Should Craft Beer be more Affordable?

A gin and a flight in TANKThere has been much debate about the price of craft beer recently.

Although some craft beer is undoubtedly very good, I generally don’t tend to concern myself with it too much. The whole concept of craft beer seems to me to be too nebulous, often pretentious and, ultimately, not that important.

However, I’ve found the recent debate about making craft beer more inclusive interesting. As usual, I don’t have any clear answers or insights, but I do have some thoughts I’d like to share.

Firstly, if you haven’t caught up on the debate, recent conversations seem to have started with this Guardian article beautifully title Draught Includers

This generated much Twitter debate and blogging from some of my favourite beer writers – specifically Boak & Bailey and Pete Brown.

The gist of the debate is that craft brewers seem to be in a race to standardise the £5 pint and this is not inclusive as it’s pricing out poorer consumers.

My ill-formed views on this fall into 3 potentially contradictory thoughts.

  1. Craft beer is over-priced

I would not classify myself as poor, but I baulk at paying the price of a highly fashionable craft beer. Never mind the £5 pint, in some of the more trendy craft beer bars you can’t even get pints – they serve their beer in half or two-third pint measures. Many of their beers cost between £4 and £5 for a half. That surely isn’t reasonable or necessary is it?

Okay, sometimes these beers are very strong at around 8% to 10% ABV, so maybe the price isn’t too bad when compared to wine, but often that isn’t the case. I’ve seen beer at a moderate 4% to 5% ABV, which just happens to be one of the beers of the moment, selling for a similar price.

I think it was Pete Brown (apologies if I’m misremembering) who, some time ago, provided a rationale for the original high price of craft beer. In the early days it was not only made with great love and care from the finest ingredients, but to keep it at its best the brewers insisted on having it refrigerated from point of production to point of sale. As many of these beers came from the US, this made them very expensive in the UK.

Fair enough, I suppose, but is that still true? And even if it is, does the cost of transportation within the UK justify the same high prices as for those coming from abroad or is it just profiteering?

There is talk of initiating a £3 pint project to get craft brewers to produce at least some beer at this price. The Morning Advertiser also reports an example of a local brewery partnership keeping costs down. Both of these things seem like a good start in putting a brake on soaring prices.

  1. …but that is what people expect – and maybe demand

If my first assumption is true, and craft beer is wilfully over-priced, brewers get away with it because craft beer enthusiasts are willing to pay it. In fact it seems to be what they want and expect.

Drinking craft beer is a lifestyle thing. Paying a silly amount of money to say you have tried the latest ‘must have’ beer is a kind of status symbol.

You could have had a perfectly good pint of a perfectly good, but less-fashionable, beer at something approaching a reasonable price, but you don’t, in the same way you could have a perfectly adequate Android phone or standard laptop but you choose the much pricier Apple version.

I fear that if a craft brewer produced a beer at £3 a pint, a lot of craft beer drinkers would shun it as unworthy – somehow inferior. And, by extension, they may then begin to shun the brewer as a maker of inferior ‘cheap’ beers that aren’t really craft – they can’t be at that price.

Less well off people would be able to afford these beers, but why would they want to – they are then no different from all the myriad other more affordable but less fashionable beers currently available that aren’t deemed worthy of the ‘craft’ label.

  1. Should ‘craft’ beer be affordable?

This is perhaps my most controversial thought on the subject.

If craft beers are – rightly or wrongly – held up as being somehow superior, warranting a high price and bestowing status on those who can afford to drink them, is it reasonable to assume they should be available to all?

Are we going to insist that champagne should be priced so that poorer people can afford to drink it?

Should Apple have a range of low priced goods for the less affluent market?

Will Rolls Royce and Ferrari be turning out cars suitable for those on a budget?

Conclusion

I don’t really have a conclusion except to say that beer, in general, comes in a range of styles and prices.

If some brewers want to market their brand as superior and price it accordingly then, as long as there are people willing to pay the price, that’s fair enough in a free market economy.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can pretty much ignore it and get on with our lives drinking perfectly acceptable, less trendy beer at a lower price. We just have to vote with our pockets and ensure that our spending power is sufficient to stop everyone jumping on that £5 a pint bandwagon.

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About Darrel Kirby

I am what I am.
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4 Responses to Should Craft Beer be more Affordable?

  1. MikeHall says:

    Craft is just a funky word for all modern cask and keg ales. In America it includes lager and pastureized beers and literally all beers which aren’t brewed by the big three multinationals. Ironically it also includes all major Brewers in the US because they have formed subsidiaries in order to corner the market. However in the UK it simply means a 52pint keg of real ale costs the same to the vendor as a 72 pint firkin of cask conditioned ale and actually requires little cellar management but has a longer shelf life. Keg ale (or keykeg) could rule the way because it offers an easier dispense for inexperienced landlords and a longer serving product for low yielding pubs but it will always be a an over-priced, inferior product to customers as with any product supplied in ever-decreasing volume containers. Keykeg should also be dispensed at 14-16degrees, not 7-9 degrees through a keg Python system as this clearly inhibits your tastebuds receptors.

  2. Darrel Kirby says:

    The definition of craft beer varies depending who you ask. I certainly wouldn’t say it is for all cask and keg ales. Generally it refers in some way to quality and brewery size. Large regional breweries such as Greene King tend to be excluded even though they try to jump on the craft bandwagon. Older breweries are often overlooked regardless of their credentials and marketing is more important than just about anything else. Many craft zealots specifically exclude cask ales as they are too old fashioned and not sufficiently trendy. The best attempt I have seen to define craft ale is by Boak and Bailey: https://boakandbailey.com/guides-lists/when-we-say-craft-beer-we-mean/ – definition 2 is the most frequently used lately. Agree it is mostly served far too cold! I’ll stick to cask, I’ve never been fashionable anyway and I’d look silly in a hipster beard.

  3. Jon T says:

    A point relevant to your points 1 & 2 – aside from duty, which makes up a reasonable percentage of the cost of draught beer at least (and an even greater one when High strength beer duty is applied), hops are the single most expensive ingredient in beer. The current fashion for very hoppy beer means the cost per litre is high, therefore if a brewery prices by a percentage margin on cost (a fairly standard model), the beer will be expensive. Leading on from this, if a beer is cheap there must be a reason why; the most obvious inference is that the brewer has skimped on the ingredients that make expensive beer expensive. Either that or they’re big enough to get into serious economies of scale (in which case they’re too big for the craft fans anyway). So I don’t think it’s simply about premium image, though I admit not all the craft snobbery is purely down to what’s in the glass.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      I agree that expensive ingredients = expensive beer, but I don’t think that alone accounts for it. There are plenty of good cask ales, which are becoming increasingly hoppy, which don’t come close to the price of the trendiest craft ales.

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