QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities

Sometimes you just want to watch whatever is being broadcast; other times only a particular film will do, even if costs. Is that also how beer works these days?

Last week the cultural and political commentator John Harris (@johnharris1969) took a pause from the frenzy of post election analysis to make an observation about beer:

Tweet: "The 'craft' beer worry. £3.50 for a can/bottle of Beefheart IPA (or whatever). This: £1.25 from Lidl, & very nice."

Our instinctive reaction to this was, frankly, a bit dickish: ‘Ugh, what is he on about?’ Much as we imagine he might have responded to a Tweet saying, for example: ‘Why buy the expensive new Beatles reissue when Poundland has a perfectly good Best Of Gerry and the Pacemakers for £2?’

But of course, in a sense, he’s right: if you aren’t obsessed with music, wine, clothes, or whatever, you shouldn’t feel obliged to spend loads more money on a version of that thing that is no more enjoyable to you than the readily available, budget version just because of peer pressure or marketing.

The problem is, once you do get into beer, the generic doesn’t always cut it. If you just want something to absentmindedly sup while you socialise or watch TV then whatever is on special offer this week is probably fine, but if you’ve got a particular yen to wallow in the pungency of American hops then LIDL’s Hatherwood Green Gecko just won’t do the job. If you’re really in deep you’ll probably even turn your nose up at about two-thirds of supposedly ‘proper’ craft IPAs, too. And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.

12 thoughts on “QUICK ONE: Experiences vs. Commodities”

  1. Hmmm…depends what type of beer geek you are I guess. I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the Lidl budget ale in a brown bottle, but if it was a slab of Carling on special offer I might have an involuntary flinch.

    1. It’s not so much the LIDL beer — lots of beer geeks we follow on Twitter enjoy them and we thought they were pretty OK, if misrepresented by their packaging — but the idea that you might never need anything else/better. (Which is not quite what he’s saying, but that’s how it read to us in that moment of reaction.)

      1. There’s a big difference between being happy to drink something that’s not exactly bleeding edge and never wanting to drink something really special; personally, I enjoy the special beers all the more if they’re a bit of a rare treat. As long as I enjoy what I’m drinking, it doesn’t have to be the ultimate example of a style all the time. At the moment, my home tipple of choice is Oakham Inferno; it’s nowhere near my favourite Oakham beer even, but at £1.29 a bottle from Aldi it’s a perfectly pleasant beer for a great price. Does it really satisfy the beer geek in me? Not really, but it’s a nice beer that doesn’t break the bank, and unless I’m in full Beerhunter mode, thay suits me fine.

  2. “And you’ll be willing (every now and then) to pay a bit more for a particular experience — a rare beer, a curiosity, something with a particular cultural or historical significance.”

    That is alright as long as the beer isn’t a disappointment, or the story around the beer is more interesting than the beer itself, and you end up wondering why you’ve spent so much on that curiosity or novelty when you could’ve bought something fairly similar or more widely available for considerably less . After that kind of thing has happened a few times, some people (myself included) might start looking at the likes of Green Gecko with more interest. They will probably not make you tremble in delight, but will feel you are getting value for your money.

    1. You never get disappointed but never get those exciting moments of discovery either. It’s one approach, I suppose, but sounds a bit bleak to me.

      1. It all depends on how much disposable time and income you have. I love being surprised and finding new beers, but I’ve been disappointed many times and now I prefer certainty, if I’m going to be spending time, money and liver with a beer, I want to enjoy what I’m drinking. Mind you, I’m willing to spend a bit more if I know I will get quality in return. It’s not so much about price, it’s about value. But then, I know that for some people having that rarity, that curiosity, that novelty in front of them is good value enough.

  3. I agree. I am investigating the budget end of the market this year and am delighted to report that the beer is still tasty. After all my years of good beer, I have been left with the sinking feeling that far too great a percentage of “craft” is a flop massaged with marketing. Add to that beer writers who are dedicated to not mentioning the relative value proposition any given beer offers relative to the market and we are left with a hefty sympathy for the view Harris provides. This is just the market being dragged, perhaps with a bit of kicking and screaming, into its mature phase in which value is not labeled with “commodity” and fictions like worrying about delicate brewer’s intentions and rewriting history to justify murky sludge are put in their place. This next phase of good beer, charged with honesty, is going to be far more satisfying.

  4. Isn’t this where we’ve been aiming all these years? The land beyond craft. Where it doesn’t require effort to find good beer. You can just go down your local supermarket or into your local pub, and the beer is just good. 20 years ago, to find a decent beer you had to visit a specialist beer shop or that one beer-focused pub in the town. Now every supermarket and (almost) every pub provides a much wider and higher quality range than was previously imaginable. I can’t remember the last time I was forced to buy Carling or Guinness or Doom Bar out of a lack of alternatives. Are there really idiots who are disappointed by this kind of thing?

  5. Mr Harris tends to be scoffed at in music circles for his conservative tastes; the choice of “Beefheart” for the name of a challenging IPA is telling.

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