World’s Most Expensive Beer, Available For $5.00…

In looking through all of the material that I gathered while researching at the Michael Jackson archive in Oxford, I came across this gem, taken from the California Celebrator (Vol. 1, Issue 3 – July/August 1988). Jackson collected every beer publication imaginable and had them cataloged for his later review. Heralding the arrival of the “Most Expensive Beer in the World,” the issue highlights the creatively named Schaff-Brau Feuerfest Edel Bier No. 215453. At 9% alcohol, the writer was blown away. What floors me was the price of the World’s Most Expensive Beer.

Five bucks.

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The SAVOR Wrap-up And Concerns About The Growing Snobbery Of Beer…

I traveled to the nation’s capital last week to attend the Brewers Association’s much anticipated food and beer event. SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, was held May 16 and 17 in Washington D.C at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Considered one of the best classical buildings in the U.S., the venue was a fitting one considering the event’s focus on elevating the public image of beer.

As a keystone for the association’s American Craft Beer Week, SAVOR served many purposes.
The event first gave craft brewers an opportunity to showcase their efforts to a Congressional audience on Capitol Hill. Many small brewers spent the better part of a week in D.C. lobbying Congress and making their presence known as part of the National Beer Wholesalers Legislative Conference. In turn, many congressional staffers and lobbyists attended Friday’s opening session of the event.

Beyond politics and legislative advocacy, SAVOR gave the association an opportunity to raise public and media awareness of craft beer by associating it with upscale food. The association wanted to spread the craft beer gospel to media on the East Coast and hoped the event would accomplish that goal. While it’s a little early to tell, media database searches show a bit of a paucity of coverage of the small event.

Initially planned to host nearly a thousand attendees per session, the Brewers Association’s staff wisely decided to cut back to 700 persons per session. Sold out by the day of the event, SAVOR offered its 2100 attendees the chance to taste 96 craft beers from 48 breweries from around the country. Each beer was specifically paired with a sweet or savory appetizer selected by the brewery and made by Federal City Caterers.

The event’s $85 price tag was a point of debate among beer geeks and the public, both before and after the event. Some felt that the price far exceeded what they were willing to pay, while others thought it might not be enough. From a financial point of view, the price tag clearly wasn’t enough as SAVOR lost a fair chunk of the Brewers Association’s change. It appears the price tag may not have even covered the per person food costs, not even considering the other sizable expenses involved in hosting the event, including venue costs and the time and expenses incurred by the association’s staff.

As for the event itself, the venue was quite attractive and the staff did a nice job of decorating the interior portions. Beer enthusiasts and well-heeled novices slowly roamed the auditorium, stopping at a center table which hosted the event’s main supporters (who paid $5,000 each for the privilege, on top of donating a significant portion of free beer and their time). Smaller breweries from around the country dotted crescent shaped tables lining the outside walls. While SAVOR offered many ubiquitous names, including Avery, Dogfish, and the Lost Abbey, the association also sought to offer geographic diversity from some smaller names, including Blackfoot River Brewing Company of Helena, Montana, Free State Brewing of Lawrence, Kansas, and Heiner Brau Microbrewery of Covington, Louisiana.

Attendees had an excellent opportunity to meet and talk with brewery staff and the attendance by owners and brewers was impressive. Beers were plentiful and well selected. The food pairings, which were offered either at an individual brewer’s table or from passing servers, included a number of interesting options. The Sprecher Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offered its Pub Brown Ale to match pan-seared pilsener sirloin tips with shiitake blue-cheese sauce. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California, suggested its Summerfest Lager and lager steamed Thai turkey and shiitake dumplings. The Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California, presented its Ruination IPA with either Peking duck purses or Christopher Elbow citrus spiced artisan chocolates. The event staff, especially the waitstaff, did an excellent job of keeping the venue clean and in taking used food items from attendees.

The much touted food pairings proved a bit of a challenge for the new event. The venue’s tight confines caused bottlenecks at the crescent shaped tables, trapping people near the tables as others tried to approach the table. Food offerings became increasingly scarce as the event progressed, with a number of items running out an hour and a half into the event on Friday night (many blamed the ravenous appetites of the aforementioned Hill staffers). Attendees also saw a lot of the sirloin tips and chocolates as the event went on.

