Friday, 23 February 2018

Craft for the masses?

Following last week’s debate about élitism in beer, there has been a bit of pondering about whether the high price of craft beer is deterring drinkers of limited means. The owner of a community pub in Brighton has criticised craft beer for ‘pricing out’ poorer consumers, while Dave S of Brewing in a Bedsitter has mused on all the different factors that make up the price of beer over the bar, and Boak & Bailey have posed the question whether it is possible to get a decent pint of craft for £3.

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.

35 comments:

  1. Agreed. I'll be off for a pint of Lees Phantom later. Mind you that will be £3. Ouch.

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  2. Life is too short to drink cheap beer? Is that why Stella Artois was advertised as "reassuringly expensive" then?

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  3. Stella is the classic example of a beer that enjoyed a genuine premium position that was pissed away by the brand owners by cheapening the recipe, reducing the strength and engaging in competitive discounting.

    The graphic is intended to illustrate the post - it isn't necessarily my viewpoint.

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  4. Brewers are free to market their products as they see fit, if you do no like the price being charged you have a choice, either go somewhere that sells the product at a lower price or buy something else, there is too much of a sense of entitlement amongst some people, that if they cannot afford something they feel excluded in some way. If the craft sector was trying to appeal to a more mass market they would have to reduce their prices to compete with similar products such as real ale. There I also the issue of value for money, this is often more important to people than cost alone.

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  5. You're on a roll here as the voice of the people. I hear the kippers are looking for a new leader to lead them. Get your CV in. Simply tell them you're not a racist and there'll bite your hand off.

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    1. Do I get a 25-yo "model" girlfriend" thrown in?

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    2. If you are sensible you'll find a nice older widow who has a few bob and a tidy pension & possibly a little pub that knows how to make a good tater hash. One that makes you a Cocoa and puts your electric blanket on and no longer bothers with all that nonsense.

      You don't need a young strumpet that will wear you out with unnecessary athletic perversions that put your back out & cause you to miss Inspector Morse.

      Especially not a strumpet with such unkind views regarding our future Queen of Hearts who will doubtless be elevated to national treasure after dying mysteriously.

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  6. Well as inequality grows, yes, more people are sure to feel excluded from some sectors. I'd say that decent beer, like decent occupational pensions, and much else besides, are for the many, not for the few. You know what the answer to that is, and it's not attacking people just trying to make a success of their businesses in the world as they find it, is it?

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  7. Craft beer has been a commercial success story without any customer campaign. Punters have lapped up what basically expensive beer concentrate. The margins on that means a fair few people are making a buck. I’ve no problem with that. Making a quid is what the game is about. Those that are, are winning. Those that aren’t are losing.

    But from where does beer culture get the idea that it is a moral crusade? Where did they get that idea from? Could the prevailing specialist beer culture of CAMRA have influenced the new culture of craft beer even as it dies and fades into irrelevance as its warriors become old men?

    As for the movement, I’ll get to see what the next generation think of it. For as the Sufi say, This too shall pass.

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    1. I'd say the po-faced moralising and virtue signalling comes much more from US craft beer than from CAMRA.

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    2. What's the origin point of it all? The first consumer beer club that fought a moral crusade?

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    3. To CL: craft beer positions itself as a moral crusade in response to perceived consumer demand, just vendors of "green" or "organic" or "clean" food have responded to the consumer desire for these and to make an implied moral choice. Just as retailers of investment funds do that avoid tobacco stocks, or oil investments. All these are to a degree social constructs - craft, green, ethical funds, etc. - but that's the market in action. It's just like wanting a specific colour or size.

      Big beer failed to perceived this for years, or considered the market in question too small, but is catching up.

      This is the genius of capitalism. It's not odd or unusual that some craft drinkers see themselves as moral crusaders. Many breweries are happy to help them on their quest.

      Gary

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    4. "They steal your drams, then sell them back" lol

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    5. "dreams" even.

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  8. I suspect that most of the bottom income quartile wouldn't give craft beer house room. There seems to anguish from the craft brewers and commentators on behalf of others who don't want the product. Isn't this guilt a bit patronising?
    TWM

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    1. But a lot of them (OK, primarily older blokes) will drink real ale in the likes of Spoons and Sam's.

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  9. This feels like a stawman argument. Who's on a crusade to educate the masses? The brewers? Surely that's just marketing? Punters? I doubt it. If I order a liquorice flavoured sour porter I don't spend the next hour telling my friend how much he's missing out by ordering a Fosters - I let him enjoy his pint. If he takes an interest I'll offer a taste but that's it.

    Can you virtue signal with beer when a) Quite often only one person orders a round of drinks and b) all beer looks the same in a glass?

    I can flick between cask and keg easily but keg generally has more non-standard flavours which can be fun to try.

    Is it not possible just to like craft but have no desire to force it on others? I'd love to see more in Spoons but it doesn't fit their business model I guess due to the price.

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  10. Setting aside the lager analogy we started to discuss on Twitter, in the end I think it has to be recognized that price rarely in fact denotes quality or, to pick term, gastronomic excellence.

    It denotes often social signalling - of status based on income - or perhaps this idea of expressing individuality (Michael Jackson wrote about that) - in either case it's not much to choose between the two. Individuality ends usually by being what your friends drink or buy.

    But, with all the experience of the people who participate in this case of discussion, they can an should express the self-confidence to know that, say, a pint of Holt's, or London Pride, is ounce for ounce a better beer than a lot of it most craft beer out there. Once one has that confidence, the other issues are less important as I see it.

