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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