How Can Belgian Beer be so Cheap?

The price of Bel­gian beer gets tossed into argu­ments on pric­ing like a Trap­pist-made hand grenade: how can new­er craft brew­eries charge so much for their prod­uct when a clas­sic, ‘world class’ beer like Sai­son Dupont can be bought for £1.80 a bot­tle?

Even in bars with leather­bound beer lists, Trap­pist beers like West­malle Triple can be bought for sev­er­al pounds less than beers of equiv­a­lent strength from hip­per brew­eries. We have, in fact, found our­selves choos­ing Bel­gian beer in British bars to save a cou­ple of quid.

Are monks less ruth­less­ly cap­i­tal­is­tic than some oth­er pro­duc­ers, as Jeff ‘Beer­vana’ Alworth sug­gests here?

From read­ing Stan Hierony­mus’s BLAM! our sus­pi­cion is that it’s actu­al­ly to do with the effi­cien­cy of long­stand­ing brew­ing oper­a­tions. Kinks have been ironed out, fermenting/conditioning times opti­mised (with­out com­pro­mise), and qual­i­ty con­trol process­es per­fect­ed. They are also not shy with the cane sug­ar (15%-20% of some brews’ fer­menta­bles) and hop extract.

But is there more to it? And will their prices even­tu­al­ly creep up?

9 thoughts on “How Can Belgian Beer be so Cheap?”

  1. Why not start at the obvi­ous? That monks are com­fort­able with less prof­it? New flash craft brew­ers are able to spend every sec­ond week­end jet­ting off to oth­er con­ti­nents for a rea­son, you know.

  2. Was­n’t there some recent reportage/observation about the increas­ing price for lam­bics out­side of Bel­gium? I think some writ­ers con­clud­ed the high demand for rel­a­tive­ly scarce beer from the US was affect­ing export pric­ing, where­as buy­ing the stuff in its own mar­ket was still good val­ue.

    Maybe it’s par­tic­u­lar styles which aren’t tick­erif­ic (yet?) and so aren’t climb­ing so quick­ly in price?

  3. There is a tricky ten­sion between what Bel­gian locals will pay and what geeks abroad have proven will­ing to plunk down. It can’t be easy for small brew­ers, who know there is demand for the prod­uct from abroad, to decide on their prices for local dis­trib­u­tors and for exporters/importers. We should be thank­ful that many of them are not yet shame­less.

  4. A while ago I drew the con­clu­sion that gueuze, at least, is bound to come up in price. It’s very expen­sive to make (three years in cask), demand is increas­ing, and pro­duc­tion is not increas­ing. Prob­a­bly they could already sell every­thing they make at sub­stan­tial­ly high­er prices than they do now.

    I think Joe points to a key rea­son why this is not so: Bel­gian pro­duc­ers seem very keen on their local com­mu­ni­ty hav­ing access to their pro­duc­tion, which is admirable. Still, there’s noth­ing to stop them from mak­ing for­eign­ers pay through the nose, and even­tu­al­ly they will.

  5. Alan – we do acknowl­edge that argu­ment in the post! It might be true across the board but there do seem to us to be quite a few craft brew­ers in the UK who aren’t exact­ly liv­ing the high life. It might be that the mon­ey they’re mak­ing is, for the moment, being rein­vest­ed in the brew­ery (every day some­one tweets a pic­ture of a new fer­men­tor being deliv­ered…) and that, in a year or two, when they achieve ‘steady state’, they’ll either drop their prices (ha!) or start strut­ting about with dia­mond-topped canes.

    Is every­one think­ing of this piece by Tan­dle­man and the ensu­ing com­ments from those in the know?

  6. I would be sur­prised to learn that the major­i­ty of the per­cent­age of addi­tion­al markup end­ed up in the brew­er’s pock­et. I used to import to N. Am from Europe and weight was a real issue in trans­port costs. Mov­ing the unnec­es­sar­i­ly elab­o­rate caged top bot­tles would be in there for sure but, real­ly, it’s the mid­dle men who bleed us. Does the bar have a markup by per­cent­age? Big­ger mark up on high end beers. How does the importer get paid? Importers need air­plane mon­ey, too. Plus, there is that real­i­ty that snobs need to pay more so, in a sense, we suf­fer from the deci­sions of our own kin.

  7. Is every­one think­ing of this piece by Tan­dle­man and the ensu­ing com­ments from those in the know?”

    Prob­a­bly not. But it is a case of dif­fer­ence, but these beers can com­mand a high­ish whole­sale price.

  8. I wish I could sell Dupont for $3.60! Here it retails for almost twice that. Like I tweet­ed here Ger­man beer is seri­ous­ly cheap, Bel­gians about what you would expect. The answer invari­bly has to do with econ­o­mys of scale and how the source nation tax­es and sup­ports its brew­eries.

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