Has Beer Become Wine?

Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling Mikkeller’s Single Hop Amarillo IPA. It’s a wonderful beer, incredibly smooth with a nice spectrum of  citrus hop flavors and aromas–a remarkable range for a beer using only one variety of hop.   My problem was that it was $7 a 12 oz bottle retail–over 3 times more than what I consider to be some equally fine IPA’s (for instance, Bear Republic’s “Racer 5”, a beer I’d generally put in the same league as the Mikkeller, was going for $1.95 a bottle at the same store).

Now, I don’t begrudge brewers making expensive beers and charging what they’re worth, and I will certainly pay for them (and I want them to experiment and make bold beers. For instance, I just shelled out for Dogfish Head’s expensive “Theobroma”–brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs from Askinosie Chocolate, honey, ancho chilies, and annatto00–and I’m anxiously looking forward to trying it). But it seems that the beer culture is now falling into the trap of wine culture:  if Robert Parker or Wine Spectator rate two wines 93, how can it be possible for one to go for $15 and one to go for $75?  Is it that one is a 93 in the $75 league and one is a 93 in the $15 league and the ratings are skewed? Is that $15 wine that’s rated 93 is well crafted for a certain palate, but that $75 wine rated 93 is rated for a superior palate, a drinker who can discern the finer subtleties of a great wine? To some extent, the wine rating becomes meaningless. Or are wine prices really  just a question of what we’ll pay for them (and merely a status symbol and not directly related to the quality of the wine)? I’ve always been baffled by this, no matter how much I love good wine. How do I know what’s really worth paying good money for?  Without someone I trust to make recommendations (like movies, you don’t listen to everyone’s recommendations equally) I can feel pretty lost. And if I talk to someone for recommendations, the thing we talk about is value–not some rating, but how good is it for how much you’re spending.

Beer, of course, has never been beyond this problem, but it was certainly less so. It used to at least be easier to know what level a beer was in. And the more moderate price differential made the issue negligible–you weren’t going to seriously overspend. With the increase in differential between beers, though, we’re forced to reconsider how we evaluate beers and their worth.  Again, this blog entry is not a knock on the Mikkeller beer; it’s very well crafted and I’m glad I tried it. But if it’s going for $7 a small bottle and I can get Bear Republic at a third of that, I’m going to get Bear Republic. And it’s not a question of breweries–for instance, the Mikkeller “Beer Geek Breakfast” I recently tasted was incredible and unique and worth every penny.  But what I see on sites such as Ratebeer and Beer Advocate is an increasing acceptance that the more expensive beers are inherently worth it. Sites such as these are pushing this culture toward more expensive beers and become less helpful to me in terms of evaluating what’s really worth spending the money on. I know, I know, the answer is to go ahead and buy some, try it, and make the decision myself whether to buy it again and add my own rating. The culture seems to be pointing exclusively toward the bigger, the more “exotic,” the bolder beer. And this is a trend I’d confess that in general I like. I really want that bigger, bolder, more exotic beer.  But the result seems to be  that we begin to equate price with quality. More and more, it seems that more expensive = more exotic, and this just isn’t the case, just as it isn’t with wine.

I can hear some of you saying that if I can’t really taste the difference in value in the Mikkeller and the Bear Republic, then my palate just isn’t good enough to taste the nuance; I’m just not ready to appreciate the Mikkeller. And that may be true. My palate is nowhere near as good as some of my friends’. But that’s also the problem: where beer culture used to avoid the elitism of wine culture, it is now beginning to embrace it. (there’s a big difference I see between educating someone’s palate so they can appreciate more flavors and considering the ability to taste nuance to be some kind of judgment of character). At all levels, there are good beers and bad beers (and as beer guru Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace, used to say, there is a time and a place for Budweiser).  It may be heresy to some, but I’d like to have value become a more standard part of the ratings of beers (yes, yes, I know that value is a very loaded word and we can have a long theoretical debate about this, yes some beer hunters value the discovery, but the term as I mean it here is quite simply how does its quality correspond to its price).  I love reading Beer Advocate’s ratings (and generally agree, but quite often am baffled by their response to a beer), but nowhere do they discuss the price of a beer (and, yes, I know that prices vary radically from area to area, but we can point to what range a beer is in). It may be good, but is it worth the price? Likewise, I wish that ratebeer.com would add a category for value (as is, we rate on aroma, appearance, taste, palate, and “overall.” Yes, I know that I can factor the price into the overall, but why not add a section of value? I am more and more inclined to consider price in the overall category and I think many of my ratings will start to go down. I don’t know if this is true for other beer hunters or not, but I certainly think it would helpful for both drinkers and brewers to find out. And ironically, this is something that has become more standard in wine ratings. It’s now easy to find articles in wine magazines or newspapers that are basically a list of, say, ten recommended wines of a certain variety for $15. Not a bad idea for beer lovers either.  Why not a list of the ten best-value stouts? or considering the current fad, a list of the expensive pumpkin ales that are actually worth it, a beer style that can be excellent but is far too often quite horrible–he says opening a bottle of Southern Tier Pumking Ale and pouring expectantly…..



