Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Value Theory

So it looks like the "expensive beer" discourse is back.

First, a declaration of interest. I quite like fancy, expensive beers, and I know that many of the things that I like in fancy beers - mixed fermentation, barrel aging, high gravity, expensive hops - add to the cost of the beer. A lot of these sorts of beers are also fairly niche, meaning that the brewers have limited opportunities to save money through economies of scale. Good supply chain - keeping beer in coldstores rather than warm warehouses - isn't cheap either. Once we've gone through all this, and added the percentag emarkups that different links in the supply chain need to add to stay in business, some things that I like can end up fairly pricey. And I'm okay with that - only being able to buy them when I'm feeling flush seems better than not being able to buy them at all.

Second, another declaration of interest. I also like cheap, good beer. I like the fact that beer is an everyday drink, something that large swathes of the population can share and bond over as a routine matter. I like the fact that there are breweries and pubs out there who are still delivering a high quality product but keeping a firm eye on the price point, so I can go out with a mixed group of friends or family and drink some truly fantastic beers in a nice pub without anyone having to sell any organs to afford it.

A lot of the current discussion is about choosing one of these to the exclusion of the other, but like a lot of people, I don't see any reason that we can't have both. People often point at wine as an example where this already happens - I'm not a wine buff, but as far as I can tell, sought-after vintages that are accessible only to oligarchs seem to co-exist fairly happily with well respected, well made wines with more everyday price tags. Food is another example - the fact that there may be really good high-end restaurants in a given town doesn't challenge the existence of great cheap eats, and rather than existing in separate bubbles, these places are often points on a continuum that's of interest to a lot of the same people.

But the flip side to this is that the whole discourse around food and around wine is full of attention to value for money. It's not that people won't countenance expensive food or wine, but they're also willing to talk about a fantastic red for a tenner that they've discovered, or to how to get the most for your money when you do decide to splash out on a special bottle. Two staples of the food columns are tributes to great little places that do amazing food for next to no money and vicious hatchet jobs on top-end places that don't live up to their top-end prices.

So maybe this is what beer really needs in its conversation, if we're going to do both things. Sure, we'll often be happy to justify the high price of a mixed ferm saison or a barrel aged stout, or to explain why a beer costs more in a bar in Central London than it does from the brewery door in rural Flanders. But we should also be willing to call out, albeit maybe a bit more diplomatically than Jay Rayner's example, when the quality of the product doesn't seem to be worth the price we're being asked to pay - when the expensively hand-fettled ingredients aren't really reflected in a better beer, or when the hazy pale imported at great cost from Copenhagen is really no better than the one brewed down the road that we could have at half the price. And if we're going to laud the skill and attention to detail that gives rise to a barrel aged mixed-fermentation saison that deserves the same respect as a fine wine, we should also talk about the skill and attention to detail that another brewer uses to streamline costs without sacrificing quality and produce a world class pale ale at a far more accessible price.

In short, if we aren't going to draw battle lines over price, we really need to be willing to talk critically about value.

1 comment:

  1. I found a wonderful beer the other day... full-flavoured, complex , rich, distinctive, oak barrel conditioned... and just £2 a pint.

    Yes, good old Sam Smiths Old Brewery Bitter.

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