Price Creep: The Destroyer of Community, Enemy of Egalitarianism

Unfiltered by | Feb 2007 | Issue #2
Illustration by Demian Johnston

Friends, gather round; it’s time for an intervention.

Our good pal has developed a bit of a problem and it’s getting pretty serious. He’s let his recent successes go to his head, and we’ve all noticed the signs: self-indulgent excess and disrespecting those close to him. It seems that our friend, the beer industry, has developed a severe case of price creep.

As a longtime industry observer and patron, I view beer price creep with mixed feelings. I’m proud of craft brewers, their accomplishments and their growth, and I believe that brewers deserve to be well-compensated for their work. This is a tough, competitive business, requiring long hours and often backbreaking dedication. As a consumer, however, my pocketbook recoils in fear at paying the elevated prices some bars and liquor stores have been asking lately for specialty beers.

What really concerns me is the great price disparity beer lovers see on store shelves across America. Something is clearly wrong when I can buy a 750-milliliter bottle of the classic and age-worthy Abbaye des Rocs Brune for $7.50, but am asked to pay up to $27 for a 660-milliliter bottle of Dieu du Ciel Péché Mortel. The price of sixpacks—or even four-packs—is equally alarming. A few years back, a handful of ballsy brewers broke the $10 barrier for six-packs. Since that time, we’ve seen new Double Wits and IPAs regularly hit the shelves at $13 or more. A four-pack of Devil Dancer from Founders Brewing can be found for $18 in the Midwest.

The blame hardly rests on the shoulders of brewers, who often work on thin margins. The three-tier system, where everyone gets their 35 percent cut, certainly deserves to catch its fair share of hell. But blaming the system fails to explain why I can pay so little for a high-quality ale from a small Belgian brewery, and so much for a subpar release from a local brewery.

Beer is supposed to be an egalitarian beverage, accessible to all people. Without trying to sound too populist, beer is the anti-snob drink. It’s not something for which we extend our pinkies when drinking, and it’s not a prize reserved for special occasions or what we consume in the darkest reaches of private clubs. Although the old saying “Wine gentrifies, beer unifies” unfairly slanders wine, it does expose a truth: wine lovers often worry about their wine-drinking experience. That just doesn’t happen with beer, at least in part because the price stakes are nowhere near as high. There’s no fear in branching out and trying a new style or buying a bottle of beer just because of the label, because the worst you’ve done is dropped a couple of extra bucks. One of the reasons many beer lovers are turned off by wine, aside from the spitting, is the seemingly inexplicable disconnect between price and quality, where one might be hard-pressed to differentiate between a good $10 bottle and one that sells for ten times that.

This is the heart of my concern—that the explosive price growth will put beer beyond the reach of uninitiated consumers before they get a chance to experiment. As price creep continues, the specialty beer market drives itself further out of the mainstream and into a realm inhabited only by the super beer geek. Like Trekkies attending countless Shatner and Nimoy events, brewers can always count on these hardcore enthusiasts to fawn over their high-priced wares. But it’s shortsighted when you think about the consumers lost by requiring a premium only beer geeks will pay.

Of course, beer is a luxury item and not a necessity. No one is forcing me to pay nearly $30 for Péché Mortel rather than opting for five bottles of Big Bear Stout from Bear Republic Brewing instead. You can’t gouge a consumer on a luxury item, as one writer recently noted on Price is what the market will bear and the market here is defined by dedicated, well-heeled beer geeks. Unfortunately, with beer geeks enabling this insidious inflation, the outlook for our friend, the beer industry, on this front, is grim.