Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

In the absence of infor­ma­tion, peo­ple tend to take a price of the unfa­mil­iar prod­uct as a sig­nal of its qual­i­ty, so high prices do not dimin­ish the quan­ti­ty demand­ed very much. When infor­ma­tion is pro­vid­ed, the sig­nalling con­tent of the price dimin­ish­es. As a result, demand becomes more elas­tic. In par­tic­u­lar, informed con­sumers see no rea­son to pay more for the new prod­uct giv­en that it has the same ingre­di­ents as the famil­iar one. The effect of the infor­ma­tion is thus to encour­age more peo­ple to switch from the sub­sti­tute prod­uct to the tar­get one at low prices, and vice ver­sa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an aca­d­e­m­ic paper (PDF) on the behav­iour of pur­chasers of med­ical prod­ucts in Zam­bia, but you’ll encounter ver­sions of this argu­ment every­where from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to arti­cles in the busi­ness press.

The con­clu­sion often drawn is that, per­haps counter-intu­itive­ly, if you price your prod­uct high­er than the com­pe­ti­tion, many con­sumers will assume yours is bet­ter and worth the extra mon­ey.

Con­verse­ly, if your prod­uct is too cheap, it might seem sus­pi­cious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twen­ty years ago, we were cer­tain­ly aware of the aura that sur­round­ed Pre­mi­um Lager, and Pete Brown has writ­ten mem­o­rably about the dam­age Stel­la Artois did to its brand by reduc­ing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more infor­ma­tion to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop vari­eties to brew­ing loca­tion. All or any of these might over­ride price in the deci­sion mak­ing process.

And, of course the actu­al rela­tion­ship between price and qual­i­ty in beer is com­plex: there are lots of bad expen­sive pints out there, and some real­ly good ones that are rel­a­tive­ly cheap.

Our sus­pi­cion is that price might be a proxy for qual­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions where none of the brands are famil­iar, and the only oth­er infor­ma­tion is price; or (as this paper sug­gests) where the choice is between broad­ly sim­i­lar prod­ucts under the same brand name: Carls­berg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find our­selves once again think­ing about the Drap­ers Arms, where not only is brand­ing held at arm’s length but also the price struc­ture is flat. As a result, we’ve prob­a­bly tried a greater vari­ety of beer there than any­where else, even allow­ing for the fact this is where we do most of our drink­ing by default.

The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble to answer yes to one ques­tion but not the oth­ers.

A dread­ful idiot who behaves appalling­ly can brew a great beer, and a won­der­ful local brew­ery owned by the loveli­est peo­ple on earth can pro­duce com­plete rub­bish.

That’s obvi­ous.

For some peo­ple, ethics, local­ness or inde­pen­dence are the only impor­tant fac­tors, and they can prob­a­bly live with a mediocre or even flawed prod­uct on that basis. (Per­haps their brains even trick them into gen­uine­ly enjoy­ing the beer more – a fea­ture, not a bug.)

But oth­ers will say, no, beer qual­i­ty is the only thing that mat­ters. (We try to be objec­tive like this, but we’re only human.)

Still oth­ers might make their deci­sions based on price, out of neces­si­ty, or through a prin­ci­pled belief that the mar­ket is the ulti­mate arbiter.

Where there might be a prob­lem is when peo­ple fail to express the dis­tinc­tion between those dif­fer­ent ideas of “good”, or per­haps even to under­stand it.

Brew­Dog, to quote a notable exam­ple, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drink­ing. But believ­ing that and say­ing it doesn’t mean we endorse their val­ues, or uncrit­i­cal­ly sup­port every­thing they do.

On the oth­er hand, we felt a lit­tle churl­ish the oth­er day when we couldn’t give Tynt Mead­ow, the new British Trap­pist beer, a whole­heart­ed rec­om­men­da­tion.

It is inter­est­ing.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leices­ter­shire we might even feel some­what proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the con­cept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at Brew­Dog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debat­ed end­less­ly over the years. Increas­ing­ly, we’re com­ing to the view that while it’s nev­er as sim­ple as that, there are cer­tain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re con­sumed near the brew­ery, where peo­ple know how they’re sup­posed to taste, and the quirks of keep­ing them; and where there’s a chance the brew­er might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We cer­tain­ly hope peo­ple can read these codes when we use them:

  • fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is per­son­al and emo­tion­al;
  • inter­est­ing’ is about nar­ra­tive, cul­ture and sig­nif­i­cance in the indus­try;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good val­ue’;
  • worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imag­ine oth­ers might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘com­plex’.

