Look who’s all fancy now

Specialty beers are starting to go for wine-like prices

Photo by Matthew Bellemare (via Flickr)

As soon as craft brewers began to embrace techniques like barrel aging, blending vintages, souring, adding unusual ingredients, packaging in fancy bottles and fermenting their beers to extreme alcohol levels, we saw it begin: beer prices rising into the alarming realm of double digits. Where it was unusual in the early 2000s to pay more than $6 or $7 for a big bottle (22 ounces) of exceptionally good beer, prices have since escalated, and it’s rather common to see beers on the shelf equivalent in cost to mid-range bottles of wine.

It begs the question: How much is too much to pay for a beer?

If you’re figuring price based on cost per ounce, an average six-pack of craft beer that goes for between $7 and $12 would range from 7 to 17 cents per ounce. Compare that to the higher-end 22-ouncers that can easily run $20, and you start to approach $1 per ounce … or more.

In general, I tend to think that beer should not cost as much as wine, and for several reasons. First, we’re simply not accustomed to that. We are accustomed to buying a pint of beer in a bar for several bucks and a six-pack at the store for $10 or less. Yes, beer—even good craft beer—has been a workingman’s beverage that’s customarily available at agreeable prices.

Second, beer is traditionally treated as a more casual and free-flowing beverage than wine (this has much to do with alcohol content), which all but requires that we pay less for it since we are bound to consume it more rapidly.

Third, it takes less time to make beer than wine; even the longest brewing projects usually run less than two years, with most beers going from kettle to keg or can in several weeks. By contrast, it is rather standard to release wine at least two years after the harvest. Since time in production is directly proportional to cost, products that are moved to the consumer quickly should cost less than those that take more time to make.

Finally—and this is where I put myself at risk of taking a beating—beer is, almost always, lower in alcohol than wine. Therefore, we should be paying proportionately less for most beer. Why? Because these are alcoholic beverages. When we buy them, we are paying, largely though not entirely, for alcohol, and if they had no alcohol we would not buy them. Wonderful flavors and aromas come along with that alcohol, of course, but alcohol is the chief commodity here.

So, the question again: How much is too much to pay for a beer? Would you pay for Deschutes Brewery’s Black Butte anniversary series of aged stouts, which the Oregon company has been making for many years? They ring up to about a dollar per ounce. How about the barrel-aged Old Stock Ale Cellar Reserve? It runs $23 or $24 per 500-ml bottle—about a $1.40 per ounce of beer. These ales are high in alcohol—right on par with wine—which requires more raw ingredients. And, being aged, they took time to make. It’s easy to argue that, for a special occasion, they represent a fair deal.

There are also beers like Bruery Terreux’s Bouffon, a 5.3-percent ABV sour spiced ale in a 750-ml bottle. The brewery’s website advertises it at $11.99—about 47 cents per ounce of beer. Anderson Valley Brewing Co.’s bourbon barrel-aged Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, sold in 22-ounce bottles, runs 50 to 60 cents per ounce. These beers aren’t terribly expensive, but they are both rather low in alcohol, making it easy to quickly drain a serving.

Overall, while there are a lot more expensive high-alcohol and aged beers on the market, these are are the exception. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of craft beer that remains in the range of 10 to 40 cents per ounce, which is still a deal to me.