If you’re baffled by the price of beer, you’re not alone and you’re definitely not stupid. The price doesn’t always match the quality of the product.
Sure, sometimes you’re paying a premium because the beer is amazing. And sometimes you’re paying top-shelf prices because you feel compelled to help a small, fledgling operation find its wings. But sometimes you’re paying for ineptitude and delusions of grandeur.
How can you tell what’s what when you’re in the beer aisles and you come face to face with dozens of colorful brewery labels and clever names?
Always start with benchmark prices. Here are several of mine: 22-ounce bottle of Lagunitas IPA for $4.99; Drake’s 1500 pale ale six-pack of 12-ounce bottles for $9.99; a four-pack of 16-ounce cans of Breaking Bud IPA from Knee Deep for $10.99; and all of Sudwerk’s core beer lineup priced at $9.99 for six. You don’t have to love all of these beers, but you should understand that they all have the quality/price/value equation absolutely dialed in.
So, what are we to make of the recent four-packs of 16-ounce cans I’m seeing for $14, $16, $19, even $23? Some of them are limited releases, so there’s excitement attached and folks are willing to pay a little more. Some of them are renowned breweries making consistently great beer.
But the last two four-packs of so-called special releases I’ve purchased for $16? I couldn’t even get halfway through my first pint. They were, frankly, over-hyped, overpriced drain pours. And the brewery in question lost a few points with me.
This leads me to a big question facing craft beer at a pivotal time: Are some breweries expediting their demise by pricing their beers unrealistically?
To find out if beer prices are too high, I relied on five expert sources – the owners of three top beer retailers (Curtis Park Market, RoCo Wine & Spirits, and Long’s Bottle Shop in Grass Valley); the owners of New Glory and Sudwerk breweries, both of whom have a solid pricing structure; and one OG beer geek legend, Dave Prillwitz, who will soon rate his 10,000th beer on RateBeer. Do the math and you’ll know Prillwitz has shelled out some serious cash for beer over the years.
“I think some people are already priced out,” Prillwitz told me. “I’m not blaming the brewers for gouging. It’s just a lot more expensive to brew beer than it used to be. Prices are going up and brewers are using more ingredients and more expensive ingredients.”
Prillwitz has become so aware of price increases that he now balks at rating beers that simply seem too expensive. I’m thinking the general craft beer consumer is not far behind.
There are those hardcore beer folks who will pay almost anything for the newest releases, especially if they are in cans. They snap a photo, post it on Facebook and get a certain kind of tribal affirmation from it. They seem to be the ones driving this market of small-batch releases in four-packs of cans. New Glory has operated in this realm amazingly well by producing one terrific new beer after the next.
But I wonder about some of the newer local breweries venturing into cans. At bottle shops, I found three new releases from relatively unheralded breweries selling for about $18 for four 16-ounce cans.
At that price, they’re essentially proclaiming their beer to be among the best in the world. Consumers are bound to be disappointed, perplexed or worse.
I wonder why they don’t come in at, say, $10.99, and create some goodwill with consumers, even if they take a hit with the profit margin.
As one of the bottle shop owners said to me, “Do you want to make a quick nickel or a slow dime?”