category-iconOP-ED

Would You Pay $125 for a Beer?

February 07, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, February 07, 2020

Last weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported on the fact that Manhattanites were shelling out as much as $125 for a bottle of beer at Treadwell Park. Granted, this is New York, where a burger at Gramercy Tavern will set you back $40 after tax and tip and the median monthly rent of a one-bedroom is $2,980. Yet even in the world’s seventh most expensive city, there were a few raised eyebrows over high markups and prices.

This largely has to do with the fact that beer has, traditionally, been a drink of the people. For much of human history, it was more available than drinking water and, in some places, it remains cheaper. Like a Big Mac, a beer is such a standard unit of measure that it’s sometimes used to compare prices around the world. Not everyone drinks whiskey or rum or baijiu, but robust beer brewing cultures have existed from Namibia to Vietnam for generations. 

Unlike gonzo restaurant stunts like a $2,000 omelet, however, there’s a good reason why that 750mL bottle of Oud Beersel’s Bzart, a 7% ABV Belgian lambic, costs as much as it does. New York’s punitive rents are a factor, but don’t tell the whole story. The same goes for the DeuS Brut des Flanders from Brouwerij Bosteels, which sells for $90 a bottle at Pretty Ricky’s, a newly opened bar on the Lower East Side with a retro neon sign reading COLD BEER.

Courtesy of Pretty Ricky's

“This is by no means a moneymaker for us,” says Jaime Felber, co-owner of Paradise Hospitality, the bar’s parent group. “First of all, we charge a relatively low markup, certainly less than anybody charges for a standard craft beer. The price reflects the amount of time and effort that goes into that product.”

In order to produce the DeuS Brut des Flanders, brewers ship the beer off to the Champagne region of France after fermentation, allow it to age in bottles for at least a year, then spend several weeks rotating the bottles every eight hours in order to separate and remove accumulated sediment. The resulting 11.5% ABV beer is so distinctive it has its own dedicated glass, which resembles a Champagne flute. It has about as much in common with a Bud Light as André does with Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“You’re talking at the moral equivalent of a bottle of Champagne. In New York, you’ll see reserve wine lists with bottles well over $1,000. Those aren’t for every day and neither is this,” Felber says. “These are products that those who know beer will get excited about and those who wish to celebrate with something very unique and special will want to try it.”

You’re talking at the moral equivalent of a bottle of Champagne. In New York, you’ll see reserve wine lists with bottles well over $1,000. Those aren’t for every day and neither is this.”

For the most part, customers seem to get the concept, and while $90 beer bottles are never going to fly off the shelf, Felber says the amount of interest has actually risen since the fuss. These days, the craftsmanship behind rare, high-end beers commands similar respect and prices to fine wines. It helps that Pretty Ricky’s and Treadwell are far from the first in town to serve beers of this caliber at this price point. Over in Brooklyn, Tørst, which was previously also the site of the world’s only Michelin-starred beer-centric restaurant, has more than 30 bottles over $50.

“We actually had that $125 Bzart Lambiek on our list until recently,” Mark Verling, beverage director at Tørst. “I have some chilling in my own personal stash in my apartment.”

While the Bzart Lambiek may currently be off the menu, customers can still order a $61 bottle of Evil Twin’s Harlan's Even More Jesus, which is aged in rare Harlan Estate red wine barrels. According to Verling, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, a former partner in Tørst, has called it his favorite beer he has ever produced. There’s also Ale Apothecary’s El Cuatro, an Oregonian wild ale that only makes it to the East Coast every three or four years, at $89, along with Birrificio Baladin’s Xyauyù Fumè, an oxidized Italian barleywine at $95. 

Courtesy of Mark VerlingBirrificio Baladin’s Xyauyù Fumè at Tørst

“Xyauyù is often regarded as one of the greatest barleywines one can get your hands on, a hall-of-famer if you will, and I can't help but agree,” Verling says. “It’s really rich, high viscosity. He does lots of different versions and we have three of them right now. Fumè, for instance, is aged in Scottish Islay whisky barrels and it’s a real sipper, almost like drinking Scotch.”

Back when Tørst first opened in 2013, Greenpoint was less gentrified than it is today and the city’s craft beer scene less developed. Although some initially balked at the beer prices, it soon became clear that the bartenders weren’t trying to rip anyone off.

“There was definitely a period where customers who were used to paying $6 for a pint would be quite vocal about the prices, but I think people are becoming more educated,” Verling says. “We’ve never adjusted our pricing, it’s just the beer is getting more expensive and we can’t afford to charge less. We’re also aware that we don’t want to charge too much for these awesome beverages.”

Ultimately, a desire to share something truly special is what drives restaurants and bars to seek these sorts of whales out. Because of how rare these bottles are, it often takes industry connections to track down a supply, meaning the average bottleshop-going beer-lover might never otherwise get to try them. A $95 beer may sit in a cellar for years before anyone orders it, but when they do, it leaves an impression.

“Things like that Italian barleywine, we might only sell one of those every four or five months, but that’s the same if you have a really beautiful bottle of Bordeaux on the menu,” Verling says. “It elevates your menu to have something like that. It’s also just an incredible beer, which is why it’s on there.”

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