No Beer is Too Expensive

April 06, 2017

By Will Gordon, April 06, 2017

The beer internet, like all ferocious and majestic beasts, needs to eat, and nothing nourishes it more thoroughly than a battle over what constitutes fair pricing.

Earlier this spring, we feasted on the bones of the Firestone Walker social media director who had the temerity to announce that this year’s release of Parabola, a RateBeer top-25 barrel-aged imperial stout, would cost 80 cents an ounce. Which, sure, is only 20% as much as wheatgrass juice, but Parabola provides far less chlorophyll! The bottom line is that a twelve-ounce bottle of the one of the world’s best beers now costs as much as a cup of Busch Light at a monster truck rally, and that’s just too damn much.  

The week prior, we gorged – deeply, beefily – on the delicious outrage served up annually when tickets for Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Day go on sale. How can they charge $180 for five large bottles of rare and fantastic beer plus an all-day metalfest? For that kind of money, you could get 2.9 tires for your ’89 Trans Am!

Which brings us to the most recent trip to the trough, a multicourse tasting menu of vicarious gluttony and regret served up by a series of expensive missteps at the Toppling Goliath taproom in scenic (perhaps?) Decorah, Iowa.

There’s no definitive account online, but it went down roughly as follows: A couple big wheels rolled in over the weekend and ordered, among who knows what else, a $500 bottle of Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout 2014. Our high-living heroes liked it so much they ordered another round, at which point the presumably stunned server’s finger went rogue at the register, as the second bottle of KBBS was rung up for a paltry $300, the price they’d previously paid for a bottle Gold Assassin 2014. A manager discovered the egregious undercharge after the fact and sent an email kindly requesting the customers make up the difference. Something credibly purporting to be that email hit the internet, and we all dined quite finely on a number of issues!

It would be really interesting to sort through the competing layers of moral culpability here, but I can’t get past the fact that this bottle of beer costs five hundred fucking dollars!”

There’s so much going on with this story, so we might as well start at the end: Toppling Goliath rescinded the manager’s request for payment. They recognized it was their error, apologized to all parties, and ate the difference – all without throwing the manager under the bus. Beers were drank, money and mistakes were made, everyone lived to tell about it. And to be judged by strangers for it.

Let’s lead with the combination of desperation and chutzpah on display in the manager’s email. Pretty ballsy to ask a customer, particularly one who seems more valuable than most, to cough up $200 to balance the till long after he’s slept it off.

But while it might initially come across as a bit tacky, it’s not unreasonable. Especially since, and here’s next morsel from our rage buffet, it seems plausible that these two swells sauntered out the door knowing they’d stiffed the bar for a few hundred bucks – or at least knew they were party to a self-stiffing, depending on how you want to assign blame.

Equally likely that this charge was lost in the fog of war; who knows how fine are the teeth on the accounting combs of people who order – and drink – at least $1,300 worth of beer in one sitting. To be fair, they might have been completely unaware of the undercharge.

But most of the reactions I saw online, and all of the reactions the story elicited from regular real-world fools who don’t traffic in online beer gossip, were some variation of “It would be really interesting to sort through the competing layers of moral culpability here, but I can’t get past the fact that this bottle of beer costs five hundred fucking dollars!”

Of course most people realize that the dollar amount involved doesn’t change the fundamental ethics of the thing – it’s just as wrong to knowingly pay $3 for a $5 beer as it is to pull the same stunt with a couple zeros tacked on. And same deal applies to the manager’s plea for redress, philosophically. The difference is purely practical: she probably wouldn’t have ever noticed a $2 discrepancy and certainly wouldn’t have feared for her job over it. So she made a desperation outreach to someone who seems to have leaked the evidence, and TG decision-makers did the right thing by squashing it once the issue came to their attention. Fair enough.

But back to that $500 bottle of beer. That price makes me angry! Because it is irresponsibly low, given that KBBS goes for at least a grand on the gray market. Doesn’t anyone at Toppling Goliath have any bills to pay, for Christ’s sake? They running a business over there, or a charity?

Craft beer is a luxury item. As such, it’s hard to get too worked up about price gouging. In fact, the very concept of gouging depends on there being an exploited class of consumers – victims to sanctify the crime.

Does this mean I think it’s sane to pay $500 for a bottle of beer? Of course not! But I say this as a man who happily paid $26 for six ravioli a few days ago, bought a $5 cup of coffee out of sheer boredom an hour ago, and took on half a house’s worth of debt just last century for what turned out to be a degree in beer-blogging. Who am I to judge financial sanity? Same handsome nobody as the rest of you.

So if sanity’s not in our collective wheelhouse, then what about basic fairness?

I sincerely believe that’s taken out of the equation by the aforementioned luxury status of craft beer. I’m a reluctant and only mildly effective participant in our grand capitalist experiment, but I reserve concerns for financial justice for shit that actually matters. Every human and cat and most of the better dogs should be able to afford adequate dental care. But no one needs barrel-aged imperial stout.

So if one rich guy wants to charge another rich guy the world’s prettiest pile of pennies for a particularly fetishized bottle, that’s fine by me.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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