5 Responses to “Has Beer Become Wine?”

  1. cbd Says:

    That Pumpking is great. Sorting bottles the other day, I delabled one from last year, and realized I haven’t had it this fall. I need to look for it!

  2. jeff Says:

    That $7 is determined by a number of factors and one factor might be living in Iowa. It’s $5 here with maybe wider Mikkeller distribution. The Mikkeller you had is also part of a series, and it was likely more expensive to produce the series than Racer 5. Plus, Mikkeller may have increased shipping costs (to U.S. obviously) and I don’t know what his costs are as he moves from brewery to brewery to produce his beer rather than have a stable operation like Bear Republic does.

    Even at $7 you are paying .50 an ounce. A $20 bottle of wine is .78 an ounce. So, the Mikkeller is the better deal unless we think we can’t have variety in pricing (I think we can for various reasons).

    I just had a Mikkeller I beat yoU the other day and it was $7 for a 12 ounce. It was ok. Not really worth $7 for me.

    • GJF Says:

      Yes, I understand that Mikkeller has variable factors affecting pricing (although Iowa isn’t one of them–John’s gets some once in awhile, but Iowa rarely has them and certainly not Bear Republic. I got this on one of my out of town trips. I hope the change in laws is going to bring some better beer to Iowa but it will take awhile) and I admire Mikkeller immensely. He’s taking an interesting strategy to brewing and has come up with some excellent beers. It’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about with other beers, and the posting just happened to be after an expensive Mikkeller. But I certainly don’t want to do an ounce-to-ounce comparison with wine (I mean I rarely spend over $15 for a wine but I could also argue that the ounce-for-ounce doesn’t really work since I’m more likely to just drink one of those bottles whereas that ain’t gonna happen with beer–but that’s a bogus comparison, too) or other beers. I’m more interested in the culture surrounding the beers and the way we discuss/evaluate their worth. Seems to me the important comment in your note is the last: “not really worth $7 for me.” Exactly the point.

  3. Jeff Says:

    The prices don’t bother me IF THE BEER IS GOOD. I’ve paid $20 for 375 ml bottles of Lost Abbey and Russian River. And I’ve paid $20 for 750 bottles of Nebraska Brewing Company, Allagash, etc. But I also buy Racer 5 all the time and Hop Stoopid may be the best 22 ounce bargain ever – next to Arrogant Bastard. In the big scheme -for me – different price points reflect different brewing processes. A 375 of a sour, barrel aged beer…that beer cost a lot for the brewer to sit in a tank for a year (no income from it, storage, etc). It tastes good too….I beat yoU…it was ok. Not the best Double IPA I’ve ever had for sure. So, not worth $7 for me.

    • GJF Says:

      Yes, yes, I agree with everything you say here. I certainly understand why some beers are expensive (most notably, as you note, the barrel aged) and I have no problem paying for them–as you say, if the beer is good then it’s worth it. I will gladly pay good money for Lost Abbey or Russian River beers any day. Some beers are worth the money and some aren’t. My question is more how we distinguish the ones that aren’t. Now that beers are rightfully in the price league with wines, how do we rate and distinguish them? When Beer Advocate rates a beer an A, it’s no different really than the Wine Spectator rating a wine a 93–what does it really mean? My point is I’d rather have them say that maybe, while Mikkeller I Beat yoU is OK as a $7, Sanctification is still amazing, and a good value, as a $20 beer. Or go ahead and compare I Beat yoU and Pliny and stake a claim on which one’s a better value. I may disagree with them, but the ratings as a whole at least become more meaningful.

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