Talk about liquid assets. At the new Big Board burger joint on H Street NE, you can watch beer prices rise and fall in real time on a large digital screen mounted to the wall. The more pints you buy of any particular brew, the farther its cost will drop. So you’re left standing there, frothy glass in hand, staring at the screen, kind of like a trader tracking equities at the New York Stock Exchange—only slightly less drunk.
That’s the idea, anyway.
On a recent visit, I was stoked to see that New Belgium Ranger IPA, a popular Colorado product that is relatively new to the District, was down 50 cents to $6.50 per pint. You know the saying: buy low. Bartender! Pour me a Ranger! It turns out the discount comes at a high cost. The keg is already kicked. Bummer.
My next two choices, Chocolate City Cornerstone Copper and Allagash White, have a similar story: The price had dropped until the keg ran dry. Double bummer. I hemmed and hawed, scouring the prices of somewhat less compelling libations. Yuengling for $4.50, Peroni at 75 cents off—no thanks. I finally settled for a Guinness. Price: $7. No discount.
“Isn’t that depressing?” grumbles the guy beside me at the bar. “I switched to whiskey.”
Modeling your bar after the running dogs of Wall Street might seem like a terrible business plan in the current cultural moment, with protesters occupying Zuccotti Park and ricocheting stock prices imperiling 401(k)s everywhere. But in D.C., evoking the glory days of the bubble seems apt. Around here, the cost of suds generally seems to go in one of two ways: high and higher.
I had just gotten back from a trip to Asheville, N.C., where craft beer is cheap, around $4 or less on draft at most places. That the rustic watering holes of a sleepy town in the Smoky Mountains charge less per pint than the finer establishments in the nation’s capital should come as little surprise.
But I’ve experienced similar sticker shock in San Francisco, where cost-of-living markers, including the average rent ($2,305) and average home price ($808,481), exceed even those of the pricey District. I nearly blew a bottle cap one night at a Haight Street bar called Toronado. One Flemish red ale, the Bockor Cuvee de Jacobins Rouge, was priced at $5. At D.C.’s Smoke & Barrel, the same beer costs $9.
Rare imports, of course, can be expensive anywhere. What’s most outrageous, though, is the difference in local beer prices. On my trip to San Francisco, many of the West Coast beers hovered around $4 or $5 a pint—and not just at the divey Toronado, either. Even the more upscale Monk’s Kettle offers local drafts for a Lincoln or less: Sierra Nevada Foam Pilsner for $5, Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild for $4.25.
Yet, in Washington, where drinkers can now sample D.C.-brewed beers for the first time in 50 years, even the local brews aren’t particularly cheap. DC Brau Public Ale costs $6 on draft at The Big Hunt. At Tonic in Mt. Pleasant, the price is $7. The local brewery’s second effort, DC Brau Corruption, runs $6.50 on draft at both Meridian Pint and ChurchKey. All this for a brew that doesn’t even have to cross the District line!
Ask craft-beer folks about prices and they tend to stress their product’s artisan quality. Of course you can find some cheaper swill, the logic goes. But it’ll be made with rice or corn instead of barley and other fine grains. A can of National Bohemian, for instance, will set you back just $3 at Smoke & Barrel—and a mere $2 at the Raven. To craft devotees, that’s like opting for a McDonald’s burger.
“You can buy a very cheap hamburger, one that’s full of flour, oatmeal, and soy protein, but it’s not a hamburger,” says Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog Brewing Company. “If you want a steak burger, you pay for a steak burger. They are two entirely different products. The former is produced to be as inexpensive as possible. It’s a commodity. It’s automated.”
And yet, sanctimony about quality will only take you so far. A pint of the popular Belgian-style ale Flying Dog Raging Bitch from Caruso’s Frederick, Md. brewery costs $7 at Meridian Pint. Go to Baltimore, pull up a stool at Magerk’s Pub, and you can slurp down a pint of the same superb suds for just $5.
Why is good beer so frickin’ expensive in this town? I gulped down the rest of my $7 Guinness and tried to find out.