But here, too, the scarcity can prove tempting to retailers, who might not think twice about racheting up their price guns.
Consider Hopslam, the heavily hyped winter release from Bell’s Brewery that has gone up as much as $20 per six-pack in the D.C. area over the past two years. According to Bell’s Mid-Atlantic sales rep Derek Zomonski, the average retail price of Hopslam throughout the local distribution area, including D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, was $19.99. But in D.C., most drinkers paid $24. One shop was reported to have been selling six-packs for $34, more than double the wholesale amount.
There’s been much speculation about why Hopslam is so pricey in D.C., and fingers have been pointed at nearly everyone involved
Some blame the brewery. The double India pale ale is packed with honey, malt, and hops, which makes it very expensive to make; it’s one of the highest priced beers in the Bell’s portfolio. The Michigan brewery sells the stuff for about $16 per six-pack at its in-house retail shop; it is illegal for the brewery to charge less than wholesale. Operator Larry Bells says he charges the same flat rate to every distributor regardless of state and that price hasn’t gone up since January 2009.
In Virginia and D.C., Bell’s beers are carried exclusively by Hop & Wine, a situation ripe for monopoly-style gouging. But sales rep Chris Turner denies any undue price inflation on his end. “Just because I’m the only one who can sell it, I’m not going to jack up the price,” he told me. “That’s just ethically wrong,”
Hop & Wine currently charges $60 per case for Hopslam, up from $43 before Bell’s raised its own prices in 2009. But that figure hasn’t budged since, Turner says.
Pricing gets creative at the retail level. Because Hopslam is such a wildly popular beer, shopkeepers are desperate to sell the stuff. Yet the limited supply means that not every retailer can get his hands on it. Bell’s produced more of the suds than usual this year, but it still wasn’t enough to meet demand.
Some retailers tried to squeeze as much money out of every bottle as possible—literally, every bottle. Usually, Hopslam comes in six-packs. D’Vines and De Vino’s offered individual bottles for $5 to $6 a pop—prices you’d normally see in a bar, not a carryout. The shopkeeper will tell you that selling individual bottles is a great benefit to the consumer, allowing more hopheads to get a taste of the rare brew. But the incentive to the retailer is also clear. At that rate, a six-pack would cost $30 or more.
“Our market is special,” says Hop & Wine sales rep Turner. “We have the federal government to thank for not being in economic decline. We are in an isolated little bubble.”
Maybe so. But every bubble eventually bursts. And consumers can apply the needle.
It’s outrageous to have to pay more per pint than suds-sippers in super-pricey San Francisco. No matter what the excuse—the kegs are too damn heavy, the rent is too damn high—there’s no justification for the significant price discrepancy between such comparably expensive and sophisticated cities.
Beer lovers like me, who are usually okay with paying a little more for the good stuff, share some of the blame. Prices will continue to rise as long as we keep handing over the cash.
Here’s one way to protest expensive beer prices: Fill up some growlers. Think of it as having five draft beers per half-gallon jug at $2 a pop—not the $6 per pint you pay at the bar. DC Brau offers filling hours every Saturday afternoon. Chocolate City and 3 Stars are expected to follow suit.
In the meantime, brewers say, prices are likely to get worse—in Washington and everywhere else. “We are likely to have the lowest barley harvest since 1881,” says Flying Dog’s Caruso. “This global grain crisis is going to affect every single craft brewer because there is going to be a shortage and the price is going to go up significantly. Barley is being harvested now. We are all on pins and needles.”