The booths also suffered from a decided lack of signage. While signage can certainly appear tacky if done wrong, I found myself coming upon breweries I didn’t even realize were in attendance, even late into the event.

One clear failure for the event were the SAVOR Salons, forums for brewers, journalists, and other beer luminaries to speak to attendees in smaller, tutored tasting sessions. The association designed the salons to “deepen ones [sic] appreciation and understanding of beer and food pairings.? The events included Garrett Oliver pairing American artisan cheeses and craft beers, Jim Koch discussing how to get started with beer and food, and Hugh Sisson talking about the nuances of pairing beer with Chesapeake Bay seafood. Limited to 70 people by the venue’s space restrictions, the salons were poorly marked and proved too popular. Originally advertised as first come, first serve, the association quietly switched to a ticket system after the first session. As people approached the forum well before its start time, security had to bar their entrance to the room and explain that the salon was unavailable for attendance. The venue’s limitations, combined with the popularity of the offerings and the lack of communication, left many people disappointed by their inability to attend the advertised events.

The event, which took two years to plan and execute, left some Brewers Association staffers a bit exhausted. In speaking with the staff, it’s not at all clear that this event will be repeated next year. Considering the expense and questions about the ultimate utility of SAVOR, it would not be surprising if the event went on hiatus for at least a year. The association’s staff has also discussed the possibility of moving the event from the capital to New York City in the future.

After attending the event, I was also left slightly questioning the purpose of the event. While I understand the potential media and legislative benefits to raising the public image of beer, I’m not convinced that an expensive beer and food event (where attendees are encouraged to “dress to impress”) is really the way to go. A certain air of elitism pervaded the event, which attracted a bit of an odd assortment of attendees (from tuxedoed wine folks to guys in t-shirts and shorts).

In traveling around D.C., I also found beer exposed to and ensconced in a similar and unexpected sense of exclusiveness. The city’s beer venues, from Georgetown to downtown, offer a surprisingly limited range of beers at some pretty exorbitant prices, even compared to other pricey cities. The cheapest draft beer offering we found was $5 at RFD and that was by $1.50 the cheapest pint we found in D.C. We saw several drafts above $10, including one at $14 (Brasserie Beck). The pours were also surprisingly small; in one case, Brasserie Beck offered a number of pedestrian beers of average quality for expensive prices and with ridiculously short pours. Maybe I’ve become disconnected with the real world, but I think $7.50 for a 8-ounce pour of Bavik pils is outrageous.

I’ve written a number of times in the past about my concern that beer will become untethered from its egalitarian roots and will spiral off into the price and snob stratosphere and my D.C. trip only served to aggravate my worry.

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Price Creep Redux: Beer Bars Disrespect Their Customers

When predictions that the sky would start falling in the craft beer world over forecasted price increases a few months ago, I initially trained most of my focus on those breweries whose prices went up before their present contracts even came due (in many cases, the more established craft breweries have raw materials contracts going out a year or more). Despite the fact that their suppliers continued to meet their contract requirements (and prices), we started to see wholesale prices creep up a little bit in February and then considerably higher in March. While many American craft brewers have already raised their prices, even if minimally so, there are still many breweries in New England and beyond that have yet to even raise their prices.

Despite the delayed onset of the prices increases that we have been bracing against for months, drinkers in the Boston area began to see beer prices rise sharply as early as three months ago. In some places, beer went up 50 cents, in others a dollar. In a few dastardly holes, extortionists raised prices even higher. And all of this happened long before the bar owners even received their updated price sheets and felt the pinch of an extra five or ten dollars per keg. So to recap, price increases just went into effect, yet some bar owners have had their hands in the back pockets of their customers for a couple of extra months.

In justifying the price increases, I’ve heard a few pub owners break out the old gem, “the beer is good, so you should be willing to pay more for it.? That’s fine and all, but in this case the money is going directly into the publican’s pocket, not to the brewers.

