Belgium Generalisations about beer culture

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 replies on “How Can Belgian Beer be so Cheap?”

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.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

“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.

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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