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Beer Black Market: It’s the Brewer’s Fault

It seems inevitable that a story like this will appear every few months or so. When it happens, the comments section is sure to be filled with a few loud voices expressing their disgust that some people are buying beer at one price and then reselling it at a much greater price, typically through some outlet like eBay that tries and tries (and fails and fails) to stop it.

I’ve blogged about this before (here and here and here).

Here’s the deal, I’ll make it as simple as I can:

There is no “fair price” for a product. The proper price for any product is high enough that all the product gets sold and nobody who wants one at the current price doesn’t get one. That’s the law of supply and demand, that’s “economic efficiency,” that’s “market equilibrium.”

In other words, if you make 1,000 bottles of beer, you need to ask yourself “What is the price I need to sell it at so there are exactly 1,000 people who will buy it at that price?” Charge too little and not only do you “leave money on the table” as they say, you will make someone unhappy because there will be [at least one person] who wanted the beer at the offered price, but didn’t get it. Charge too much and you have beer left over you have to toss.

Limited releases are more valuable. The wider the interest in the beer (because of “quality,” “hype,” or just obsessive “ticking) the more valuable it is.

If a brewer’s beer is being subject to arbitrage then it is the brewer who is at fault. Period. If someone can get away with the selling a bottle of beer for $25 then the fair market price for that beer is ….$25. Period.

This particular CNN article shows its particular bias by refering to this practice as “price gouging.” This is not price gouging. Price gouging is what happens when an “unfair” price is placed on something and there is no other option but to purchase it at the exorbitant rate. The place you’re most likely to see it is after a “supply shock,” like a hurricane makes it impossible to deliver gasoline or workers at a refinery go onstrike. The product is a either necessity or the the supplier has an unwarranted, unjust monopoly. And in this way, there is no choice but to pay the higher, unfair price.

What sets the beer arbitrage market apart from “price gouging” is that Pliny, Dark Lord, Heady Topper, and the rest are not necessities. No one has to buy them. They are not necessities. And no brewer has a monopoly on IPAs or Imperial Stouts or collaboration ales using ancient ingredients.

One of the proposals to stop this is to only sell draft lines, which necessitates getting to the brewery in order to have it.

But check this:

The bottle price is only one part of the cost. I used to live 2.5 hours from Three Floyds. I went there for Dark Lord Day a few years back. And bought a bottle. I don’t remember how much I paid. Let’s say it was $15. But I also drove there. At the time I was making $11 an hour. I also had to drive there, about 320 miles and back. I rode with two other guys so I can defray some of the cost.

  • Bottle of beer: $15
  • Time: ($11 X 5) = $55
  • Gas: ((320mi/22mpg)/3) X $3.50 (avg price of gasoline at the time) = $16.97.

If I made no profit on reselling this beer, the full cost of the beer was $86.97.

Would that have been “fair”?  What if I would have flown? Could I have gotten reimbursed for the plane ticket in my resell costs? Since buying from someone like me was the only way that many people could have gotten that beer, then it seems that $87 is a totally justified price. Oh! And did I mention that I had to wait online in order to be one of the first to buy a ticket to attend DLD? And that the start of sales was announced on Twitter? So I spent several minutes just staring at a screen and hitting refresh. Then I had to go through the purchasing process, which was slowed down due to intense volume? Did I mention that due to a banking error, when I got all the way through the process my payment would not process, which meant I had to call my bank and spend 2o minutes on the phone with them to get it sorted out. When that was done, naturally, tickets were sold out. So I had to cash in a favor from a friend to get my ticket to start with. Should I tack on another hour for all that crap? I think I should.

Had I been able to get the beer through an established logistical system of brewer–>warehouse–>distributor–>warehouse–>retailer that could benefit from economies of scale the price would have been significantly lower. But in the world we live in where Dark Lord was only available for purchase in Munster, IN on the Dark Lord Day then the true value of that beer for anyone not living in Munster was approximately $100 plus some added incentive for someone to undertake the entire process. Maybe 20%? …so $120. If I could sell the beer for $120 I would have benefitted and the person who bought the beer would have benefitted.