Things recently hit a fever pitch for my friend Todd Alstrom, one half of the brother team, during a visit to Bukowski’s. A longtime fixture on the Boston better beer scene, Bukowski’s (with locations in Boston and Cambridge) has a reputation for loud music, obstinate servers, and absolutely outrageous prices. In 2002, I visited the bar soon after the Stone Brewing Company entered the Massachusetts market. After pulling up to the bar, I ordered an Arrogant Bastard. A few minutes later, I received a 12-ounce pour of the beer and a bill for $5.25! I eventually figured out that the bar was marking up the beer 500-percent over its wholesale cost.

So on Todd’s recent visit, he encountered the following highway robbery prices:

-Southern Tier Jah-va 12 ounce pour for $8
-Southern Tier Backburner 12 ounce pour for $7
-Young’s Winter 16 ounce pour for $6.75
-Sixpoint Sweet Action 12 ounce pour for $6
-Blanche de Bruxelles Wit 12 ounce pour for $6.25
-Dogfish Red & White 10 ounce pour for $10
-Harpoon IPA 16 ounce pour for $4.95
-Boulder Mojo Risin’ 12 ounce pour for $6.25
-Harviestoun Old Engine Oil 12 ounce pour for $7
-Brooklyn Pils 14 ounce pour for $5
-Abita Restoration 16 ounce pour for $6
-Opa Opa IPA 16 ounce pour for $5.75
-Harpoon Brown 16 ounce pour for $6
-PBR 16 ounce pour for $2.99
-Weihenstephaner Hefe 16.9 ounce pour for $7.75

It’s hard to quite know where to start here. Putting aside the fact that Buk’s charges an extra buck per glass of Jah-va stout versus Backburner when both have the same keg price, you really have to wonder just how malicious a beer pricer can get when it comes to the Brooklyn Pils and the Harpoon IPA. The Brooklyn beer sells for $125 for a 15.5 gallon keg, while Harpoon IPA sells for $120 for a 13.2 gallon keg. By the numbers, I should be paying less for the Brooklyn Pils then I do for the Harpoon IPA, but this not the case. In fact, I pay a little more for Brooklyn and get 2 ounces less of beer! And can someone explain why I should be paying an extra $1.05 per pint of Harpoon Brown, a beer which costs the same wholesale as the Harpoon IPA? Then we get to the Weihenstephaner…While the keg cost is a little higher and the pour slightly more generous (less than one ounce more than a pint), the keg cost is only $20 more than the similarly sized Harpoon IPA keg. Yet I am asked to pay nearly $8 for a beer that many local bars (Redbones in Somerville included), charge $4.50 for. On a single keg of the tasty hefe-weizen, assuming a ten percent draft loss with overpours, Bukowski’s is taking in $700 for a single keg, with a cost of $145, a price to cost ratio of almost 5 to 1). Compare that to the $470 Buk’s takes in for a keg of Harpoon IPA, with a cost of $120, and you can begin to picture the guys in masks riding up to your stagecoach.

For the last few months, I’ve been keeping an eye on wholesale price increases in anticipation of the impending “crisis.? Let’s take a look at some of the prices that we have seen here in the Massachusetts market, from January 2007 to March 2008 (prices reflect 15.5 gallon “half-barrel? kegs unless otherwise noted). The first column reflects prices (if available) in January 2007, the second January 2008, and the third March 2008.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery (Atlantic Importing)
-60 Min IPA $129 $129 $139
-90 Min $175 $175 $189

Stone Brewing Company (Atlantic Importing)
-Stone IPA $129 $129 $149
-Arrogant Bastard $129 $129 $159
-Ruination $179 $179 $219

Bear Republic Brewing Company (Atlantic Importing)
-Hop Rod Rye $149 $149 $179

So in comparing Stone and Dogfish, Dogfish Head’s price increases seem pretty reasonable overall, between $10 to $14. Stone’s seem a bit higher, from $20 to $30 and $40. The jump on Ruination is a bit troubling overall and cannot simply be put off by an increase in hop prices (regardless of how stupid hoppy this beer may be).

Now if you were a bar owner and the price difference between these kegs in your mind really represented a substantial hit to your business (keep in mind the margins employed by Bukowski’s, extortionate as they may be), you might consider doing some shopping around for bargains. And you would find them. Great Divide Brewing Company offers its Old Ruffian Barleywine for $169 per keg, while North Coast Brewing offers its Old Rasputin Imperial for $156 and Old Stock Ale barleywine for $147 per keg. Compared to the Ruination price (these beers in my mind compete insofar as they represent sipping beers, not session beers), these respected brands seem like a steal.

