The Lure of Luxury, The Call of Craft?

Edwardian advertisement for Edelweiss beer: top hatted man points at beer with his diamond-topped cane.

Why do people buy ‘fancy beer’ — because it tastes better, or because it ‘signals’ status?

Psychologist Paul Bloom’s article ‘The Lure of Luxury‘ mentions beer only in passing — ‘the attractive stranger in a bar is aroused by your choice of beer’ — but anyone who’s been called a snob for drinking a £6 pint, or rolled their eyes at the glitzy packaging of a limited edition IPA, will get the relevance.

Dr Bloom sets out two opposing points of view:

  1. People want luxury goods because they look, feel or taste good — they give pleasure in and of themselves.
  2. Luxury goods are status symbol designed to impress others and signal ‘intelligence, ambition, and power’.

The truth, he argues, lies somewhere in between:

Now, only a philistine would deny Postrel’s point that some consumer preferences are aesthetic, even sensual. And only a rube would doubt that some people buy some luxury items to impress colleagues, competitors, spouses, and lovers. Perhaps we can divvy up the consumer world. An appreciation of beauty explains certain accessible and universal consumer pleasures—Postrel begins her book in Kabul after the Taliban fell, describing how the women there reveled in their freedom to possess burkas of different colors and to paint their nails—while signaling theory applies to the more extravagant purchases. A crimson burka? Aesthetics. A $30,000 watch? Signaling. Aristotle Onassis’s choice to upholster the bar stools in his yacht with whale foreskin? Definitely signaling.

He goes on to consider why an exact replica of an object isn’t as desirable as the real thing; why when people buy a celebrity’s jumper in a charity auction they don’t want it dry-cleaned first; and whether anyone needs six mechanical wrists to automatically wind their collection of Rolex watches.

Let’s attempt to translate those questions: Why do people continue to hunt down and pay through the nose for Westvleteren 12 when none but the most refined palates can tell it from St Bernardus Abt 12? Why is beer brewed under contract less appealing than otherwise? Does anyone need a £168 six-pack of beer?

When you choose a beer is it really ‘about flavour’ — the defensive cry of the craft beer drinker accused of extravagance — or something else? And, of course, something else might be fine, depending on your values, and the pleasure it brings is just as real.

We found Dr Bloom’s article via BoingBoing.com. If you can’t be bothered to read it you can see him speaking on related topics at the TED Talks website.

15 thoughts on “The Lure of Luxury, The Call of Craft?”

  1. Case in point, Crafty Dans 13 Guns, and Steamin Billy Co 1485.
    The 2 beers are almost identical in flavour. Occasionally available at the same bar
    13 Guns is packaged and marketed at the craft beer crowd.
    1485 is a brew only available in Leicester, to celebrate the re-internment of RIII. With historical, touristy packaging, the brewerys got tons left over from the tourist rush that fizzled out.

  2. there’s quite a big difference between westy 12 and st bernardus…different yeasts SB uses original wety yeast whereas westy themselves have switched to (i belie) westmalle. I much prefer st bernardus; which is a good position to be in

  3. I did a blogpost a while back about Craft vs Premium. The two are, I would say, distinctly different concepts.

    “Premium” is (or is perceived to be) much the same, but better, whereas “craft” is to some extent different, experimental, or challenging.

    I don’t think anyone in the UK would gain much social cachet from choosing a craft beer when drinking in company, and it would be pretty pointless to do so if you didn’t really like it. For luxury goods to work as status symbols they have to be perceived as such by the general public.

    1. I think that distinction is spot on.

      There’s a difference between being willing to pay a premium for Magic Rock High Wire over Marstons Pedigree and being willing to pay a premium for it over Punk IPA.

      Although there’s probably an element of social signalling to both.

      Location and surroundings is another element – and one where it’s relatively hard to disentangle social signalling from aesthetic preference – which is why there are still pubs in the UK that aren’t Wetherspoons.

