Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Reassuringly Expensive


There are plenty of folks around, though they'll likely deny it, that see expensive beer as a good thing for a number of reasons. There are aspiring brewers that wish to sell the fruits of their labour at top dollar; there are those that begrudge the cost, or feel superior drinking beer that others can't afford, especially if it is rare and has come from afar (rarity and distance makes for much better beer - a little known factoid.) I could go on, but you get the picture.

In Belgium recently I discovered that one of my favourite styles, gueuze and its cousin lambic are pretty well a snob's dream in Belgium. They are bloody expensive and to give you the picture, think around three times the cost of an Orval. Now of course you could argue that being so rare, so delicate and so difficult to produce, that this is the inevitable outcome. But of course, until relatively recently, that rarity wasn't reflected in the price. There are a few ways to look at this. One is that small artisanal brewers are at last getting just reward for their efforts, or, that the goose that laid the golden egg is being slowly killed, or perhaps, more benignly, are being elevated to a very expensive treat.

Speaking to Tim Flynn who runs the redoubtable New Oxford in Salford while at the Bruges Beer Festival, reveals that he can put almost no mark up on these beers, as they so expensive to buy in the first place, but he offers them for additional choice.  Now I didn't get the chance to check out supermarket prices in Belgium and they may well be reasonable, but it seems I won't be drinking very much gueuze/lambic in pubs, as to my mind you need several to fully get you in the zone, so that you can really appreciate the style.  That would be a dear do.

Maybe you don't find this expensive beer thing worrying at all? Is gueuze and lambic a special case?

My sour beer needs were met by Rodenbach at normal cost and I feasted on gueuze at the Bruges Beer Fest.

39 comments:

Dave Bailey said...

Price of beer is an interesting one.

We had a meeting with our accountant yesterday. In the first 12 months of brewing, as a stand alone brewery, we made a very substantial loss.

So far this year we have broken even.

We might make a profit in the next 12 months, although I suspect that profit will still put Ann and I below the minimum wage when you consider the hours we put in. We will only do this provided we maintain our pricing.

I suspect over the next couple of years, as costs spiral, and competition keeps prices low, many brewers are going to fall by the wayside.

I have absolutely no problem in saying some beer really should be reassuringly expensive.

Northcote Brewery said...

I don't think it's right that a beer that used to be reasonable (say just 12 months ago) is now very expensive. Unless, that is, there is a good reason. Such as the raw ingredients going up, tax increases, transport etc. These all have an impact. As much as we tried to absorb these costs when we were brewing, it was inevitable that some would be passed on to the customer.
Are the prices just going up because now those styles/breweries are popular? Supply over demand maybe? The brewery isn't always the bad guy here, there are middle parties usually - maybe the distributor or wholesaler takes a higher cut too.

The Beer Nut said...

I've never understood how the pricing of lambic works. The first place I ever bought it was at the Cantillon brewery, where a 75cl bottle of gueuze was about €5. Last I saw, it still cost about that. Yet outside the brewery the prices rocket daftly.

Back to the brewery giftshop I go; I don't know why anyone would do otherwise.

Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery said...

A 75cl bottle of Black Label Girardin gueuze costs 2 Euros from the brewery. I prefer to buy ten litres of old lambic for around 15 Euros as I prefer it to the Gueuze.

In the Brussels cafe Warm Water, a glass of draught lambic will cost you about a Euro.

In Gooik, a 330ml glass of Girardin lambic will cost you 1.50 Euros from In Der Groene Poort; one of the finest cafes in the world.

At the Weekend of Spontaneous fermentation, every single Belgian blenders' lambic, Kriekenlambick, Frambozenlambick etc is on sale for 1.30. A bottle of Mariage Parfait 2003 vintage would have cost you 4.50.

At Cafe Camping in Beersel, a bottle of Boon Gueuze will set you back a whopping 2 Euros.

Oud Beersel Gueuze 37.5cl from the brewery? 2.60

At a well known Brewpub in Manchester, the price of the same beer is over 6 pounds.

I think the people supplying Belgian beer to the UK are the problem here.

As an aside, I found Orval in a Belgian supermarket at 0.68 a bottle. This appears to be a standard price.

Beermunster said...