OK. So now consider that it would have cost me $250 to fly to Vermont to go get a Heady Topper. And then I had to rent a hotel room ($50). And take a day off work (a holiday day, but still worth a full days wages ~$200). That’s $500 plus the cost of the beer! If, instead, I could buy a Heady Topper over the internet for $25, is that not an AWESOME deal? I save $475 and the person on the other end makes a few bucks. “Price gouging,” indeed.

The bottom line is that the beer is “worth” what people will pay for it. The fact that they want it enough it pay incredibly high prices for it is testament to the brewers. I don’t care if it’s hype or true quality–whatever the reason, people want the beer. And they are happy to get it at the price they pay, no matter how ridiculous that price seems tho those of us who would never plop down $25 for a 16oz bottle. The seller benefits. The buyer benefits.

If you’re argument is: Well the brewer’s should be the ones who profit off their hard work. I agree! The solution is to have the brewer’s charge the real price for the beer. It’s that simple.

If you’re argument is: The desire is only high because the supplies are so limited. I agree! The solution is (1) make more [if possible] or (2) raise the price. Nothing beats the mad desire to purchase a thing like making it expensive.

If you’re argument is: The internet buyer isn’t getting a quality product because it probably wasn’t packaged properly and got all hot and shaken up in transit. I agree, but that’s clearly irrelevant and up to the buyer, not you.

In other words. It’s the brewer’s fault.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


The Session #93: The Importance of Beer Travel

session_logo_all_text_300I started this essay originally with the conclusion that it was not important. Not only was it unimportant, but it may be important to not do it. My argument was simple. If you have a really great memory of drinking beer at its source, it may unfairly bias your opinion about future beers you encounter from that brewery when you’re back home.

But as soon as I typed it, I realized how wrong I was. Did you catch my error of thinking?

There are beer writers out there with a sentiment very similar to mine: The beer is the thing. The packaging, the brewery, the brewer personalities—none of these things matter.

But that’s only true in one specific context: when judging a beer for it’s inherent, objective (or “objective”) quality. For this tiny aspect of drinking beer, the sterile, odorless room with the light-neutral paint is best. Beer is served blindly and drank silently. Notes are taken. Heads are nodded. Results are shown at the end. Maybe a ribbon is awarded. But in the 99.9% of other times that we drink beer the experience is what matters. The people we share a beer with matters. The memories a beer invokes is what matters.

My special lady friend and I travel a lot for work sometimes and for pleasure. We always make a point of visiting the local breweries. We keep a running a list of them (124 at last count). Occasionally we return to this list and remind each other of where we were, what we drank, what we talked about. We’ve done this enough that we now have breweries where we had a great time reminiscing and can now reminisce about what a great time we had reminiscing in that brewery. We’ve done the same thing with both Untappd and Foursquare. Scrolling through the list and remembering the ridiculous stories of people we encountered or predicaments that led to us being in that place at that time. It’s great!

It is true that having had a great time at a brewery does make me more likely to forgive a beer it’s flaws. I try to be aware of such creeping sentimentality; but it’s there. I can feel it.

But who cares? I’m not going to get famous for developing the first truly neutral way to experience beer including erasing all our memories. So why pretend I can do this already? And, why would I deprive myself in this way in order to taste beer free of the memories it invokes?

It is important because if you can scan your local bottle shop, read those labels, and point to a label and say “Oh yeah, I was there,” it’s basically like putting your trip into the case. It enbiggens your world in a similar fashion that knowing what allusions an author is making makes a work better, the same way that knowing the references in an episode of MST3K makes it funnier. It is important.

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Pumpkin Ale Review!!!!

I wish I could have gotten this to you guys earlier in “the season” but I suppose better is late than never. No?

At any rate, as you know, pumpkin beer season is here and you’re all just devouring every review of pumpkin ales you can. Let me summarize them for you. After a careful systematic review of several pumpkin ale reviews I give you all you need to know in one spot.

