05 August 2010

Should Session Beers have Session Prices?

I'm just thinking out loud here.

A lot of fellow promoters of "session beers"--lower-alcohol beers perfect for a working lunch or a hot summer--are eager to promote how the winners of the Great British Beer Festival awards for Champion Beers of Britain were all session beers.  Indeed, the average alcohol strength of all the winning beers was only 4.37%--a figure that would earn derision in many a "beer geek" establishment like Max's, Mahaffey's, The Judge's Bench, etc. even on a blisteringly hot day.  (Like we haven't had a few of those lately?)

Yes, part of this is that we're snobs.  We have been well trained by "beer geekery" to associate bigger beers with more complexity and assertive flavors.  And, yes, part of this is the well-deserved American stereotype that constantly associates "bigger, bolder, brasher" with "better" whether or not it's deserved.  In my personal experience, you can sell the hell out of almost anything in American beer as long as it has a superlative attached to it--most hops, most exotic ingredients, or most bikinis in the advertising.

But there's another factor involved, if you ask me.

Session beers are lower in alcohol, and usually lower in the other attributes that give beer mouthfeel.  That doesn't mean they're watery or lacking flavor; it just means that there's a bit less "there" there.  (I've often run into beers where the brewer or server says "you'd never guess it's an 8% beer--it tastes like a 5%, doesn't it?"  But I've yet to have someone say "you'd never guess that's only 4%, eh?  Tastes as full as an IPA, huh?")

Yet we're asked to pony up the same price as a regular, or even a bigger, beer.

Come on, admit it.  Who reading this hasn't walked into a good-beer establishment intending to only have one or two beers, sized up the list, and ordered the most potent beer for the "biggest bang for the buck"?  Or, for that matter, looked over the list and "thrown back" a selection as being too weak?  Yes, I've done it.  And if you say you haven't, you're probably lying.  Or a very special breed of beer enthusiast, worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act in the U.S.

Most brewpubs or beer bars, of course, won't hesitate to charge extra for an expensive-to-produce beer, or serve it in a smaller serving for the same price as the rest of the line-up.  I have no problem with that.  I was scared beyond belief at the bar that, on one night, was selling full pints of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for $3--and, thankfully, I was the only one noticing.  But session beers need to be promoted.    Can we not apply the same rationale to session beers? 

Serve up the session beers in a bigger glass--if you're using 12- or 16-oz tumblers, pour the session beer in a 20-oz. imperial pint for the same price.  Knock fifty cents off the price.  Make it the Happy Hour feature for a discount.   Heck, have a heat-wave special: when the publicly-displayed outdoors thermometer breaks 95 degrees F, the session beer is a dollar off!  (When I was in the UK in September 1991 and the temperatures cracked records at 85 degrees, bars pushed all manners of "shandy," typically a lager-and-fresh-lemonade blend but cheap-lager-and-Sprite at its worst.)  Put together a "Dog Days Special" of a cold plate or salad paired to go with the session beer and the beer itself.

Have you ever gone out to eat with a vegetarian or decided you might as well treat your body a bit better, looked at the menu, and then had a change of heart as you realize that the vegetarian options on the menu, despite having ingredients that are at best 50% of the cost of the meats, are only priced a dollar or two cheaper than the "carnivore" entrees?  With a vegetarian wife, I see it all the time--and it's why we seldom go out to eat.

Before the bars and brewers attack me, let me say that I understand the real mathematics of the proposition.  I've been a restaurant manager.  A 25% reduction in ingredient costs certainly does not translate into a 25% cost savings at the glass--there's still labor, overhead, fermentation vessels and cooperage being occupied ("opportunity costs"), and distribution. But at the same time, a token gesture towards what many consumers must certainly feel when they look over the menu or chalkboard can certainly go a long ways towards promoting the finer art of a well-made session beer.

(Much more on session beers at Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project website/blog.)


Lew Bryson said...

Take your last paragraph and repeat it five times. If you understand that a small reduction in materials costs -- and that's really what we're talking about -- doesn't really affect the at-the-tap cost of the beer (and even less with bottles), how can you suggest a dollar off? Bars already are chary of session-strength beers for the reasons you mention; you're going to make them less profitable, too?

I hear this a lot. But really, when you're drinking beer in a bar? You're not paying for the beer so much as you're paying for drinking in the bar. The mark-up is breath-taking. Hell, if you want to take this out on someone, don't talk to craft brewers: what about the stiff price of Guinness (at about 4.1% and with huge economies of scale)?

Yeah, price up the big, rare beers. But the price of an Uncle Teddy's bitter and a HopDevil at Victory's pub...really ought to be about the same.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Lew, I understand the basics of your position in principle.

But, by the exact same argument, I could say that it doesn't cost the bar that much more to put a stronger beer in the glass, either--and you and I both know that bars won't hesitate to put a stronger beer in a smaller glass/serving size for the same or even greater price, under the guise of "protecting" the consumer from himself.