I've always thought beer in Britain was an oddity because there is very little reflection of quality in the price. In a pub there isn't usually much variation from one pint to the next. There are variations depending on duty/alcohol content, but that aside, you can buy a pint say Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde (which won last year's Champion Beer of Britain) for pretty much the same price as a pint of any other ale or even Carling.

The same cannot be said for other drinks like wine, port or whisky. There are massive price variations depending on the perceived quality and/or rarity of the drink.

Tandleman said...

C'mon Dom. Let's have a bit of evidence here. ;-)

Guess you prove my point though. Buying in pubs by and large is a no no. Getting it from source is cheap. Even out in the sticks I don't think I saw any decent lambic or gueuze for less than €5.

Looks like I need to head for the Weekend of Spontaneous Bad Guts -I mean fermentation. When's the next one?

Tandleman said...

Ah. Googled it.

http://www.bierpallieters.be/index.php?a=4&lang=eng

@zatytom said...

When we were in Brussels this year, we drank a lot of lambics and they were never seeming to be more expensive than other beers in pubs there. In the UK, it seems to be a different matter, with lambics in pubs regularly fetching much higher prices than non-lambic Belgian beers.

My vague guess is that lambic is an acquired taste and a Brussels speciality and outside the region, it's low popularity makes it a niche drink which most consumers will never buy and those "in the know" will pay for, upping the price.

Cooking Lager said...

Surprisingly I have little problem with expensive beer, as long as a free market is in operation and no one is rigging it. Likewise if people wish to speculate and buy beer only to sell on, that’s a secondary market. It’s sad some beer will never be drunk. But I feel sad when I see the kids’ toys still in their boxes on the Antiques Road show. I have no problem with free people acting in their own interest.

Some beer will cost more to produce and/or be more sought after by consumers. There are large price differentials in wine, and one interesting factor is that this often bears little relation to quality. You can pick up sparkling wines nicer than champagne for buttons and Beaujolais Nouveau Day has long been known to be a con related to mediocre plonk.

I am sceptical when people tell me we ought to value beer more and pay a higher price for it, because heh, its bollocks. It’s the liquid bread of the common man.

I like Dave and hope he does well. I certainly would not like to see his business go tits up, but I have to laugh at notions of “discerning” punters paying top dollar for artisanal produce. Especially when such snobbery tends to denigrate quality produce sold for fair prices.

But there is no need to fall out. How about we all agree that beer snobs can think themselves more discerning and the rest of us can laugh knowing a fool and his money are soon parted?

Bailey said...

Isn't this also just supply and demand in action...? Any capitalist who doesn't sell his product for what he can get for it is running a charity. If sales drop off 'cos it's too expensive, or others enter the market and the supply increases, price drops.

Not sure a conspiracy theory is required to explain it...

Ron Pattinson said...

I can remember having a conversation with one of the Bierpallieter people 10 or 15 years ago about the price of lambiek.

He argued that the price lambiek fetched was way to low and the smaller more old-fashioned producers were competing on price with Inbev. That there were any traditional lambiek makers at all left was only due to their enthusiasm. For the money they were making, it didn't make any sense to continue. His argument was simple: if the prices didn't increase, eventually all the traditional lambiek makers would disappear.

What happened in the last 5 years is that the retail price of lambiek has come to more closely reflect the cost of production. Mostly, it seems, fuelled by American beer geeks discovery of Lambiek. It ticks all their lust boxes: rare, weird, multiple variations, etc. It's only going to get worse.

I should be OK, though. I can't see Mild ever becoming the object of obsessive geek desire.

Tandleman said...

@zatytom In Bruges and the Ostend / Blankenberge area all such beers were well pricey. Most were over six euros, but then again weren't on draught, which is maybe what you had? I was only in Brussels briefly, so other than that, I can't comment, but I will be back there soon I think.

Dominic, Thornbridge Brewery said...

26th, 27th May 2012.
http://www.bierpallieters.be/index.php?a=4&lang=eng My favourite festival - I think I've managed 4 in a row.