Basically it’s anywhere between slightly golden to stout-black and it tastes like nutmeg (you might think you detect cinnamon and all spice in there as well. But what do you know?) It almost certainly does not contain pumpkin, but you will think it does because it’s autumn and you just tasted nutmeg.

Enjoy!

 

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Beer vs Wine, Again, for Some Reason

So I’ve been loving Vox.com lately. If I had a few hundred hours a week to waste, I would probably waste them reading the stories and associated “cards” on Vox. At least until I got caught up. Most of what I read there is either personally interesting (politics and political science!), some of it is professionally useful (marijuana) and some of it, sometimes, fits here. So I encourage to you to go over to Vox and read the story that originally accompanied these maps I yoinked. I will not recapitulate their points here. Instead, I will point out some things about the first map they didn’t, either because they did not know, did not care, or did not think were more generally interesting for their audience.

Screen_Shot_2014-05-06_at_2.23.29_PM

So, of this map, Vox says “the coasts like wine, beer is popular inland.” Yeah, generally, I guess. Except wine is actually the dominant drink in New England, Florida, northern California, a strange pocket in northwest Arkansas, and on the fringes of the Pacific northwest. Beer shares dominance in over 50% of the coastal regions which Vox implies are wine-dominant areas. I only see on surprising thing here, which I’ll get to in a moment. For two reasons (not necessarily unrelated) wine should be popular precisely where it is popular.

Wine is expensive. For most of its life, beer was canned primarily with some bottles. Then craft came along and bottles dominated that sector and now craft brewers are canning again. But wine is bottled (except in some cases when it is bagged and boxed). Also, grapes are harder to ship than any of the ingredients in beer. These two factors (big heavy glass bottles and expensive-to-ship raw ingredients) have always meant that wine has tended to stay close to home. That is not to say that wine has not enjoyed international markets. We know that the ancient Greeks were trading deep into Europe and wine went with them, the Romans too. But the vast majority of wine is drunk locally, primarily because of logistics, which combine to make an expensive product even more so. Those ancient Greek and Roman wine traders were dealing in true luxury items. So it isn’t at all weird that wine would be most popular in those areas where grapes are grown and then secondarily where people can afford to buy it.

As we know from several repetitions on this site, as people get richer, they move their drinking toward wine. And, as Vox notes, wine seems to be an urban phenomena (where, on average, people have more money). Note that wine outpaces beer in northern Virginia (some of the most expensive counties in the country) and continues north through eastern Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and the southern parts of Connecticut and Vermont. On the west coast wine begins dominance in (roughly) Orange County (the “OC”) and continues north through the wine growing region. Also in Colorado Springs (deep inland, but also very rich). As a matter of fact, check out this map of the most expensive counties. It isn’t very finely detailed but you can see that the red areas more or less correspond to the dark areas on the wine map. The blue dots travel the western edge of that shared wine/beer area along the Mississippi River.

Highest-and-Least-Expensive-Places-to-Live-in-US1

Speaking of that one weird thing, that area along the Mississippi River, what is going on there? From Vox’s headline implication, it could just be that we should treat the Mississippi River area as a “coast,” but it is unclear what that would mean. Sure it has shipping, like the coasts, but analyzing the Mississippi as coastal because of shipping should indicate that the Great Lakes region should have some wine popularity too. It’s one of the poorer regions of the country. Obviously this isn’t a “coastal elite” thing. I credit two things. Shipping helps. Shipping over water is more efficient (read: cheap) than shipping overland, so getting wine to the region isn’t as expensive as say, getting it to Denver and down into “The Springs.” But shipping from where? One would suppose that wine dominance would leave a trail along its logistical path if the mere presence of wine could inspire a change in palates. So where’s the trail leading from Sonoma to the Mississippi or from Albany to New Orleans? It doesn’t exist. I think it has more to do with this.

