Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A six pack costs how much?!?!

If you haven't noticed, your favorite craft beer spots were just taken over by a strange, green alien from another state, Hopslam. For those of you who may not know about this strange visitor to our Indiana beer landscape, Hopslam is by Bells Brewery in Michigan and it's a DIPA brewed with honey.

It comes in at a big 10% ABV and has a big hit of hops. It's one of my favorite beers in the winter. Its got a ton of alcohol to warm you up, but the big hop flavors remind you of summer.

Although, it's a great beer, some of you may get a little sticker shock when you pull it off the shelves. A sixer of this nectar of the gods comes in at around $19 to $21. This might be hard to handle when you can go pick up a six pack of other brews for $10-$12. One of the biggest things we pay for with these seasonal releases is quality. Here's a little breakdown:

Ingredients: The first thing to look at while talking about price is the amount of resources a brewery puts into making a beer. Any of your high ABV beers, which are my favorite, are going to have a little higher price tag because they require more malt to make. More malt = a little more money. In addition to higher malt costs, good quality hops can be expensive. In some cases seasonal releases use harder to find strains of hops which further escalates the cost of brewing. Take Hopslam for example, "Starting with six different hop varietals added to the brew kettle & culminating with a massive dry-hop addition of Simcoe hops, Bell's Hopslam Ale possesses the most complex hopping schedule in the Bell's repertoire." Now get a beer that has a huge ABV and more hops than you can shake a stick at and the ingredients alone are putting you into a whole different price category. Extra ingredients like organic honey, molasses, coffee and others can also escalate costs.

Fermentation: Another topic to consider is the duration of fermentation. Lagers take longer to ferment then ales. Fountain Square's Workingman's Pilsner takes almost twice as long as their other house beers just because it lager ferments. When we're talking basic beers we're normally going from five days to ten days or something equally less frightening, but for the brewery that's still half the output that they'd normally get, therefore half the revenue coming in on the brews. When we get into barrel aging, like the Sun King Reserve beers, we start looking at months in a barrel on top of fermentation, and these barrels take up space as well as resources keeping the environment at the right temperature and humidity. Hell, we probably have to add some cost just for purchasing the barrels, because they can't be used forever.

Specialty: One of the biggest complaints I hear, is "why are all the sour beers so expensive?"
This one actually makes the most sense of all since sours have their own unique brewing process. To sour a beer, we add a different strain of "wild" yeast or bacteria to the brew. This gives it a uniquely sour flavor. Most people who make sours then take their various batches of sour beer and blend them together to create something tasty. As you can imagine having many different batches to blend going at any one time adds to the cost. Also, if something sours in the wrong way it may have to be discarded. On top of all this, most beers soured with lacto end up being aged for a year or more, often in barrels just like we talked about above. There is also a big risk of cross contamination with the bacteria that sour the beer. Often sour programs have to be held in secondary brewing facilities, because even a dividing wall may not keep the bacteria from migrating. Sours can really get pricey, but a lot of passion, patience and expertise go into making them.

The Hype: The last reason for high prices that I'm going to talk about is the hype. Every true Indiana beer nerd has had that moment where an out of state beer nerd asks, "so have you ever had Zombie Dust?" Zombie Dust is an amazing beer with great hop character balanced by sweet, smooth malts. Excellent in every way, but more than that, it has become like the movie Evil Dead or Goonies... it's now a cult classic. It has become a rite of passage for aspiring beer geeks to show that they've truly made it.This sort of cult following has allowed liquor stores to break up six packs and sell the beers for a premium. I can get a six pack of ZD at Three Floyds for ten dollars but most places around town charge 3 dollars per bottle. Other breweries like Bells and Founders have similar beers where the price comes up just because the beer has so much hype that everyone wants to try it. Now this is the supply and demand portion of our beer econ lesson today. The better known a brewery is and the better the beer they make contribute to the scarcity we experience in the market.

I'm not accusing these big breweries of being all hype. Most of them are making really great product. They've done such a great job brewing quality beer and actually marketing it, that now they can get a premium. Some of you may say that this is just price gouging by the breweries, but I strongly believe that as long as the product is of a good enough quality that it sells out in stores or breweries or whatever venue it's offered, the brewer is just asking for the right price for their product.

With all these factors out on the table, we have seen instances where breweries have made a less than stellar beer that had a high ABV, or barrel aged something that just didn't age well. When this happens and the brewery still puts it out, it brings their whole brand into question. It hurts their hype. When a brewery gets a reputation for barrel aging piss and charging exorbitant amounts of money for the "brew" people stop trying some of their other beers. It's straight up capitalism. If you make crap and I buy it, I may be wary of your beers next time. If you make crap and charge me my first born for it, I may have to go bananas on social media and avoid your beer forever, but I should really be mad about the quality of the beer first and foremost not the price.

If you are drinking on a budget there are a few ways to keep the quality without blowing all your mad money.
  1. Fill your growlers - Most 64 oz growlers are between $12 and $18 dollars to fill up at the brewery.
  2. Look for deals - Many breweries have growler discount days. For example, you can get $5 fills at Sun King on Fridays of all of their house beers
  3. Look for 6 Packs - I'm not really sure why this is the case, but six packs tend to cost less than bombers per ounce. I've even seen the same beer in both packages come in at different prices per oz.
  4. Everyday Beers - IN breweries have some great offerings that are year round, these tend to be cheaper and most are great quality beer.
  5. Try before you buy- Look for liquor store tastings to try some whales before buying them, that way you know you're happy with what you're buying.
When we're talking about how much is too much, it will always come down to how much you are willing to pay for an awesome craft beer experience. Everyone makes priorities in their life, whether it's a new car, fishing trips with the kids, or vacations with your loved ones. We make choices, and some people will look at these pricey six packs and say "it's not for me." That doesn't mean they're bad options. The only real problem is when we the consumer allow people to make bad beer and then go out and buy their next barrel aged whatever. Vote with your dollars.

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