Why is craft beer so expensive?

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 1/22/2014

Why craft beer costs more — and why some people pay it gladly.

From left: Local craft beers Fulton Lonely Blonde, Summit Pilsener and Steel Toe Provider.
Tom Wallace

Craft beer fandom can be a serious commitment. Never mind the hours spent surfing Beer Advocate’s message board or boning up on hop varieties. Being a diligent beer junkie ain’t cheap.

“It’s the season of expensive beers right now,” said beer lover Tab Averbeck last Saturday at a release party for Lift Bridge’s Silhouette. “So, everything out there is $17, $18, whether it be a four-pack, six-pack or a bomber right now — barleywines and stouts. You have to pick your poison.”

In addition to the barrel-aged Silhouette, this week saw specialty releases from Steel Toe, a second limited run of the pandemonium-causing Surly Darkness and the almost as fervor-stoking Bell’s Hopslam. Any gold-star beer geeks who went for the sweep likely would have spent nearly $70.

“It can definitely add up when you’re getting one bottle for $17,” said Averbeck, 29. “It’s sometimes hard to swallow. You’re paying for the quality, and I understand and respect that, but absolutely it’s a burden on the wallet.”

For New Brighton’s Lance Richards, who stopped by the Lift Bridge brewery to grab a bottle of the whiskey-kissed Russian imperial stout, it was largely the cost of craft beer that drove him into home-brewing. “It’s hard being a younger guy like me,” said the 28-year-old father of two. “I’ve got a young family. I love drinking great beer, but I can’t afford to spend $20 on a beer every time I want to go out and try something.”

These days it’s not uncommon for 750-ml bombers to command $10-$20 (though Sam Adams’ curve-throwing Utopias retails for a whopping $200). As Lift Bridge co-founder Dan Schwarz notes, beers with higher alcohol content require more raw ingredients, which factors into their cost. Silhouette, which fetched nearly $18 after taxes and fees for advance tickets guaranteeing a bottle, is particularly pricey to make. The Heaven Hill bourbon barrels it’s aged in run $110 to $125 a pop and can be used just once.

“Even if you pay $18 for a world-class beer, a world-class wine would cost you hundreds of dollars, if not $1,000-plus,” Schwarz said. “So, when you compare it to other spirits or wine, or other categories, really, barrel-aged beer is a great value.”

Relative bargain or no, the price tags on boutique beers affect the way some drinkers shop. Waconia’s Jason Gustafson did his homework on Hopslam before trekking to the Four Firkins on Monday to snag a pair of sixers at $17 each. “Just like buying electronics or anything, you’ve got to put the research in to make sure you’re going to like what you’re going to buy, because you’re going to sink some money into it,” he said, clutching his stash.

While the St. Louis Park beer mecca sold out of Hopslam in less than six hours, hopivores can sip the palate-smasher during a 6 p.m. tapping party Friday at Uptown Tavern.

When imbibing on a budget, many craft fans, including Plymouth’s Aaron Vanderwall, point to Summit as offering good beer at lower prices. Summit founder Mark Stutrud revels in such praise. Value, he said, has been an underlying philosophy since the trailblazing brewery’s early days. “One of the things that we were faced with when we came out of the chute and we were selling beer is that the Midwest is notoriously price-sensitive,” Stutrud said. “For us to be able to just compete in the marketplace we had to be pretty careful.”

In the age of beer blogs and colossal hype, big-ticket bottles are de rigueur. But are they always worth it?

“There are some small brewers, for example, who are charging big dollars for beer that may not be all that great, but they’re able to get away with it,” Stutrud said. “There’s a certain cachet of scarcity and rareness that people try to project when they’re pricing some of their beers.”

While Mary DuCharme and Nick Johannes don’t have a Trumpian bank account, the St. Louis Park couple have no qualms about splurging on beer. The spouses cleared out the Four Firkins’ last few bottles of Hopslam on Monday, also picking up Steel Toe’s hops-heavy Size 11. “This is an $11 bottle,” DuCharme said, holding up the Size 11, “which is a lot for a beer. But it still is only $11. It seems like even the stuff that’s a little more expensive is usually worth it into your budget as a luxury item.”