Beers vs. Your Bank Balance

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The price of a beer is something that has a tendency to deeply activate some people, so I thought I would start off the general witterings section of European Bar Guide by exploring this topic in further detail.

Generalisations can be hazardous, but they can be instructive, practical and at times entertaining too if you don’t take them too seriously. Therefore, please bear in mind although I will be generalising here this is for ease of reading and understanding rather than any attempt to claim people only fit into neat boxes.

In established mature beer cultures with a prominent working class (such as the United Kingdom and Czechia), the face value price of a beer is extremely important to many people. People with more disposable income, and more direct interest in drinking beer as a gourmet tastes food, rather than worrying about face value cost often overlook why this would matter so much, why it matters on a profound level and have a tendency to dismiss it quaint or obsessive.

No matter where you go, there will always be one character or other in a pub for whom the face value of beer is the be-all-and-end-all of the discussion. They tend to have a stock drink that for them does the job. Whether this is a normal English bitter or pale lager (as it so often is), they are creatures of habit for whom variance is price, rather than flavour. Once a certain flavour becomes familiar and tolerable that suffices. Therefore these people can be described as being located on the far end of the Price end of the spectrum.

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In English money, that’s 98p for a pint of Staropramen, £1.40 for an unfiltered Uneticky pivo and £1.49 for a large Pilsner Urquel. Oh and £1.60 for a Valasek dark lager. Happy days.

In Czechia, most pubs have a blackboard outside advertising the price of a beer, providing an almost daily reassurance the world is still spinning around at the same speed. This works in a similar way to petrol stations where a flicker of a digit can cause palpitations at the wheel of company cars up and down the UK. Generally, in the lower class establishment, the more prominently this is displayed, which shows an innate understanding of the customers they are trying to attract. I understand Czech establishments used to be graded in socialist times. A ‘Fourth grade’ place tended to be a pub or bar offering the cheapest food and drink. Even at the time of writing, such places offer a large beer for between 20-30 czk and pride themselves on serving pub grub for under 100czk a dish.

This is as much a marvel over there as it would be to tourists who read one of those middlebrow blogs claiming the era of the pound-a-pint is dead. It certainly isn’t in Czechia, even after Brexit. So many Czech establishments are very similar, simply homely places decorated with free table covers and bar mats handed out by the major breweries in return for stocking their beer. For the consumer this places even less emphasis on location and concentrates the mind purely on the bottom line. Willingness to part with more money is very narrow indeed. Many will go to the nearest homely place in walking distance that’s the lowest price. However, even in a dyed-in-the-wool beer nation such as Czechia, this is changing.

On the other end of the spectrum, focused intently on variety and quality are so-called ‘craft beer’ enthusiasts of all ages for whom flavour is just about all. These people may still have a vague threshold they will not cross but so long as that is not crossed they are happy to pay it to access what they believe is worth the extra cash. For swathes of the middle classes, choice, novelty, and perceived quality easily trumps worrying about 30 pence here or there. Likewise, for young people saddled with debt and no incentive to save, living for today matters more when the future is so uncertain and possibly bleak. Why would these people worry about an extra £20-£30 a month dropped on some great beer when saving that amount (at virtually 0% interest rate) comes nowhere near to addressing the deep seated problems concerning their student debt, their viability for a mortgage, or their pensions? Likewise, as with all young people, the tendency towards anything resembling non-conformity leads them into the arms of alternative trends, even when, like craft beer, you are just dealing with marketing heavy brand names like Beavertown, BrewDog, Pivovar Matuska. Also, just like other forms of adolescent and young adult conformity, there is an ironic tendency to do this as a collective. This combination of attitudes for people with disposable income unfortunately pushes the price up for the rest of us.

Somewhere in between all this you have different perhaps more rational subsets. There is the typical 90s lad who has got into drinking slightly more premium lagers and may be into the odd craft beer or two of late. They have a bit more money these days but still keep an eye on the spending. Then there is the real ale retiree who has plenty enough money to pay for their beer but still habitually takes time out of their day to bemoan the increase in price and may well sit in a branch of Wetherspoons drinking a pint of Ruddles County for £1.99 while having paid off and owning a house worth half a million pounds.

So – where do I fit in to all this?

In my city of Leeds, the explosion of bars seeking to unashamedly exploit the willingness of the young and the middle class to part with any amount of money they think they can get away with in order to access the right branded beers has created the most pronounced divides between drinking venues I can remember. It is striking how the different drinking crowds congregate with each other less and less as the years go by. This troubles me as I think such a trend is anathema to the point of pub going. It would be overly-sentimental to claim pubs of the past were all-in community pubs where people of all sorts sat together cheek-by-jowl. However, some such places existed and offered a form of classless equity when you walked through their doors, and in them an exchange of ideas and values that makes going out more fulfilling and indeed helps define the identity of a town or city.

As with lots of other aspects of modern life, too many bars now exist to capture certain niches, which passively (occasionally actively) discriminate against those people they aren’t interested in. They will not change, safe in the knowledge that their target audience funds them sufficiently to propser. This is a shame.

In the UK, Sam Smiths pubs, Wetherspoons and other chains, as well as some bargain basement places still offer discount drinking at prices you would be churlish to complain about and despite all having problems, they retain a laudible ability to bring different people together.

In more working class cities such as Sheffield, the survival of traditional pubs means the community of classes and the exchange of ideas and values still remains. In Leeds unfortunately I have seen this riven apart, most places catering for specific demographics or being so bland, corporate and poor value as to please no-one. You could share the same city centre with the same few people for decades and literally never see them in a pub you go to. Again, this is to the detriment of the community.

So my view is that pricing has a profound but barely acknowledged role in the cross-section of people who inhabit a particular pub. Extra-low pricing combined with poor choice tends to alienate people who are interested in a great range of drinks and pubs that go only for ‘lowest common denominator’ (or are forced to do so by their owners) tend to gather all of the most negative aspects of that together to make a fairly unpleasant place. Extra high pricing alienates the working class as well as being patently cynical and at times indefensible pricing (I have visited bars selling the same can of craft beer 50 metres across from each other, that probably fell off the back of the same lorry, that were £2.00 different in price, and been told in the more expensive venue this was due to export costs). They also jump on bandwagons (eg. food served on slates, industrial chic instead of comfortable seating) and fail to develop the most important thing of all – the genius loci of a pub.

In this maelstrom of new trends and old habits and corporate toss, any establishment that consciously wants to keep a fair price in spite of pressure is worthy of applause. Similarly, they must become imaginative and pro-active to maintain a living and make the place stick out beyond the mundane. This is within many people’s grasp to do, but sadly there are lots of obstacles and external pressures which drive such capable people away from the industry. In their stead we are forced to endure cynically prices city centre chain pubs and bars, almost absurdly cynical craft ale places whose role is to collectively cartel the price of their wares, and run-down dumps offering only the worst beers available, albeit for not much money. This is the divided class structure of the UK today, which is put into sharper focus by the commercial demands of brewing and inn-keeping.

In short, any bars charging what they think they can get away with, whilst not offering anything out of the ordinary can open up and get in a grave. I’m sure you’ve been to a few of these places yourself.

So, where do you fit in – baulk at paying over £3.00 for a real ale? Couldn’t give a toss if the latest Cloudwater DIPA is £4.75 a third?