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Monday, February 18, 2013

What's Time Cost?

Again, my busy-ness prevents proper blogging (although this may actually turn out to be an above-par week, so stay tuned), but I pick up a meme in the air.  Max discusses the issue from the cost side:
The beer in question has been aged 4 years in whisky casks. Though 4 years wouldn't have raised any eyebrows in the past, nowadays it is something very much out of the ordinary (with the probable exception of some Lambics), and this alone is enough to this beer quite interesting, at least on paper. Shame about the price, though; roughly, the equivalent of 750CZK for a 330ml bottle. Pfff!
It caught my eye because yesterday I was sitting in Beermongers and the very same idea came up.  Someone noted that a large bottle of Rodenbach (750 ml) went for nine bucks. This is a beer for which 2/3s of the bottle is aged two years in wooden vats before it's shipped across an ocean and a continent.  But domestic beer--some of it not even aged!--routinely goes for $12 now.  And the approach to $20 is not far in the future.  Which takes us to this story (hat tip to a regular reader):
Boulder police have arrested a former Avery Brewing Company employee suspected of stealing more than $15,000 in rare beers.  
Police recovered more than 570 bottles of beer at Dickinson's Fort Collins home, with some of the bottles estimated to be worth anywhere from $200 to $300 a bottle.
Okay first of all: $300?   I'd give you $300 for an original bottle of Pilsner Urquell or, say, one filled with Apple stock certificates, but beyond that, someone's paying at least 10x too much for a beer.  (Fermentedly Challenged has more on beer theft if it's a topic you wish to pursue.)  

I will add this, though.  Let's say a barrel of beer is worth $100 to a brewery.  Of that barrel, let's say the ingredients cost an average of $10.  (These are fake figures.)  Now, let's say it takes the brewery three weeks to get the barrel from the grain mill to the bottle--that's the standard economics of a bottle of ale.  A second barrel of beer costs the same amount to make, but it's barrel-aged.  It spends an additional 18 months ripening in the brewery.  How much is that time worth?  This is one element I think people sometimes fail to include in their cost-calculators.  Because in the time it takes to get that 18-month-old beer to market, the brewery will have been able to use the same equipment to put 26 barrels of regular ale to market.  The wood, the tank space, the refrigerant--all those things add money to a bottle of aged beer.

What's it worth?  Whatever the customer will pay.  What's it cost?  Probably more than the average drinker guesses.


  1. which neatly explains why lager is more expensive than ale to make - it ties up capital far longer. Yet the drinking public expect lager to be as cheap as chips.

  2. 'round here [Boulder, Colo.] several very fine craft pilsner [~04] cost the same as fine, mellow IPAs.

    And, pilsner suffer the risky property of little flavor [albeit, wonderful flavor] for mistakes to hide behind.

    Explains to me why craft pilsners are under represented.

  3. Although it's common to hold up Rodenbach as an example of " is over-priced", it probably highlights another aspect of the economics of making beer, which is startup costs. Rodenbach was founded by a wealthy family, many years ago. Presumably they have long since stopped paying rent / mortgage / loans on the land, buildings and equipment (if they ever did).

  4. Kevin, I disagree. While it's true that Rodenbach has had two centuries to build out their 33 cellars (think of the start-up cost of that), they also compete directly with every other brand in Belgium. Belgian consumers don't make particular allowances for special production methods, so they put Stella, Rodenbach, and Grimbergen in the same bucket. So here's Rodenbach competing with a barrel-aged beer against companies able to turn out far cheaper beers in far less time.

    If Belgian drinkers give any special dispensation to any breweries, it's the monastics--but even there, the beers are cheaper to produce than at Rodenbach.

  5. But isn't it odd that brewing investment is never subject to normal capital depreciation or even reuse? All too often I read of the input costs of casks but all costs being allocated in the first brewing. Brewing, the first manufacturing process to truly master economies of scale, now seems to like to hide the fact.

    PS: that Rodenbach only costs nine bucks for 750 ml (eight bucks if you subtract the bottle and corking) I would think actually proves the point that the US pricing of barrel aged beers are out of whack.

    PPS: I spent 17 bucks on a bottle of beer this weekend.

  6. Rodenbach has amortized the cost of their foeders over 200 years, so it's not so bad, but increasing capacity would be a bear.

  7. Time does cost money, but I seriously doubt that this additional cost is as high as the price difference you often see between BA and non-BA beers.

    Anyway, it is all academical. It's not something that I, the consumer, should care about. In my post I don't complain about the price of that beer. I only say that for the money that beer costs, I can buy many more, very good beers, getting in return, more value that what only one can give me.

  8. Brewers take a big risk putting beer away for months. Oxidation can take it's toll and can ruin a beer if not cared for properly. The combination of risk, storage space and containment has to be weighed. Properly aged beer done by the brewer holds value.

    Then on the other hand, I don't want to pay full price for a bottle that's been sitting on a liquor store shelf for a couple of years. Over time, liquor stores ought to lower prices or remove bottles of beer that have been sitting too long. I often find old bottles at local liquor stores for beers that shouldn't have been aged and yet they still charge full price for it. Buyer beware.

  9. The key with Rodenbach is economies of scale. They have a few hundred giant fouders, each holding hundreds if not thousands of barrels. While it's taken them a while to get to this point they now could have a few hundred barrels of beer coming of age for the Grand Cru every week. Given that it's not a beer people drink by the 6-pack I'd guess they have to keep prices that low to keep it moving.
    American brewers, especially local NW ones, who produce barrel aged beers generally don't have the advantages of that kind of scale. The extra labor of moving beer in and out of barrels, combined with the fact that the beers that go into barrels are generally more expensive (high gravity barelywines and stouts, fruit beers, souring cultures) justify higher prices. I don't think it's a capital use situation though, because for those long months the only capital tied up is probably a barrel and a little floor space.