Thursday, October 05, 2017

What price a pint?

Borough market pub "The Rake" was attacked in the mainstream media recently for charging around £13 for a pint of beer. As I'm writing this I can hear many of my friends saying "WTF! £13 a pint, what a rip-off", so, is it a rip-off? As usual in life, things aren't quite what they first seem.

Firstly you need to understand that the particular beer being sold for this price was a rare craft beer from a tiny brewery in Manchester (Cloudwater) only available at a handful of pubs in the country and at around 10% ABV was only being sold in 1/3rd pint measures. The beer is made using exotic malts and hops, and in minuscule (relatively) quantities, it's a specialist product made by hand that has more in common with high-end wines than dishwater pints.

There is something about the word "pint" that puts people in mind of a standard, production-line product, much like "Big-Mac", clearly you would never pay £30 for a Big-Mac! The statement elicits a visceral negative reaction because many people have one single experience and image of what a "pint" is. But, that kind of standard bitter/lager "pint" is not what we're talking about here, in this case the product is much more aligned to wine than beer. The beer in question is complex in both labour to make it and taste profile and much like a fine wine it has been specifically "designed" to deliver a particular flavour experience. For example, it has been aged in red-wine barrels for months and secondary fermented using champagne yeast. At around £4 for a large wine-glass full I would challenge anyone to find a London restaurant selling an even average French wine for less; as a taste experience and when looked at through the lens of wine this beer starts to look like an absolute bargain! For comparison, in most Michelin starred London restaurants a top (rare) Bordeaux wine would weigh in at >£100 PER GLASS, sometimes much more! When you have a limited quantity of a desirable product, with a limited shelf-life, the price just goes up, this is simple economics.

So, what's really driving these reactions? After all no one is forcing anyone else to buy beer here! (the pub had plenty of other beers to choose from at average London prices) Well, as usual it's a healthy mix of snobbery, ignorance and herd mentality. The fact of the matter is that all "pints" are equal (in volume), but some are more equal than others (in taste) Like wine, as the beer market has deepened and widened in the last few years, snobbery and ignorance start to creep into the discourse. 

You have folks creeping out of the woodwork who look down on beer, usually wine or whisky/brandy drinkers. They wouldn't pay £13 for "just a pint of beer", but are clearly ignorant of the skill, tastes, pleasures and sheer variety of beer these days, they have no clue how far we've come since the days of Watneys Red-Barrel, and should really just get out more! Then, at the other end of the continuum we have folks who've drunk Carling lager their whole lives, never tried anything else, never paid more than £3 for a pint and see no reason to change. That's fine, each to their own, but for many people the fun about beer, wine, food et al, is all in the taste experience, beer for them is not just something cold and wet to make you drunk on a Friday night, it's part of something much, much broader for which there is a (albeit small) highly lucrative market.

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