Mine’s a light and bitter!

Zak writes:

There are a lot of naysayers who object purely on principle to paying £10 for a bottle (or a pint) of beer. I’m not exactly sure why that is – it would be easy to say that it’s jealousy, but I think there’s something more fundamental going on. I think it’s the idea that there is something posh, snobby, pretentious – call it what you want – about spending your money on fancy, rare or expensive beer. Just as I’d defend anyone’s right to spend their money on anything that they want (as long as it isn’t criminal, in the legally defined sense), I’d also defend anyone’s right to express their discomfort about it. But that’s just what I think – I’d love to hear your views on that idea.

Tied into this is the idea that people who buy fancy, rare or expensive beer are doing so because they somehow think they are better than people who don’t. For this to be true, there would have to be a substantial amount of blog content denigrating the sort of beers that “only” cost below £3 a pint.

Elitism is a difficult one. If you like good beer, it’s hard to get away from saying that you prefer better beer, which is only a hop and a skip away from saying that you like the best beer. And if you like the best, and if the best happens to be within your price range, what could be wrong with that? Clearly it would be wrong if you looked down on all the people drinking inferior beer, but (Zak argues) this doesn’t actually happen – not in the British blogosphere, anyway – so what’s the problem?

Something’s got lost in this argument, and – ironically – it’s money. I’ve got no objection to the existence of people who are keen to buy beer priced at twice or three times the level I find affordable, although for obvious reasons I prefer not to socialise with them much. I don’t think they’re bad people, or that they hold offensive attitudes; I don’t really care what attitudes they hold. What I object to is seeing beers priced at twice or three times the level I think of as affordable – and being told that those beers are the latest & greatest, where it’s at, just too, too fab and groovy, etc. (NB check current slang before publishing). Down at the Marble Beerhouse, the new Decadence 750ml has gone on sale at £16 and the new barleywine at (no lie) £19. £16, let alone £19, represents a new high for Marble, and although I generally wish them well I would be delighted if they couldn’t sell them at those prices. I should think they will sell, though, which saddens me. I don’t like being priced out of a market, least of all this one. It makes me feel that I’m losing something I’ve always thought of as mine – and mine to share, potentially, with just about anyone (there aren’t many people who can’t afford a pint in a pub).

There are two parts to this. For myself, firstly, I suppose it’s not quite true to say that I can’t afford those beers. I could find the money if I really wanted to, but – as I said over at B&B – that’s a bit of a red herring: I mean, I could find the money to buy a Rolex if I really wanted to. Beer is something I’m used to buying without worrying about what size hole it’s going to leave in my bank account, and I don’t find that frisson of stress and anxiety adds much to the experience. A bottle of beer at £10 isn’t unaffordable, it just comes in on the wrong side of a sharp intake of breath.

That’s the part about me; the other part of it is about everyone else. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 70s – when the old hippies were settling down and starting businesses – but I’ve always bracketed real ale with real bread and real cheese. I don’t want to live in a world where most people drink Carlsberg and eat processed cheese squares on white sliced, while the cognoscenti compare notes about their muslin-wrapped Stilton, their wood-oven ciabattas and their, well, you fill in the beer. People who say – to quote a commenter at Zak’s – that “brewers have the right to charge as much as they want for the product of their labour” (to whoever wants to pay that much) don’t often acknowledge the other side of the coin: just as there will always be people willing to pay top whack for ultra-premium specialist goods, there will always be people willing to buy substandard goods if it means paying a bit less. Left unregulated, food producers (and large brewers) are quite happy to fill both of those niches – have a look round the supermarket next time you’re there.

So I’m not offended by people buying bottles of beer priced at the level of a bottle of champagne; what I’m offended by is the pricing of the beer. Beer at those prices is effectively out of my reach, and it’s out of reach of all the people with an income like mine or lower – and there are plenty of them. Every time a blogger raves about one of those bottles, it nudges the image of ‘beer’ a little further towards that end of the scale. My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff – where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available. My big problem with the £10 bottle is that it doesn’t bring that world any nearer; it may even push it further back, by turning campaigners for a good honest drink into connoisseurs of the latest, weirdest, rarest… and most expensive.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted 22 December, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink | Reply

    “where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available”

    And, by that very comment, do you not reveal yourself as a snob?

    Surely the reason the working classes prefer such things is not because they are cheaper, nor because the working classes are stupid, but because, simply, they are more convenient.

    Ask yourself, why do working-class drinkers prefer Carling to cask, when the latter is cheaper?

    Ask yourse

  2. Posted 22 December, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink | Reply

    Phil – I agree with pretty much everything you say, although I’d take issue with “My big problem with the £10 bottle is that it doesn’t bring that world any nearer; it may even push it further back”. If we talk about something that I find interesting but largely inconsequential – cars, for example – then I don’t believe for a second that the existence of the Bugatti Veyron is slowly making the car market more elitist and unaffordable. Neither does it make me any more likely to want one. However, on the odd occasion that I’ve hired a car in the last couple of years (as opposed to driving around in a 12 year old Ford Focus with 90k miles on the clock), I’ve had to concede that actually, spending a bit more money on a slightly newer car might be nice. But it doesn’t bring me any closer to wanting a Bugatti Veyron, a Porsche Cayenne, et c. Crucially, when I see someone driving one, I don’t think “look at that snobby bastard, lording it over me”, I just think “hmm, that must be quite expensive to run”.

