Craft beers with fine-wine prices appear on shelves

We might need to rethink the old expression "Champagne taste on a beer budget." Beer is increasingly no longer the cheapest option at the liquor store, with some bottles costing as much as a bottle of fine wine.

$60 bottle of beer worth it, expert says

Traditionally a cheaper drinking alternative, some craft beers now cost as much as a bottle of fine wine. (Shutterstock)

We might need to rethink the old expression "Champagne taste on a beer budget."

Increasingly, beer is no longer the cheapest option at the liquor store, with some suds costing as much as a bottle of fine wine.

David Alvarez, who sources beer for Cook Street Liquor in Victoria, B.C., says the beer industry is entering a whole new retail world — where high-end beers may come at a premium cost.

"All of a sudden you see this blend of specialty styles of beer using things like date sugar, higher-end yeast strains. They use more malt in a barley-wine," Alvarez said.

"All these specialty beers are coming out, driving the price up."

Alvarez said his goal has always been to stock shelves with interesting craft beers from not just Canada, but around the world.

Until the past year, that generally meant lining the shelves with 650-millilitre bottles — bombers, as they're called in the industry — that were generally in the $6 or $7 range.

Larger, wine-style beer bottles cost up to $60

Now, Alvarez is stocking 750-millilitre, wine-style bottles of beer that range in price all the way up to $60. He credits an increasing diversity in the craft beer sector, and an interest in obscure brewing styles that are more akin to wine production, for the fine-wine-range prices for beer.

And although it may sound outrageous even to craft beer fans, Alvarez argues it makes sense for some consumers.

"You look at $58, you think of it as a Bordeaux or other wine. It really isn't that different of a price," he said, referring to a 750-millilitre bottle from Oregon brewery the Ale Apothecary — whose beers sell at Alvarez's store in the $40 to $60 range.

"It's worth it. You sip it. Turkey dinner, pair with a nice meal. You really have to be that craft beer, passionate buyer to understand, I guess."

Exotic ingredients, long fermentation cycles

He said some beers — especially those that require wild strains of yeast, long fermentation cycles and lots of experimentation — should be priced like wine, to reflect the increased time, labour and exotic ingredients that go into their production.

Often, such beers take just as long to produce as a fine wine — and involve a longer list of ingredients.

As its market continues to expand to include a demographic willing to spend more, beer becomes a marker of social status, according to one expert. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
But there is a side-effect to steep beer prices, which may or may not be desirable, depending on your point of view.

As the beer market continues to expand to include the high-priced wine-consuming demographic, it loses something. No longer is "having a beer" a casual experience.

Instead, like some wine and whiskey, beer becomes a marker of social status, taste and competition, according to Alvarez.

Higher prices may add 'a level of snootiness'

"That's when you see people sitting at the bar, not talking to one another. They're just staring at their phones, checking in beers because they haven't had it before. And this adds a level of snootiness, I'd say," Alvarez said.

"It's sort of like the wine world, and you can get very descriptive — which is unique and creative, and you don't ever want to tarnish that. But it's a fine line."

It's part of a trend the New York Times called it the "wine-ification" of beer back in 2013, when breweries began using 750-millilitre wine-style bottles for expensive beers.

And some, like Alvarez, say bring it on.

After all, the availability of $60 bottles of beer doesn't mean the cheap 24 pack is going anywhere. 

Like the boxed wine on the shelf below the Bordeaux, beer may just find a place at both ends of the market.


Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.


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