    The flavours of craft beer, based on U.S. hop culture largely not accepted by 1800s U.K. brewers, have now been accepted in North America. I like them myself or am long accustomed to them anyway.

    But when you have the kind of choice Britain still has in traditional beer, beer that after all inspired our craft movement, the experience of centuries often will suggest which pint is superior, or, at the very least, the better value.

    If that traditional class of bitter disappears, and mild where still available, I'd be more concerned, but distinguished voices tell me this is not in immediate prospect.

    Gary Gillman, Toronto
    www.beeretseq.com

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  11. Sorry just one more thing, which is that craft trendiness has always existed: it's no different now than it was, say, in 1914 when those who could bought the new motor cars entering the market or approved champagnes or prams or whatever it was. Same thing with their clothes and where they went on holiday.

    The only difference is, today a wider spectrum of people have that option, due to the successes of 20th century capitalism and the industrial revolution. Beer is just one instance of it. But like these others, what's socially approved quite often is not better than, or is inferior to, less costly products. I'm convinced of that having had extensive experience in the area of malt and other whiskies, say, not just beer.

    I am sure it is no different with wine. I just had a $10 South African cabernet that was very considerably better many Bordeaux and other countries wines in that style carrying a much higher price tag.

    Gary

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  12. If Mudge's graphic had said "life is too short to drink unpleasant-tasting beer", then maybe it would have had a more apposite point.

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  13. Strange how the brewers always get the blame for pricing when it's the outlets that set the retail price. I don't doubt that 'craft' brewers happily charge far more than the micro brewers that I'd always assumed were quite artisan in outlook, but there are plenty of trendy craft retailers (they're not pubs) that set very wide margins.

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    1. Indeed, which is a point I make in the post. And I didn't even mention the inflated markup for craft keg over cask.

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    2. Although that doesn't equate to the pricelist I saw posted online for a pub owned by a micro that had the same beer on sale in both cask and keg with the keg 50% more expensive.

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    3. Couldn't agree more. A lot of retailers stick religiously to a % mark up, when they could be taking a cash margin. This leads to ridiculous ten quid plus pints. Restaurateurs don't expect to make the same % on the wines at the pricier end of the scale; the best mark up is on the house wine but a bottle of bolly will bring in more actual cash.

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    4. By 'retailers' though I mean pubs, bars, shops, everyone.

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    5. I do get the impression that many pubs slavishly follow a %GP figure which can all too easily lead to pricing idiocies.

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  14. "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."

    This is what most people miss. Beer is, largely, an industrial product. It works at scale, and if you've drank the likes of Fullers and Wadworths, there's no perceptible reduction in quality. And if you have a load of machines doing a lot of the work rather than blokes, you're going to produce that product cheaper.

    What works outside of that is niches. The chap who runs Butt's near Hungerford went organic quite early. He also does a damn fine porter. Hop Back seemed to do very well by making the very hoppy Summer Lightning. Niches - not what the big guys were doing. But even a decade or so ago, I feel like nearly all of that got sewn up. I've tasted beers from microbreweries that are fine, but none of them felt to me like someone had a USP behind what they were doing and my perception of the more successful ones is that their success is about dedicating a lot of resources to marketing materials.

    BTW I think you mentioned wine elsewhere, and the difference there is that wine is much more agricultural. To produce good pinot noir in Europe, you have to be roughly in the 250 mile latitude from Paris to Lyon. Beyond that, there's not enough sun, or too much. You start going from drinkable to very good, you're down to about 80 miles. And not everywhere. It's a fickle grape that wants the right soil, drainage, aspect etc. And that's a band across the world, north and south. Lovely stuff from Oregon, New Zealand and Chile. On top of that, you have the craft of the winemaker. That's why the premium is so high on wine. Even if you cut out all the brand snobbery, if you avoid Burgundy and go for somewhere cheaper like Chile, Romania or New Zealand, a £25 pinot noir is distinguishable from a £10 pinot noir. That's all about quite natural rarity.

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  15. Clearly the 'for the people' bullshit from Brewdog was a deliberate strategy to try and further differentiate their product from the CAMRA/real ale ethos which, rightly or wrongly, came across as rather self-consciously middle class.

    It was, of course, an utterly disingenuous distinction, but one of many they attempted to make, in a similar vein to Pale vs Crystal, hoppy vs twiggy, keg vs cask, etc. Why not chuck in a made-up class divide to further show the world how radical and different from the establishment we are?

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  16. You lot do realise we are talking about beer? BEER?! Reality check maybe?!

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    1. Exactly. To paraphrase Gelett Burgess: I don't know much about brewing but I know what I like. And what I like is industrial cask beer with a long tradition behind it. Pedigree, About, London Pride Bass.

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    2. That's one thing on which we can agree :-)

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    3. As I do. Except, if craft beer has no clear definition, then "industrial" does not, either.

      Nice snap of you with that pint of 6X on Twitter there!

      Gary

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    4. Neither has a clear definition but I think that we all know what industrial means whereas craft is nebulous

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  17. "people are seeing consumer choices as a means of self-definition" - people have ALWAYS seen consumer choices as a means of self-definition, and beer is no different, eg the 1950s working man choosing mild while his boss drank bitter. As the moment the working man decided that he was as good as his boss, he switched to bitter, and mild sales began their rapid decline.

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    1. No, that's the traditional stratification where one social group consumed one thing, another something else. Bitter was aspirational, that's why the aspirational working man decided to drink it instead of mild.

      "Craft" is more a free-for-all where your tastes are no longer a reflection of your social or financial position.

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