I have no problem whatsoever with paying a greater price for a higher-octane beer, or getting it in a smaller glass. But is it so wrong to ask for at least some consideration of swinging the pendulum at least partially the other way?

This is part of the art of promotion. Very few beer bars are popular enough to never have to offer a "happy hour" or Tuesday special of some sort. Should we do away with those, too, because it sells the beer too cheaply?

Lew Bryson said...

I suppose you could say that, but it's not necessarily so. See, session beers are just a fraction less expensive on materials costs than 5-6% beers, whereas something like a 9-12% behemoth, or an "only 40 cases for the entire country" rarity really does cost significantly more. Session beers are neither rare nor expensive to make (or at least, not very often). Big rare beers cost bars more, they cost brewers more.

Case in point you know quite well: Selin's Grove Kriek. Heather told me that the waste of fruit on that is terrific, it just doesn't all get used, and the stuff's expensive.

As for size of glass...bars put those in smaller glasses largely for two reasons. If they put them in a pint glass and charged normal mark-up, they wouldn't sell fast enough (see brewers who put expensive bottles in four-packs); or, if they put them in a pint glass some blowhard geek would knock them back, braying "THIS is my session beer! Haw haw haw!"

Is it wrong to ask? Of course not. But is it wrong to nod in an understanding way when you learn that pricing it "less" but in line with the other prices would amount in a price break of a quarter on a pint?

Your happy hour example is specious. Of course individual bars could run session beer specials; no reason why not. As a bar owner once told me, this is a strange business; you'd never go into a deli expecting to get half-off on dairy just because it's 5:00. Discount session beers from 2:00 to 5:00, maybe. But it sure sounded like you were saying that all session beers should be less all the time, or at least hinting at that. If the stuff sells at $4 a pint, and sells well...why should they take it down to $3.50 just because it's 4.2%? You don't see "light beer" selling for less than Bud, do you?

quill said...

I would agree with Mr. Mitchell. I don't think anyone is asking for a steep drop in pricing, but a moderate change would be appropriate. Doesn't Brewer's Art pour a 20oz. draft for their low alcohol session offerings? I know they used to.

Lew Bryson said...

Frankly, I'd be surprised if most people didn't agree with Sandy. "Excuse me, squire; would you rather pay more for your pint, or less?" How's that polling going to go?
The UK taxes by alcohol content; there's talk of taxing low alcohol beers at a substantially lower rate altogether to encourage their consumption. I like that.

JohnM. said...

"despite having ingredients that are at best 50% of the cost of the meats, are only priced a dollar or two cheaper than the "carnivore" entrees?"

To my mind this is the heart of the matter in any discussion about reducing prices at the tap. I'm certainly willing to pay extra for a glass of bourbon barrel aged imperial stout if you can convince me that the time, effort and cost of making such a beer is substancially greater than the cost of making SNPA. Conversely, if it's considerably cheaper to make a 4% session beer, then you'd like to think that savings would be passed on to the beer bar. Unfortunately, my impression is that it isn't, so I'm not sure you can blame the beer bar for not charging their patrons any less for low alcohol beers.

In the Brewer's Art example, they did indeed at one time charge less for their lower abv. offerings (espeically during happy hour). However, I'm not sure if that was the result of the reduced cost of making such a beer, or just marketing on the part of BA.

I'm with you on this Alex, but I think Lew makes some very good points. Unless you can get breweries (especially the gigantic one's like Guiness) to base the cost of their product on the cost of the actual ingredients and cost of making their beer (good luck on that!), and unless you can get the distributors to go along (good luck on that as well), I think this is doomed to failure.

chris said...

Quick math: To provided the retailer and wholesaler the same gross margin, while reducing the pint cost $1 (let's say $4 instead of $5), the brewer would need to reduce their keg cost by 20% (to the wholesaler).

Wholesalers margins are constant, and retailer with good business sense follow suit. So you are asking the brewer to reduce a their keg costs by roughly 20% on an ingredient cost savings of roughly 3% per keg (assuming a 4.5% ABV instead of a 6.0%ABV).

Mike McDonald said...

I have to side with Lew on this. The nominal cost difference between the beers does not warrant a price reduction. If you were to reduce the price by the cost difference it would really be pennies. As far as price increases for stronger beers, we don't do that at Red Brick Station. Some beers that are 8% or higher are served in half pints here because that is the responsible thing for us to do. It allows the drinker time to decide if another strong beer is really a good idea.

With session beers, as Ray Davies sang, "Have another drink it'll make you feel better.

Brewer's said...

Hmm, I don't remember ever charging less for lower abv beers. We do make some volume adjustments, though - servings range from 10 to 18 oz.

Keep in mind that the labor involved in making a session beer is about as involved as it is for a stronger beer.