In prac­tice, of course, the ques­tion we’re most like­ly to ask is: “Which of this lim­it­ed selec­tion of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or per­haps, depress­ing­ly, “least bad”.)

A New Axis: Classic | Standard | New-Local

A pint of beer.

Where are we in the cycle? At the point where seeing Elland 1872 Porter, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Thornbridge Jaipur, Fyne Ales Jarl, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Bank Top Mild on offer in our local is tremendously exciting – that’s where.

Andy Hamil­ton, who writes about booze and for­ag­ing, and for­ag­ing for booze, is pro­mot­ing a book and con­vinced the Drap­ers Arms to hold a mini fes­ti­val fea­tur­ing some of the beers it men­tions.

The Drap­ers has a pret­ty seri­ous com­mit­ment to local beers, list­ing dis­tance trav­elled for each beer, and aver­age dis­tance for the entire list, on the menu black­board.

In fact, that’s a trend reflect­ed across Bris­tol: it’s not unusu­al to walk into a pub and find the whole beer list made up of beers from with­in the city bound­aries.

The beer list at the Drapers Arms.

That can be great – we’ve dis­cov­ered some impres­sive West Coun­try brew­eries this way, and it’s cer­tain­ly fuelling the Bris­tol brew­ery boom – but is also mild­ly frus­trat­ing.

Let’s con­sid­er Jaipur. It’s a beer that’s well into its sec­ond decade and has gained the sta­tus of a clas­sic. In bot­tles, it’s rea­son­ably easy to find in super­mar­kets. But how often do we get to drink it on cask? Twice, maybe three times a year? And that’s most­ly in Wether­spoon pubs.

Old Peculi­er is anoth­er beer we’ve encoun­tered on cask only a hand­ful of times in more than a decade of beer blog­ging, and which we’re hop­ing will still be on when we pop round to the Drap­ers after post­ing this. We felt a gen­uine thrill when we saw the A-board out­side the pub announc­ing its arrival last night.

All this has made us think that as well as our long­stand­ing wish for more pubs to make a point of hav­ing one of each colour (brown, yel­low, black) per­haps there ought to be anoth­er axis: big clas­sic + stan­dard + local/new.

We can imag­ine going into a pub with that kind of mix and start­ing on the clas­sic, try­ing the new­com­er, and then decid­ing where to stick for a third round depend­ing on how the first two tast­ed.

In the mean­time (this kind of thing is always fun) what’s your sug­ges­tion for a line-up which cov­ers brown/yellow/black and clas­sic/­s­tan­dard­/lo­cal-new?

Old Peculi­er, Lon­don Pride and Bris­tol Beer Fac­to­ry Nova would do us nice­ly, for exam­ple.

The Session #139: The Good Life

For this month’s edi­tion of the Ses­sion Bill Van­der­burgh at Craft Beer in San Diego asks us to think about ‘Beer and the Good Life’.

There’s no doubt in our minds that beer is one of the good things in our lives, and probably all the more so since it has settled into a quiet kind of obsession.

Back when we were eager fives it prob­a­bly did more harm than good.

We wast­ed a bit too much time chas­ing nov­el­ties and rar­i­ties, spend­ing entire days on hol­i­day hunt­ing obscure beers pure­ly because they were obscure beers. (But even this gave our wan­der­ing pur­pose and took us to inter­est­ing parts of strange towns.)

There were times when some­times online argu­ments about beer rolled and replayed in our heads when we want­ed to be asleep. (But those argu­ments informed two books and more than a decade of blog­ging so sil­ver lin­ings and all that.)

Hitchcock style poster: OBSESSION.

And we had some bad hang­overs which cut week­ends in half and ruined entire days.

These days, though, beer is a fun thing we enjoy togeth­er, and with fam­i­ly and friends. We’re both more fussy (we know what we like with ever greater pre­ci­sion) and less – the choice of beer is def­i­nite­ly now less impor­tant than peo­ple and pubs.

