Robin LeBlanc: Hey Jordan, I’ve been thinking.

Jordan St.John: That’s always the precursor to some calamity. 

R: That only happened the last ten times, but this is different. You know how we were talking last month about the best cheapest beer? Well, what if we go the other way ‘round?

J: The worst cheapest thing is very easy, but it’s possible that we’ll get sued. 

R: Yes, but I didn’t mean that. I meant more on the high quality beers that are both very good and very expensive. Beer is a luxury product after all and the past ten years has really leaned into that with rare releases that would have you double checking the price.

J: Oh. That’s very difficult. As you know, Robin, I write for a not insignificant portion of my living. This tends to mean that I’m an adult person who lives like a college undergrad. If I had two nickels to rub together, I’d be forced to melt them down for the scrap value. I’m cheep like the little birdie, I tells ya. 

R: I’m a writer too and believe me, the trials of this neo-feudalist society that emerged from the ashes of post-capitalism is not lost on me. Most of my money goes to feed the cat and the landlord. That said, we have been privy to some exclusive tastings in our time and have tried some exceptional beers that, had we the money, we’d consider well worth the price. 

So let’s start with a basic question. If money weren’t as much of an issue, how much would you be willing to pay for a beer?

J: It’s a hard question. Beer is like anything. Once you get above a certain quality level, you start to experience a really significant drop in return on investment. In some styles of beer, the best version in the world wouldn’t make you bat an eye. For some special occasion beers, people will spend a fortune. 

From my experience, I’d say that my cut off point sitting in a bar has probably been around thirty dollars for something in a bottle.

R: I think another factor to possibly consider is the level of hype surrounding an expensive beer. Is the beer expensive because it’s good or is it good because it’s expensive? It’s ultimately for the customer to decide and that can be a real game of chance. I sort of have experience on this level as I purchased both Sam Adams Utopias and Westvleteren XII. They were both good, don’t get me wrong, but not $70-$125 good. For me, anyway.

If I’m in a bar looking at bottles, the most I’ve ever really gone is similar to you, about $25. But in cases like that it’s usually a 750ml bottle, I’m at a place like Volo with friends, and I want to share something good.

J: Westvleteren XII is a fascinating example. At one point, the monks stopped making it themselves and subcontracted to St. Bernardus, who made the monastery’s beer up until 1992. Fundamentally, St. Bernardus Abt 12 is the same beer. It’s the same recipe, at any rate. It goes for $4.20 at the LCBO. The genuine article is about ten times as much on the menu at the Town Crier. Is it ten times better? It’s a little different. I’m not sure you could say it was better.

The X factor there is rarity, reputation, and I suspect there’s a certain amount of mysticism attributed to people in robes. 

R: As someone who accidentally became a cult leader in the early 2010s I can confirm that the robes add a fun sense of theatre to the thing. 

But okay, so let’s hone our focus a little bit. What about the local level? On one hand the price is going to rise a bit based on the rarity of the beer, the amount of time it took ageing to get the point of canning or bottling, and the ingredients that went into it, but a local brewery is still under some pressure to make the price accessible. We’ve seen some extreme examples of high prices of course, but an example that currently comes to mind is your Historical Helliwell Old Ale made by Muddy York. You had quite the conversation on what to charge for it, didn’t you?

J: Eventually we realised that even with a 14 month brewing process, a unique story spanning 190 years, and a high octane beverage, people wouldn’t feel comfortable with a ten dollar or above price point because it wasn’t in a bottle. We went with seven bucks in short cans. I didn’t really feel one way or another about it, but it was revealing about the extent to which people aren’t really paying for beer. Sometimes they’re paying for the trappings or the associations. 

Consider the passing last week of Armand Debelder from the iconic Brussels producer of lambic 3 Fonteinen. Now justifiably, he was a master of his craft and by all accounts a lovely man. You might want to celebrate his life with a bottle of one of their fine products. How do you put a price on that? Well, the answer is that the price point differs all over town. There are so many variables that go into valuation for a menu. Bar Hop has different price points for beer to go and table service. Birreria Volo has some of the rarer 750ml blends going for 150 bucks. A little high for me, although to the right punter, completely acceptable.  

R: You make a good point, though I should say that when I see a bottle on sale for upwards of $50 I tend to take a look at breweries who are doing things here where their beer has no business being as affordable as it is. The folks at Meuse come to mind on that front. Absolutely world class beer with their most expensive offering, a spontaneous co-ferment with Frontenac grapes, not even exceeding $11 a bottle. Most of their stuff is actually under $5.

And it’s stuff like that which makes me wonder if some of those more expensive beers are even worth the price. I understand that’s subjective and situations and context matter, but the question remains.

J: With inflation rearing its ugly head, I think the question of value will be an important one in the near future. When I see a price point like 150 dollars, my legitimate thought is “are you willing to trade a day’s wage for something you’re going to enjoy for thirty minutes?” Of course, some people earn a lot more than writers. Everything is worth what people are willing to pay, but if everything gets more expensive across the board, that equation may change dramatically. 

Don’t drink and drive. For one thing, you can’t afford the gas. 

R: I have a similar reaction when I see a large price like that on a beer, though I usually quote Barnard “Barney” Gumble in those situations; “This better be the best-tasting beer in the world.” It usually isn’t, but I get that it is for others.

Right, enough of the philosophical talk, let’s get down to the classic pub-style hypothetical. 

J: “Is she really going out with him?”

R: You’re hiding it behind a Joe Jackson reference, but I’m not talking about Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian with you again. Please drop it.

No, my question is that if you were either a millionaire or the owner of a bar said you could have whatever you wanted and that price was not an issue, what would you order?

J: Cantillon Gueuze and an order of jalapeno poppers. I think that the nearly vinous lactic acidity and horse blanket butyrate character would really make the pyrazine pop and cut through the fattiness of the creamy queso filling.

This is why no one ever asks me that. How about you?

R: Interestingly, mine is also a Cantillon beer and while I’ve been lucky to try some extremely good aged bottles when I was in Italy, I’d just like to be able to sit quietly with a bottle of Rosé de Gambrinus and a glass. Maybe eat a toasted bagel with cream or goat cheese, but that’s not mandatory.

J: Well that just about brings us to a close. Until next time, let’s leave the readers with sodastream wishes and instant ramen dreams.

R: You do that and I’ll order us another round.