  3. Posted 22 December, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink | Reply

    And I think you have to compare like with like, a 750ml bottle at higher ABV is of course going to cost more than a 500ml of session beer, especially if its a small batch/ aged a long time

  4. Posted 22 December, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Good to see a material basis to the class discussion.

    • Posted 22 December, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Ed – I’ve no idea how I settled on that amount. It might have been Tandleman commenting on something Young Dredge said about the bottles in BrewDog Camden being the right side of a tenner.

      • Phil
        Posted 22 December, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s a good starting-point – the £10 bottle and the £10 pint (or at least the £5 half) are a reality, after all, & it seems quite rare for the price to be commented on in anything other than a laissez-faire if they want to charge that much and somebody’s happy to pay it… style.

        Some really interesting points are being made on this thread – I’ll comment more fully later on.

  5. dsquared
    Posted 6 January, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink | Reply

    I would be a lot more likely to pay £13 for a pint if it was 3.8% strength than 10% (as I have had occasion to ponder in the new Brewdog bar near my house, on the basis of which I can testify that a) these things really do all taste the same and b) that the fact that someone called their beer “Arrogant Bastard” really isn’t as funny as craft beer enthusiasts think it is)

    I would reason – if someone has actually put so much craft and culinary skill into their session ale (and thrown away so many batches on quality-control grounds) that it isn’t economic to sell it for less than £13, then that’s quite interesting and I’d like to taste that. But if they’ve just shovelled in the expensive hops and banged up the alcohol content, then I know how much it costs to do that and it isn’t £13 a pint.

    You can compare this with the wine world, where Chablis Premier Cru (which you can apparently get for less than your barleywine, riddle me that) costs a lot because it can only be made in a particular (small – I’ve walked around it) region and so the supply is intrinsically limited. If someone wants to charge St-Emilion money for a product that can be mass-produced, then they are charging for the intellectual capital used, and they are going to have to come up with a hell of an argument to convince a bloke like me that said intellectual capital took the form of “sheer brewing skill the like of which has never existed anywhere in the five-thousand year period ended 2007”, and not “branding, plus awareness of the existence of a specific but lucrative hobbyist market, plus a more than average willingness to take the piss”

  6. Phil
    Posted 11 January, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Mudge: as I said on your blog in another context, “people who eat food A are better than people who eat food B” is snobbery; “food A is better than food B” generally isn’t. I don’t think wanting “cheese food” to vanish from the face of the earth is any more snobbish than wanting everyone to have a clean water supply. It’s a cheapened, adulterated substitute for cheese. In the US, I was reading the other day, it’s almost impossible to get bread in a supermarket that doesn’t contain sugar: it makes the bread softer and blander, and lots of people like that. These things are just wrong, and a campaign to stop them happening would be in the right: they’re industrialised perversions of foodstuffs that have existed for thousands of years, carried out for no other reason than to make bigger profit. (Sorry for the long irrelevant digression; nothing remotely related to beer here…)

    Zak – the difference is that there have always been Bugatti Veyrons and the like, and being a car enthusiast has always involved an element of high-end car-porn. (Literally always: the first car enthusiasts date back to when Signor Bugatti was working, and the enthusiasts probably outnumbered the cars.) You’re the expert on this one, but it strikes me that £10 bottles – let alone nearly-£20 bottles – are a relative newcomer to the world of beer, or at least that they used to be a much, much smaller and more marginal presence than they are now. So in that sense I do think that each new £10+ bottle makes “good beer” that much more elitist and unaffordable. And if someone cracked open a bottle of £19 barleywine down at the Marble Beerhouse, while I was sitting there with my ‘umble £3 pint, I’d feel exactly as pissed-off and outclassed as I would if it was a £19 bottle of champagne. (Which would be pretty decent champagne.)

    • Posted 15 January, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Phil – we’ll have to agree to disagree, I’m afraid. At the risk of saying something that seems like a personal attack, but isn’t meant to be, it seems to me that you’re conflating your feelings about these things with the reality of the situation. I’m genuinely surprised that you’d feel pissed off and outclassed by someone drinking fancier/more expensive beer than you, and if you felt that, then I could understand that you’d perceive it as some sort of threat.

      The has always beer ‘more expensive’ beer, but you’re right that it’s price and prevalence seem to have increased in the last few years. But I’m still not convinced that it means anything other than what it is – a new aspect of beer appreciation. And because it’s new, it’s difficult to know what to make of it.

  7. Phil
    Posted 11 January, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Steve – I would expect 750 mls of a 10% beer to cost a lot, which is precisely why I wouldn’t expect the brewer to do a run consisting entirely of 750 ml bottles. (The original Decadence was in a 330 ml bottle, which cost £4.50 over the bar. That was affordable, if you took a deep breath.) When I met Dom at a tasting, when the first big bottles were just about to come out, he said that he’d been mulling over what size or sizes of bottle the new Decadence should go in before he went on holiday, but by the time he came back the owner had taken the decision – “Stick it all in the big bottles. People will buy them.” (As, indeed, people did.) I think that was a really, really bad decision, not least because it means most people (including me) are unlikely ever to taste the new Decadence or the new barleywine – and while the Dubbel, the Tripel, the Old Manchester and the Saison are more affordable, most people (including me) are never going to be able to afford all four of them.

  8. Phil
    Posted 11 January, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Also, if anyone wants to have a go at dsquared’s point about charg[ing] St-Emilion money for a product that can be mass-produced, feel free!

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