Most consumer markets have a premium segment where consumers are willing to pay more for what is, or is perceived to be, higher quality. But, in general, this is “similar but better” rather than something completely different, and is done to some degree as an assertion of social or financial status. That is, at least partly, why people buy Audis rather than Skodas. This is something that brewers have always struggled to pull off – while some beers are classified as “premium”, it tends to be because they are stronger. There are some undeniably premium brands, such as Peroni and Guinness, but they’re not craft. Possibly Punk IPA is now breaking out of the craft straitjacket to join them.
Craft, on the other hand, is something that is chosen as a means of expressing one’s individuality and discernment rather than status as such. If you’re out in a mixed group, and shun the Peroni or Punk on the bar in favour of that can of Gopherville murk skulking at the back of the fridge, frankly you’ll come across as a bit of an oddball. This doesn’t just apply to beer – Boak & Bailey have recently commented on the craftification of everything. The traditional market stratification is breaking down and people are seeing consumer choices as a means of self-definition.
Where a premium does exist in beer, is is much more between establishments than between brands. Wetherspoon’s is, across the board, markedly cheaper than Brunning & Price or the Port Street Beer House, and this is reflected in the clientele they attract. The status-conscious pubgoer is much more likely to say they frequent gastropubs than that they drink Brand X.
Of course it’s a truism that, broadly speaking, there is a trade-off between price and quality. However, as I discussed here, the actual cost of ingredients is a pretty small proportion of the price you pay over the bar, and with a small brewery you’re often paying more for less efficient production, distribution and administration too. The whole issue is clouded by the question of strength, as very often that shock £9 pint turns out to be 10.5%, and thus not directly comparable with a session beer. And the biggest factor affecting the price to the consumer is retail markup, not brewery gate price. It’s very easy to find pubs charging 33% more for the same product within a couple of miles of each other.
In pretty much every consumer market, there’s a range of products at a wide range of price points, and it’s accepted that the more expensive ones are going to be beyond the mean of consumers of modest incomes. Most people, though, do have a little to set aside for luxuries or self-indulgences, and if they choose to spend that on expensive malt whiskies, or theatre trips, or restoring a classic car, that’s up to them, and they do it in the full knowledge that they’re sacrificing something else, possibly that Sky TV subscription, to pursue it. But it’s not typical behaviour of their peer group.
If someone is interested in craft beer, and chooses to buy four craft cans for a tenner rather than a slab of Carling, there’s nothing to stop them. In that sense, craft isn’t unaffordable for anyone with sufficient interest in the subject. But, possibly because craft beer continues to position itself as fighting some kind of moral crusade against corporate interests, the whole issue of affordability touches a raw nerve.
But wouldn’t it be better all round if the “craft beer movement” could accept that it was just another somewhat pricey niche middle-class enthusiasm and stop pretending it's trying to change the world? As Tandleman wisely says here:
“Craft beer isn't beer for the people, it is beer for some people - people with a few bob - so shouldn't those making it and selling it be honest enough to say so? After all, not so deep down, we all know that already.”Me? I’m off down the pub for a pint of Sam’s.