7. I think you may be getting the craft snobs aroused on this post,Peter.
    They all think the more you pay the better it is,not true,try Joseph Holts Bitter or Mild or Samuel Smiths Old Brewery Bitter,which are all great beers but cheap and i would have thought better than any overpriced craft keg crap.

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    1. Maybe not Holts. That's muck that stuff. Sams know how to make beer.

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    2. Does the phrase 'each to their own' not mean anything to you Alan?! Or do you just like winding people up and getting abuse in return. Until you waded in this was a well reasoned, level headed debate but has now descended into childish name calling! Sweeping generalisations like 'craft beer snobs' and 'overpriced craft keg crap' are only going to antagonise people. So if you don't want a repeat of the reaction you got to your blog then might I suggest a bit of diplomacy? After all this was meant to be about the value of beer not a cask vs keg argument!!!

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    3. @Anon - Alan made a general point, you have made a specific personal attack against him. There's a difference. As it says below, play the ball, not the man.

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    4. That was not intended as a personal attack! It was just a suggestion to be more diplomatic when talking about craft beer and the people who enjoy drinking it! Just because he is not singling out one person does not mean that his comments cannot cause offense. Lots of people enjoy craft beer and many of them also enjoy cask ale. I for one don't appreciated being called a snob just because I have different tastes to someone. I don't judge him for his drink of choice so why does he have to be so venomous towards people who like (or produce, or sell) craft beer?

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    5. I drink Sam's OBB regularly and I think that it's £2 a pint price proves the point that is being made. There's nothing wrong with it, it is an acquired taste, it varies wildly (taste and strength), the only consistent thing being that there are very few hops in it, neither bittering nor aroma. Hops are expensive, hence the lack of them in this traditional, old recipe, is reflected in the price, yet Sams pubs sell house wine that is comparable in price to better quality wines in restaurants.

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  8. Pedro makes a fair point but ruins it a bit with the "if you don't agree with me you don't love beer" bit.

    Personally wouldn't touch any 10%+ beer myself, every single one I've had has been cloying and sickly. If you want something at that strength you are better off with a nice glass of Shiraz. If a beer ain't pintable or swigable it defeats the point of it. There are nicer drinks to sniff and sip than beer.

    Out of interest would you price compare my Shiraz using pints too? Despite the choice being small, large or the bottle?

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    1. Wine prices are generally quoted by the bottle, even though you generally drink it by the glass. You often hear of expensive wines being "£100 a bottle" or suchlike.

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    2. Not down the plonk aisle at Aldi you don't ;)

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  9. I don't generally agree with Pete Brown. I can't say I get on with him, and I'm ashamed to admit that on one occasion I threatened to 'chin the fucker'. He represents much with which I fundamentally disagree, and I am personally envious of his relative success and the regard with which he is held, which I consider somewhat unmerited.

    But, despite all this, he is right here. Absolutely right.

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    1. He does have a point, but, as I said, he really shouldn't conflate quality with strength. Nor should he adopt such an obnoxious tone towards anyone who disagrees with him.

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  10. At the end of the day who cares what the price of a pint of craft is when nobody drinks a pint of it, only thirds or half's.
    When I have a pint of cask and someone has a half of craft on the same round they don't make me go up to the bar halfway through the round and say you owe me another half!

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  11. Professor Pie-Tin13 October 2017 at 11:22

    Sadly,Pete Brown disappeared up his own ample pompous arse a long time ago.
    Roughly about the time he did a DYKWIA over some brewery sign rumpus in an American craft beer bar.
    Of course pubs can charge whatever they want for drink but anyone who forks out nine snots for a pint is a dunderhead.

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  12. I wouldn't pay £9.00 a pint, but would, and have pay £3.00 for a third if it was something I was interested in, I have seldom been disappointed. Its your money and your choice what you choose to spend it on.

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  13. It seems like i have touched a nerve in the craft keg lot again with my comment on this blog,and threats of more abuse like you did on my blog about crap craft beer.
    I always use my own name on all blogs and pub related sites,why do you not use your own when giving abuse back to me.
    I now know how to as you say,wind you up,so if i see comments about craft beer and its pricing i will continue to give my thoughts on it,but with no abuse to those who like it,unlike what you give to me.

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  14. Who are you actually referring to Alan?

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    1. Alan. I agree with Michael. I do not have the foggiest who you are referring to.

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  15. In Clink, Birmingham today they had a 12% Alesmith stout going for £6.50 a third!

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  16. Pete Brown - Fat bastard.

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