Alternatively, this year is also a Night of the Great Thirst year, a biennial festival held in a big marquee in Eizeringen, accessible via a well-run bus service from Brussels. Take a look at the beer list: http://www.dorst.be/ngd/en/beerlist.asp

Buying foreign bottles from pubs is usually a bad idea. Often they've travelled great distances to get there, are badly oxidised and are over-priced as the pub feels the need to make up the G.P. to 65%. Much better to drink well conditioned draught beer as you well know.

Having said that, pubs like the Grove in Huddersfield and North Bar in Leeds have great bottle menus at very reasonable prices, so it's just a case of being mindful really.

Tandleman said...

Ron. Mild is just waiting to be discovered. I had two pints of Phoenix Monkeytown Mild last night. £1.99 apiece.

I'm humble I am.

Bailey said...

Ron -- nor the supply of mild being limited by the requirements of long periods of maturation and obscure brewing techniques and equipment.

@zatytom said...

Tandleman: the cheaper lambic was mostly on draft. Bottled stuff was more expensive (Usually >~€4.50), but still comparable to other bottles in the same venue (e.g. Orval, Piraat, etc.)

I think that lambic is only really from a quite small region around Brussels, hence finding it on draft there.

Mark said...

"gueuze and its cousin lambic"

I like to think of Gueuze more as the son on Lambic, rather than the cousin.

Beer.Birra.Bier.

Velky Al said...

When we were in France at Christmas, I was buying bottles of Orval and Chimay for about 1.60 Euro. If I lived in France, I doubt I would drink anything but Trappist! :)

Pricing here in the States though is mystifying, and I suspect that the 3 tier system does nobody any favours.

Take Friday afternoon for example, I popped into my regular haunt for a quick pint, the had Victory Donnybrook Stout for $5 a pint as well as New Belgium Ranger IPA for about the same price. Donnybrook is 3.7%, Ranger is 6.5%. On what basis they should be the same price is beyond me, and I think it is one of the reasons why demand for low alcohol tasty beers is so low in this country, they want as much bang for their buck.

Price, unfortunately, is about as much an indicator of quality as that ridiculous term "craft beer".

Cooking Lager said...

As participants in a market economy your actions create the efficiency of the market.

It doesn't happen by itself, it requires participants to notice and act on arbitrage positions.

If the grog is cheaper abroad and you've worked out transport costs and taxes are not the reason, then the UK sellers are making super normal profits as in a higher margin than an efficient market affords.

Open up your own "shop" & supply chain and bring the price down. You need a van, a website, a tax accountant & some orders.

Scyrene said...

I don't know if anyone's mentioned this, and I don't know if it's what's actually happened, but it is possible that a product with a long production time, if it suddenly becomes popular, could become much more expensive, because the producer can't quickly respond to the increase in demand. You would expect the price to fall back a little, if they are scrupulous and don't artificially maintain the high price once supplies are more plentiful.

Tandleman said...

Mark. Fine. Relatively speaking.

Alan said...

I have a little problem with gueuze and the fruit bubbly lambics. I know I am paying off many people who touch the bottle en route. But as we can't even get the stuff in Canada for the most part it is a treat. Oude Beersel or Cuvée René at under 10 bucks for 750 ml in Rochester NY and Hannsens 375 ml at maybe 7.99 (though more for the little tiny strawberry one) are my price point. Pushing $20 for some 375s is nuts. But I do have a little problem.

Steve Lamond said...

I think the price of gueuze has long been under what it should be, given the maintenance costs on ageing breweries, large amount of storage space required and long lead time. Its always better to go to source to try beers...its an excuse to travel!

Erlangernick said...

Just a data point. At the most excellent HopDuvel bottle shop in Gent, I paid 36€ for a box of 12 375cl bottles of Tilquin Oude Gueuze. IIRC Prices in Gent cafés were up around 8€.

And it is the most intense Gueuze I've ever had, I think. Horizontals with 3F, et. al., have proven this. It's well worth 3€.

Tandleman said...

Nick. I think the point here is: is it worth €8?

chriso said...