upinarms-map

Specifically I think we’re seeing an artifact of that region’s early French influence. It’s not just architecture folks. Those things, like a preference for wine, linger. Notice the dark region on the wine map and compare it to the area on the map above called New France (not the one in Canada, the one where New Orleans is). From there straight north to St. Louis, which, if you’ve ever been to it, you know has a French influence (not just in its name, but that’s a pretty good hint). North of that it was all Bohemian, Scotch, and German farmers. Here’s the description of New France from the article linked above:

NEW FRANCE. Occupying the New Orleans area and southeastern Canada, New France blends the folkways of ancien régime northern French peasantry with the traditions and values of the aboriginal people they encountered in northeastern North America. After a long history of imperial oppression, its people have emerged as down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus driven, among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy. The New French influence is manifest in Canada, where multiculturalism and negotiated consensus are treasured.

I had initially planned to discuss all five maps, but I also didn’t expect to spend so much time on this one. Another time, perhaps.

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My Beer Fanboy Weekend

This weekend, I got a little fanboyish.

On Thursday (started the weekend early) I went to Masters of the Brewniverse, a fundraiser for the United Way. MofB was a hilarious and goofy good time. Several local brewers and their friends or cow-workers got on stage and acted the fool in three “competitions”: fashion, interview, and talent. While they goofed off for our enjoyment, attendees (Yours Truly and his Special Lady Friend and a couple hundred(?) others) got to sample the available beers. My favorite brewery of the night was Black Bottle out of Ft. Collins. My favorite beer was the Chai Stout from Yak and Yeti.

THAT'S ME IN THE CIRCLE!!!

THAT’S ME IN THE CIRCLE!!!

On Friday, the SLF and I had an impromptu VD dinner at a newly opened (chain) pizza establishment. Paxti’s Pizza has the best Chicago deep dish pizza I have had outside Chicago or Indianapolis. The only annoying thing was they kept explaining to me that this or that process or food or ingredient was “kind of Chicago thing to do.” Chicago isn’t darkest Africa. I’ve been. Thanks. At any rate, we left there and picked up a six pack. At the same time I also picked up a bomber of the Stochasticity Project Grapefruit Slam. Meh. I love the name and the art. I love all the marketing copy on the website. But the beer? Meh. It looked good. It smelled great. And up front, I liked everything about the beer. But the bitter aftertaste was powerful and lingering. It was too much. Either that beer has a specific bitter that got under my skin, or I am officially past my hophead phase.

On Saturday, I worked on my thesis all day long. #sadface

On Sunday the SLF and two other friends took a 40-mile bike ride. We were supposed to end up at My Brothers Bar, but those fools aren’t open on Sundays, so we headed to Hops and Pie–a joint that’s been on my list since my first week in Denver. While there I was able to have a pint of Punk IPA (been on my list of beers to try for about 3 years) and Collaboration not Litigation. CnL has never been on my list, but I’ve been aware of it because its title and its sentiment is exactly the kind of Craft Beer Evangelist-red meat that I normally snark at on this blog. And I had a pint of the Kvasir, the new “historical” ale from Dogfish Head…which was excellent.

In sum, this weekend I:

  • celebrated rockstar brewers by treating them like celebrities at a “beauty” pageant
  • overpaid for a hard-to-find, gimmicky new release I didn’t enjoy that much
  • bought an import from one of the world’s most hype-centric breweries (Brew Dog)
  • rewarded two breweries for a collaboration ale
  • rewarded another brewery for an almost-certainly-inaccurate “recreation” of a historical recipe

I was basically, the perfect brew fanboy. Top that off with my 40-mile trek down the South Platte trail and add in this beard I have, and I’m exactly like 90% of Colorado males. I’M FINALLY FITTING IN!!!!

 

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This Herby Beer Label Brought to you by: Marijuana Legalization

Joe Six Pack does an incomplete round-up of beer names with marijuana references and predicts that more will find their way through the TTB process now that “respectable industry operators” can own up to their love of the dank.