By why bother restricting your shopping to the American craft market? While it may have been on fire in recent years, American craft brewers have much to thank their European counterparts for. Arguably the ancestor of much of America’s brewing creativity, Belgium is looking more and more like a steal recently. The same goes for German, Czech, Italian, Scandinavian, and British breweries. Despite the global scope of the above-mentioned raw material problems, the Boston area (a major market for better import brands) has seen next to no price increase on European “craft? beers. As I wrote in a very controversial column for BeerAdvocate Magazine, titled “Price Creep,? classic European brands often bring hard-to-match quality at a much more reasonable price than American craft brands. The Atlantic Importing lineup of Belgian and German draft beer (and bottles) has seen almost no price increases. Some brands have even seen a substantial decline in price in the last year (St Bernardus Abt 12, a beer many compare flatteringly to Westvleteren 12, went from $165 in January 2007 to $145 in March 2008 for a 30 liter Sankey keg). Only Brasserie de Rocs, Urthel, and Pauwel Kwak have gone up and only by a few dollars (seven in the case of Urthel Hop It!). Oddly enough, it was Brasserie de Rocs that I focused on as a wildly underpriced brand in the column.

While it may be time to start looking to imports for better value, don’t forget your price friendly local brands. Western Massachusetts juggernaut Berkshire Brewing hasn’t raised prices for its bottles or kegs a single cent since January 2007. Despite this, I’ve seen local package stores and bars consistently jack-up the price of this great brewery’s 22-ounce bombers.

And what about the small price increases we’ve seen for some breweries? A price increase of $10 per keg for a brewery such as Harpoon (from $110 to $120 for a 13.2 gallon keg) is probably long overdue. By the numbers, however, the cost increase shouldn’t result in anything more than a single dime being added to the price of your pint. Similarly, we’ve seen the following small price increases for these popular brands from the Craft Brewers Guild distributorship. (Prices in the first column are January 2007 or most recent period before price increase and the second column prices reflect March 2008 costs).

-Allagash White $135 $141
-Boulder Mojo $120 $130
-Clipper City $115 $130
-Gearys $110 $120
-Magic Hat $104 $110
-Sierra Nevada $120 $125
-Wachusett $120 $125

From a consumer’s perspective, those are entirely reasonable wholesale cost increases that shouldn’t result in major price changes at their favorite pubs. Now when we look at a brewery such a Rogue Ales, whose Dead Guy Ale jumped early from $140 to $165 (13.2 gallon keg), questions should be raised or bar owners should opt for a different brand.

How about our friend Weihenstephaner, which by the way, also hasn’t gone up a cent in more than a year.

I end this mini-rant by confirming that I do believe that the raw materials situation requires some price increases and that breweries should, to the extent possible with competition, seek to follow the example of industry leader Anheuser-Busch and occasionally institute modest price increases (versus stagnation for more than a year). But when a brewery’s prices jump substantially more than their competitors, consumers should be alerted to the red flags.

Moreover, I also believe that the actions of some greedy bar owners are causing the public’s perception of the hop/malt/gasoline/glass shortages to hit “crisis? levels. To be clear, a 500-percent markup on beer is robbery, not in the sense of someone holding a gun to your head and making you order the pint (14 ounces), but in the sense of robbing respect from the client and dollars from his wallet. In the long run, it’s also bad for business as smart consumers aren’t likely to order a second beer or linger at a place with $7 12 ounce glass prices. In The Good Beer Guide to New England,? I defined a “great beer bar? as an establishment which has “an extraordinary selection of craft beers, respects their clients in terms of keeping prices fair, holds events promoting craft beers (from beer dinners to brewer meet-and-greets), makes craft beer key to their business, and also offers true character as pubs.? While I used to enjoy Bukowski’s and still occasionally stop by for a single pint (or 12 ounce pour as it now may be), it never came close to making my shortlist for inclusion in the book because of its abusive price relationship with its customers. I’d hate to see more bars follow its unfortunate lead.

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