    2. Not entirely, Mudge. It depends to whom you are signaling. A rolex watch may be understood by the public as expensive. However the context in which is worn may also lead to assumptions of a fake. An omega watch is generally not noticed by most people. The only people that notice are other wearers of expensive watches. The buyer of a veblen good may wish to signal to all, or they may consider that vulgar and signal only to others they consider peers.

  4. Great post. There are two forces affecting “high end” beer choice, or expensive beers, to my mind. Luxury, as you define it, is one. People are definitely interested in the quality, ingredients and story behind a beer. Scarcity is the other, and I think it is more powerful in driving up price.

    I live in New York where Hill Farmstead is a great example. People used to go nuts for it and obtaining the beer was a status symbol in itself. Now it’s available pretty much always at several bars it’s become far less alluring, though the quality of the beer and the celebrity of its provenance has if anything increased.

    Thanks for writing.

    1. Interesting and might I ask Jon, what are those bars in NYC, as I will be there soon.

      I think the wider market and part of the cognoscenti are attracted by importation, high price, rarity, nice packaging. This explains why Heineken for decades (pre-craft era, U.S.) was considered “the” beer to drink even though it was often damaged from being light-struck. People just assumed it was better.

      Correlatively, domestic beers that were objectively (to a beer specialist) superior to, say, a marquee brand which had more adjunct, were looked down on as “heavy” or “too bitter”. This is why porter disappeared from the pre-craft market in North America.

      This is why too beer bars insist on carrying a wide range of glitzy-looking imports even though most are pasteurized and often dosed with adjunct. They “look” superior to the down at the heels products the local breweries try to sell the bars even though the latter are almost always superior by the criteria of experts.

      Part of the cognoscenti are drawn into this game too because branding, pricing and “positioning” have enormous psychological power over people. I am not exempt from it myself although I think after decades of learning about beer I tune it out, generally, and rate brews on their objective merits.

      Gary

  5. Even the most expensive beer is, in reality, a very affordable “luxury”. If the same people developed an interest in fine wine, let alone luxury watches or antiques whatever, they’d have their self-esteem knocked as they wouldn’t be able to afford it.

    And how about the reality, in this country at least, that getting on the property ladder – something which so many young profs now can’t afford to do – has proven for many years to be the best thing to do to secure wealth.

    So willingly being overcharged for beer is one way someone can send a signal – principally to themselves – that they’ve made it. In fact sadly their financial situation is somewhat less secure, but this relatively expensive beer serves another purpose: it gets you pissed and helps you forget all that.

    1. It’s an interesting alternative to the “they drink it because they like the taste” hypothesis, but I’m not sure it’s more compelling.

      1. Well if your suggested alternative hypothesis is true then we’d have to consider why the aspirational yet financially insecure hipster enjoys the taste of yeast detritus.

    2. I think your aside is key: the messaging is primarily for the benefit of the drinker, the assurance than by some measure they have made it. It is, however, such a modest achievement that it undermines itself in a few way. Craft beer has become inordinately transitory with brands coming and going so fast that the concept of “seasonal” is insufficient. The level of information required to be an informed hobbyist is so shallow that one becomes an expert by declaration. And it’s a front for so many mild dipsos, turning to alcohol as we have for centuries to deflect life’s cares – no different from the drinker who prefers something else in the glass to achieve the same end.

  6. There is some snobbery amongst beer nerds as the John fucking Kimmich thing showed but I think it’s more like stamp collecting. People will pay a surprising amount of money on their hobbies and getting the latest hip beer must be worth it if it satisfies the collecting urge.

    1. I think that’s a misreading of how the “must try new beer” thing works, to be honest.

      I’ve always experienced it as a sort of optimism – like, sure, these beers that I’ve tried are quite nice, but maybe that one that I haven’t had will be the life-changingly incredible beer that you’ve always been sure must be out there somewhere. And sometimes people are willing to shell out a bit extra for something that MIGHT BE TRANSCENDENTLY AMAZING even if there’s something that they know is pretty good available for less cash.

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