 

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Beer Biodiversity

I’m traveling (first to Austin for Geek Bowl) and then to Puerto Vallarta for….whatever it is one does in Puerto Vallarta). So while I’m away, I have found some things I would like to share but don’t much want to “blog” they way I do.  So here’s a cute video I like. I will only add that, lest this overly peaceful take on how competition works confuse you, that there is competition between ferns. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know what I’m implying.

 

[h/t: Jay Brooks]

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Those Nasty, Nasty Craft Brewers

One of the myths I take great pleasure in calling into question is that craft brewers, unlike their vicious fat cat competitors at MolsonCoors and ABInbev, are universally and at all times milquetoast “nice” guys with a non-stop collaborative spirit. That is not to say that craft brewers are not nice guys. I have never met a mean one. And that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of collaboration in the craft brew world–probably more than in any other business. But craft brewers are still businesspeople; and if you don’t take care of your business, you don’t get to keep selling beer.

And voila! Here is a quick rundown of the beer disputes of 2013.

This, I’m sure, is not all of them. And I don’t mean to imply by this post that this is a thing that somehow started in 2013 (after the bubble burst or after the craft brew world “matured” or what have you). This stuff has been going on for yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaarrrrrrssssss. But it’s worth keeping mind that this is happening a lot and it will continue to happen more and more as more brewers enter the market and search for brewery names and beer labels that have not been used before.

 

 

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My Dry January

I was taken aback when I read this paragraph on Pete Brown’s blog:

I drink too much. I counsel that we should feel free to drink more than we are told. I rubbish the distortion of data that suggests we’re all drinking ourselves to death. But even by my own more relaxed standards, I drink more than is good for me. I am two stone overweight and am on medication for high blood pressure, and this is related to the amount of alcohol I drink. It’s an occupational hazard, and it’s also more than that. Going dry for January is my way of proving to myself that I still control my relationship with booze. When I do it, I lose weight. I sleep better, and have more energy. When I start drinking again, my tolerance is lower and I drink slower and less frequently. And gradually, through the year it creeps up again, until over Christmas my alcohol consumption is excessive by any standards, and January provides a reset.

It was startling enough that I mentioned it to my Special Lady Friend as a bold, laudable move. The type of thing I try to do here, but rarely (if ever) succeed at. To boldly cross the line from beer aficionado and advocate into the realm of the public health researcher that I am that recognizes that alcohol has very real societal and much more real personal effects—mostly bad ones, without entirely stumbling into actual Prohibitionism.

A few days later, I noticed that I was not alone in my admiration. Alan McLeod, another stellar beer writer quoted the same graf on his blog. McLeod pushes Brown’s comments further, admitting, if I read him correctly, to slowly moving toward teetotalling.

The first thing I would like to say about this, is I had never heard of “Dry January.” A quick web search (your results may vary) seems to indicate that this is a British thing. I have been doing it the last few years, although I called it “Sober January” an extension on “Sober September” which I had done the year before my first Dry January. My reasons for it were threefold: the first is the one Brown mentions, to confirm to myself that I was in control of my relationship with booze. I never had any doubts that I was. My drinking is not, except from a purely Puritanical perspective, extreme.  It sometimes gets a little high when I do brewery tours on vacation, but those times are rare. Still, metacognition is a strange beast, and it’s good to follow Reagan’s advice on the US’s position vis-à-vis Evil Empire went it comes to addiction: “Trust, but verify.”

So January has always been a good time to verify. The other two reasons were health- and finance-related. I’ve always been slightly overweight and alcohol is chock full of what nutritionist sometimes call “empty calories.” Cut out beer and I suddenly start to lose weight, no exercise added. And, of course, booze costs money that can be saved or spent elsewhere. After gift-buying/party-going/travel season is over, it’s good to rein in expenses.