Pretty much what Beermunster said. Until relatively recently there was very little variation in the price of beer in the UK compared to, say, wine. Even now, most of the higher prices apply only to certain establishments, expensive (for whatever reason) imports and a relatively few low-volume speciality UK beers. And the premium for higher quality, scarcity and whatever other market forces come into play is still way lower for UK beers than is the norm in other alcoholic drinks sectors and in the beer market in some other countries (e.g. Denmark). I may be fortunate in not having to watch the pennies too closely but my stance is fairly straightforward. I want good brewers to be producing good (& interesting) beers and making a decent living from it. If that means I have to pay more for the privilege, then so be it.

Tyson said...

My view is that if you are daft enough to want to drink gueuze, then it's right you should pay for the privilege.

Hmmm, I think that's the first time I've agreed with Dave that some beer should be more expensive...

Birkonian said...

You've shown photo of Drie Fonteinen Gueuze which is my favourite lambic based beer. I'll happily pay for a quality product. In the summer it is a superbly refreshing drink and more appropriate than say Rochefort 10.

wee beefy said...

Note Dominic at Thornbridge's suggestion that pubs aim for 65% GP. I understood the pub trade went for a 200% mark up on bottled beers, (even though you can spend far longer selling them) - not being an accountant, I wonder if this equates to 65% G.P?

Either way, I agree its a risky business buying imported beer in pubs, including Thornbridge supplied (yep, not owned, not falling into that trap) ones. However, Gueze doesn't suffer from HSBD so its difficult to justify a price jump, even if production is slow. Maybe higher demand would remove the excuse of charging for rarity and bring prices down?

Stimulate the market and reap the rewards sounds like a plan.

John Clarke said...

I'm a bit late with this one Tanders - but I think if you drink lambics in beer cafes in Belgian tourist traps you will of course pay top whack. Go out into the Belgian boondocks and lambics are much cheaper (as Dom has detailed*)

At the end of the day though, people will charge what people will pay. You pays your money and takes your choice.

* by the way he's right about the Groene Poort. Well worth a visit.

Erlangernick said...

Nick. I think the point here is: is it worth €8?

Well in our case, a couple of bottles at the time, in situ on hols in fabulous --if touristy-- cafés were indeed worth it. But I wouldn't do it again.

Not sure I'll get through the second box of 12 I brought back; may have to pass these off on unsuspecting Franconians.

Tandleman said...

John - Maybe. But you'd hadly call Blankenberge a tourist trap would you and they were nearly as pricey there? Finding them at reasonable cost in certain hard to find places in the sticks, while expensive everywhere else hardly blows my point out of the water.

Nick: So you wouldn't pay it again? Point proved.

Birkonian - You join the ranks of those that say you don't mind paying lots without what lots it. Nick balks now at €8 a pop. What would you happily pay? Here it'll cost you about £6. Fine?

John Clarke said...

Tanders - but for those who live in the Payottenland, which is perhaps the heartland of lambic consumption in Belgium, certainly where it is more of an every day drink than elsewhere, these are not out of the way place sin the sticks. They are local bars frequented by local people and there lambics are very reasonably priced. Thus for the majority of Belgian lambic drinkers they are not a "snob's dream".

And yes, I think from a Belgian perspective Blankenberge is a tourist trap.

Tandleman said...

John - Blankenberge is as rough as arseholes, but I accept your point about Payottenland entirely.

Of course that is only a tiny part of Belgium, so it is still expensive elsewhere and of course here in the UK.

@zatytom said...

With regards to beers being more expensive outside of the regions they are normally drank in, I payed $8 for a (room temperature, where the room was ~28C) bottle of London Pride in Ecuador, in a bar where $1 would get you four tequilas or two local beers that tasted of corn syrup.

Tandleman said...

zatytom: Anyone who pays $8 for a bottle of London Pride anywhere only has himself to blame.
No case to answer there.

@zatytom said...

Well yes, I was totally had. It was a cheap grotty bar with no price list, and everything else was incredibly cheap so I didn't expect it to be so expensive. I was also 18 and didn't know any better.

Beermunster said...

@wee beefy It's the same thing.

GP = Profit / price

Buy at £1 sell at £3 = 200% markup

GP would be £2/£3 = 66%

Birkonian said...

I should have qualified that on a vsit to Belgium a few Euros here or there doesn't bother me against the overall cost of the trip. I'm happy to pay 4 or 5 Euros a bottle to drink it in the right surroundings. I would draw the line at 8 Euros though.