Stop­ping for a beer on the way home helps break the rou­tine, forces us to take a moment for our­selves between work and domes­tic busi­ness. There’s a sweet spot about halfway down drink num­ber one where we light­en and sigh.

Beer is con­ver­sa­tion – not only a loosen­er but in its own right a pleas­ing­ly unim­por­tant thing to have absorb­ing, point­less con­ver­sa­tions about.

It’s a hob­by, too, but these days one that is more about admir­ing pubs and read­ing than it is actu­al­ly drink­ing – a far cry from those decade-ago evenings spent pair­ing beer and cheese, or earnest­ly tast­ing bot­tles of Amer­i­can IPA.

If beer dis­ap­peared from our lives tomor­row, would we cope? Yes, prob­a­bly. Between knit­ting and archi­tec­ture and music and films and explor­ing we’d have plen­ty to occu­py our­selves, and tea ain’t so bad as drinks go either.

But we’d cer­tain­ly miss it and, if it’s all the same to you, we’re hap­pi­er with it in our lives.

Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Sat­ur­day, for logis­ti­cal rea­sons, we end­ed up in a gin-and-din­ing water­side pub a bit off our usu­al beat where we saw a remark­able queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cut­ting right across the main ser­vice area and towards the front door.

We Tweet­ed about it…

…not mean­ing to con­vey any par­tic­u­lar judge­ment, only that it was unusu­al. As is often the case, that kind of min­i­mal­ist open­ness elicit­ed an inter­est­ing range of respons­es.

It’s a sad reflec­tion of the lack of expe­ri­ence in “real” pubs by mil­len­ni­als. It’s not McDon­alds #FFS

Have peo­ple for­got­ten how bars work?!”

I think any­where with this auto­mat­i­cal­ly los­es their pub sta­tus.”

I ignore it and do what I’ve always done – go to the bar.”

I’m a big fan, saves hav­ing to con­cen­trate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

Excel­lent British­ness on dis­play. Makes you proud.”

I’d pre­fer queu­ing to hav­ing to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most effi­cient and fairest ser­vice of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every oth­er aspect of British life it is con­sid­ered prac­ti­cal­ly sacred.

But the pub… The pub is sup­posed to be a jum­ble. And when we say “sup­posed to be” we mean “is usu­al­ly por­trayed as”. Look at this famous paint­ing, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Hen­ry Hen­shall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tra­di­tion of glee­ful dis­or­der.

In response to our Tweet Ter­ry Hay­ward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this sub­ject which con­tains the fol­low­ing stir­ring sto­ry:

I decid­ed to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a com­ment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burg­ers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just want­ed a good pint of fine foam­ing ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen peo­ple queue like this in a pub before. They con­ced­ed it was unusu­al but used the Homer Simp­son defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

Ah”, said I, “but by stand­ing there you’re only mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each oth­er ner­vous­ly, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we start­ed to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being nat­u­ral­ly polite, we made sure we took oth­ers with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that cen­turies of tra­di­tion were not being thrown out of the win­dow.

But, again, check that nos­tal­gic instinct: what if, as one per­son hint­ed on Twit­ter,  queu­ing might make the pub more of a lev­el play­ing field for women? (It’s inter­est­ing that Mr Hayward’s sto­ry uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for any­one oth­er than large, con­fi­dent peo­ple with sharp elbows?

It’s per­haps no sur­prise that the cur­rent spate of pub queu­ing seems to have start­ed at branch­es of Wether­spoon which, for all its down-to-earth rep­u­ta­tion, is also often a step ahead when it comes to mak­ing pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed groups (and their spend­ing mon­ey) feel more wel­come.

On bal­ance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we vis­it­ed on Sat­ur­day. Places that aren’t in his­toric pub build­ings, with lit­tle his­to­ry about them, and where the num­ber of pun­ters great­ly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adher­ence to an ide­al wage-per­cent­age. In fact, it was pret­ty con­ve­nient, keep­ing things clip­ping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before mov­ing on to a Prop­er (queue­less) Pub.

But some­thing would cer­tain­ly be lost if queues start­ed appear­ing at, say, The Roy­al Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvi­ous queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to ser­vice. It’s just invis­i­ble, man­aged by staff and cus­tomers between them, through a sys­tem of eye con­tact, def­er­ence and polite mur­mur­ing.