But what I have found out this year, halfway through Dry January, is I don’t feel better. I haven’t lost weight. (I have saved money, though.) Some of this, I think is related to the fact that as I’ve gotten older my drinking has naturally decreased from the “More than my friends but less than the truly problematic” level toward a level I think no one at all would raise eyebrows at. There have been less “binge drinking” session, less all-nighters in the bars. There have even been less “1 Beer At Dinner” situations.  This downward trend took a nosedive with my recent move to Denver. There’s no easy way to say this, but hangovers at 5000 feet are the worst. Some people would like to say that it’s my age getting in the way not the altitude. Well, I have a recent trip to the Midwestern lowlands that would beg to dispute their claim. That trip confirmed that I don’t get hungover…at least I don’t get hungover at human altitudes. Up here with the mountain goats, however, I do…I really, really do.

So I didn’t have much better to feel. I work out anyway, I eat healthy anyway. I’m a reasonably healthy person. So not drinking hasn’t made any noticeable dent in the way I feel.

As far as the weight loss, or lack thereof, I can’t account for it. In addition to not drinking, I’ve been a little more careful this month at watching what I eat. I weigh myself everyday—a habit I’ve fallen in and out of ever since doing the Hacker Diet in 2005 (dropping from ~245 lbs to 190 over the course of about six months). Since then I’ve fluctuated between 190 and 220, spending most of my time right around 210. That’s where I was on January 2. I’m at 208 today.

I’m hoping that next year won’t be as financially tight as this year. I suppose my downward trend in drinking will continue. I presume that, barring some significant alteration in my physical activity my weight is essentially set at 210 +/-5. So will there be any reason to do Dry January 2015? I think so.

Because another thing that happens when I’m not drinking beer is I have time to pursue other activities. I get to read about beer with new eyes. I get to reevaluate my relationship with beer not from an “Am I in control” modality, but from one of experiencing what I miss about drinking. I don’t long for “a beer” right now. I want specific things in specific ways. Not drinking is easy. But I miss the engagement with beer. I miss being able to engage with other people about beer. It’s easy to get immersed in the drinking life and forget why or how I got here to begin with. Ernest Hemingway talked about not having the perspective he needed to write his Nick Adams stories set in the American Midwest until he’d emigrated to Europe. I feel the same way about drinking. Distance provides perspective and that’s almost always a good thing.

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Kona, Bad. Goose Island, Good.

I don’t normally talk about beers I don’t enjoy on this blog. That’s a personal choice and not one I universally endorse. I like reviews of bad products. They help me make informed choices. I just don’t write them. That is until yesterday, when I condemned the entire line of Kona beers. I haven’t tried every one of their beers, but I’ve tried enough to know that I won’t pay for the “opportunity” to try any more. (I’m willing to be persuaded that Kona makes a quality beer if they would like to send it to me).

At any rate, if I’m going to bad mouth a craft(y) beer, I may as well lend my hand at defending Goose Island…a previously no-doubt-a-member of a the craft beer pantheon, but now an oft-slighted ABInbev product.

I’m really just going to link to this review by Jeff Alworth. That guy knows his beer, although I think he’s a little too partisan to PNW IPAs to the point of being dismissive of IPAs that deviate from that particular profile. I think his approach here is sensible and other beer bloggers/writers/fans should follow his lead. I can’t agree or disagree with his review since I haven’t tasted all the beers he mentions here. However, I like that he tries to approach the beer for what the beer is and what it’s supposed to be. I like that he gave the Goose Island brewers a chance to prove their mettle rather than relying on his emotions to judge those beers for him. I’m not going to lie, I’m also glad he found nice things to say about the beers, because I very much like the GI Belgian-style beers I’ve had and I think it’s a shame that arbitrary rules of what beers we’re allowed to like so often cloud our ability to taste what’s in the glass.

One of these days I’ll approach the recent argument made by New Albanian about how the end (good tasting beer) doesn’t necessarily justify the means (macro-ownership, distant breweries, contract brewing?). Because I think his argument is the only good one opposed to the argument implied here. But it still isn’t good enough for me to dismiss Goose Island just because they have the misfortune of being owned by guys in suits who do not also brew beer.

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