I recently (OK, maybe not that recently) had the opportunity to attend a release event for a new beer from Central City – Sour Brown I Barrel Aged Sour Ale – the first in what will become an expansive Sour program, including upcoming Sour Red, Kreik, and Framboise releases. As people may know, I’m a pretty big fan of sours, so I approached this release with no small amount of expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed. This beer offers an aroma of red wine and sour berries, while the taste is balanced nicely with a smooth sour acidity, a bit of wine tannins, berries and oak. It all came together nicely and honestly, I think it’s an excellent first effort. Gary Lohin deserves a serious high five.
I went home that night with a plan to buy two, maybe three bottles depending on the price. I knew it wasn’t going to be available right away at my favourite local beer store so I waited a few weeks. I knew it would be available at the brewery first, likely for a couple dollars less, but I like the convenience of my local store. I just had to make sure I was on the ball, because I didn’t expect a huge quantity available, and it would probably go fast. So I kept checking in until I finally saw it on the shelf.
Then I saw the price.
Wow. That’s high end pricing. Like, Cantillon territory. For something produced a mile down the road.
I thought to myself, “OK, self, this must simply be an egregious case of overpricing by my local store, no problem. I’ll call CC.” So I called, hoping they would have some left.
“Hi, do you have Sour 1 available?”
“Uh, yeah, we’ve had it for weeks.” OK, snarky but…
“Just wondering, what’s the price per bottle?”
Audible sigh. “$27.”
Wow. So they’re serious here. This beer isn’t for the curious or occasional crowd. They’re aiming right at the top.
In Defense of
To be totally fair, there are a lot of very good reasons for the price. This is an expensive beer to make. And even at that price, it isn’t going to pay for itself. Realistically, it’s going to take years and several batches to pay off the barrel and equipment investment. Let’s see:
California sourced Cabernet Sauvignon Oak Barrels: $$$
French Oak Foeders: $$$
Two years of aging. Time + Space = Money: $$$
Can I blame them for the price? Goodness no. They’re a business, and a business has to make money. I have no doubt there were extensive conversations on how to price this beer. What would be too high? Too low? Will the market accept this price? Could we really afford to give it away? Wouldn’t that set a bad precedent, especially for future profitability?
These are important questions to answer, and it’s entirely possible CC is still learning the answers as we go.
This whole thing also left me ruminating on another side of the topic: The pricing levels of special beers compared to, say, wine.
At the low end, a buyer can always find a good deal, whether shopping for beer or wine. The difference is, with wine, expensive bottles are also a norm, not an exception. The wine industry has done an incredible job of setting pricing expectations for consumers. Of course there is always downward pressure, and pressure to increase the quality at the low end, but expensive wine isn’t something that shocks anyone. It’s expected. I’ve paid $70, and upwards of $100 for a 375mL bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine from the Niagara peninsula. And I didn’t complain; it is legitimately one of the world’s best Icewines, after all, plus the process and resources put in is high compared to the low yield at the end. No one else thought the price was strange or unjustified either. Pricing like that is pretty standard for Icewine.
Per mL, that is far, far beyond anything I’ve ever paid for a beer. The most expensive beer I’ve ever bought per mL was Storm Brewing’s Glacial Mammoth Extinction, at $40/500mL. That was a pretty big deal. People thought I was crazy. And this is something produced in far less volume, and over a greater period of time than those bottles of Icewine I’ve bought. So why is the expectation so different? Why do people shake their heads at one but not the other?
On one hand, you could say “Wine is way overpriced! That’s the problem!”, but even if that’s true, it doesn’t change the cultural aspect of pricing acceptance.
Cheap beer has been the norm for so long in the country that I think we’re still in an adjustment period towards higher-end beer pricing. You certainly don’t see the expensive beers at BC Liquor Stores, so many regular consumers are still completely unaware that a high-end beer market even exists.
All of this isn’t necessarily meant to say “Hey, CC deserves a free pass here.” They’re still selling in a market where consumers can get world class beers at a similar price. As much as I thought Sour Brown I was a truly excellent beer, I can’t bring myself to consider it at the same level as a Cantillon. Maybe they’ll be there one day (I would love to see it), but that day isn’t now.
At the end of the day, it’s all about how each individual approaches their beer purchasing. For people on a tighter budget, Duchesse De Bourgogne is available just about everywhere at an incredibly accessible price. For those OK with spending more, they can buy themselves an excellent locally produced sour beer.
Note: Confirming pricing may be an issue. The price at my local store dropped by $4 after less than 2 weeks on the shelves.