Skip the blather and check out The Beers in My Fridge, if you want a snapshot of what I’ve been drinking on some of my beer drinking days. If it isn’t good, the picture won’t go up. If you want to learn more, read on.
Yes! Packratting has paid off. I found the original letter that got me started with better-than-decent bottled beer. You’ll have to find the sub-page, Beers of Matt’s World, to read that letter. It’s worth your time, especially if you haven’t yet discovered craft beers. If this is you, I’d like to think this would make you the last person not to have discovered craft beers, because I was late, way late, to this game. Sadly, judging from the continued success of Budweiser, Coors, Michelob, and the like, there are millions who haven’t yet seen the light, possibly because they have been brainwashed by million dollar beer commercials. Yeah, averaged out, it costs the huge firms about a buck to con you into drinking their swill, which then siphons your discretionary beer income away from talented brewers and into the pockets of their shareholders and executives. I am not anti-business, but I am anti-deception and anti-stupidity. Wake up folks. Drink good beer, and drink local beer, if it’s good. Maybe things are trending in the right direction, with mass-market beer folks downsizing their staff – the question becomes, why? Is it because folks are getting wise to bottled whiz? (See the comments section of the previous linked ZH article.) Is it because the grains they use are polluted with glyphosate?
Prior to Matt’s letter arriving, tucked alongside twelve bottles of beer (two each of six exemplars), I drank a lot of what I’ll call tier-two beer (Moosehead; Lebatt’s; Yuengling). At least it was a step above shit-for-beer. In high school and college I swilled just enough SFB to know it was dreadful. If a case of beer costs as much as a half-decent six-pack, you know the stuff is abysmal, even if the ads are captivating: pretty women, pretty views. Stupendous beer isn’t made stupendous by lush promotional materials, it’s made stupendous by hairy unphotogenic men plastered with body art, and women, who may or may not be indistinguishable from those men. A brilliant graphics artist and a sound copy writer might be needed to get you to try THIS bottle of craft beer instead of that bottle, but the stuff inside, that’s made by normal, if irregular, folks, not models and celebrities.
Later, but before Matt’s letter arrived, I started homebrewing, and even though I worked from kits with malt syrups, not grains and a mash tun, I started drinking much better beer. Still, I was limited in terms of qualitatively distinct beer experiences because I didn’t brew often (why, when each batch makes so many bottles?). I was trending in the right direction, but was distracted from brewing when Matt – who has also brewed beer – alerted me to the craft beer revolution. Somehow, living in the sticks, I missed this.
If you’re already a drinker of good beer, then stop reading here and go find one of the beer lists, if only to read up on a beer you might not have sampled yet. No point in me preaching virtue to the virtuous. Unless, by chance, you’re interested in in the game I play to teach my kids something of comparative product values, a game which can also be applied by adults to beverages as divergent as cheap “beer” culled, in whole or in part, from corn as compared to the finest rye-laden IPAs. Culling isn’t a usual word for beer production, but I like that it refers to collecting – often removing, by harvesting – the weak elements of the herd or population and corn beers are weak, mass market, beers sold to the unwitting by mammoth corporations seeking to maximize their bottom line, not to offer a quality experience. If every moment of your life is precious, then don’t waste your drinking moments by spending them with insipid beer. And just because a mammoth maker eschews corn, it doesn’t mean they’re offering a quality product – check their ingredient sourcing and it’s probably doused with that roundly condemned weed killer.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the paparazzi, rather than chasing celebs, chased the folks at the top of the corporate food chains and photographed what they eat and drink? I doubt the scions of the great (great big, not great quality) U.S. beer families drink the swill they sell. They sell the swill so they can drink…what do they really drink, when they think no-one is watching? Do they drink organic wine, craft beer, fine spirits – or are they teetotalers, drug purveyors who never touch their own stash or any related to it? Ahhh, probably just purveyors who never touch their own stash, because they know it’s not worth touching. Like the makers of Spare Parts Animal Meat, they produce something legal to sell, but fundamentally insalubrious. Why would you give them your money?
Pause. Let’s play a game I play with my kids regularly. Call the game Banging Bucks. Sounds like a hunting video game put out by Cabela’s, or a fraction of a breathless paragraph screamed into your ear by a Drill Sergeant who was in the middle of cursing you out for hailing from a state that only bred deers and queers. Well, they did utter such words, outside the movies, before the mothers of america (lower case mothers, lowercase america) tamed military instruction to the point where, rumor has it, raw recruits – and military school plebes – now receive time-out cards to share with their square-jawed overlords on those rough mornings when they can’t run with the real dogs.
Anyway, in the game of Banging Bucks, the goal is to discern what sort of bang you get for your buck when buying a product. Roller blades, guitars, dance or running shoes, art supplies, food, etc. Or beer. Kids, at least my kids, for whom money (or household credits toward gear) was and is truly hard-earned, have an initial tendency to want to purchase crap because it looks like they’re getting a bargain. Sadly, as some adults realize, cheap crap isn’t typically just inexpensive.
Let’s play with guitars as a first example. Drake knew he wanted to learn how to play the guitar. He started with a used no-name electric from the local guitar mega-store, and he might have spent two hundred bucks. Yes, he learned to strum chords and he used this instrument to firm up his interest in playing the instrument (THE GUITAR, not this guitar in particular). Fine. Next he spent a fair pile of lawn mowing cash to buy a mid-level guitar, the import brand of a larger US firm. This is a passable guitar, but probably, in retrospect, six or seven hundred bucks down the drain that could have been put towards a tube amp and pedals, or some other project. Finally, realizing he was getting pretty good at playing, he worked a deal with me. The kid unpacked and cleaned a 50′ trailer load of bamboo for Peak Bamboo. In return, he earned a proper Les Paul Gibson. And after a year of playing, he rocks it like a star. After I had endured the initial two years of mind-numbing six-string practice, hour after endless hour, I can revel in hearing him play covers and original compositions. Now the family dreads my four-string practice sessions. It’s not a quiet house most evenings, especially when Drake is in town.
Drake couldn’t believe how much better the Gibson played than his mid-level guitar – shockingly better. Sure, he had become an accomplished player over the past three years or so of obsessive strumming, picking, and plucking, but that instrument propelled him from so-so to so-pro. How? I think it’s two-fold. There is the notion that you have to earn an instrument, be that a nice guitar or a nice flyrod. You have to get your skills “up” to match the potential of the tool. Good tools which can be used better than you can use them demand that you improve – and that built in drive is a good reason for buying top shelf tools. But there are also real quality differences between a six hundred dollar instrument and three or four thousand dollar instrument; better instruments, better tools, simply perform better because they’re made from better materials, to better designs, by more talented makers. Here’s where Banging Bucks comes in to play.
Let’s Bang the Buck on a six hundred dollar guitar. Take the price of the instrument at retail, trim the fat, and find the average, actual, selling price based on the offerings of several vendors. That’s probably 20%-40% below MSRP with ‘mass’ produced items and 5%-25% below MSRP for nominally custom or small-batch produced items. You know the retailer is making a profit, or they wouldn’t sell the damn thing. Take 30%-50% off the average selling price, and that’s what the distributor is charging the retailer; the retailer might take less of a percentage during sales, but if they’re not making money, they’re going out of business. That distributor of mass produced items needs to make 10%-20% (or more) for handling the item so knock that off. Now you’re down, roughly, to the manufacturer’s selling price. In the case of fishing tackle, the manufacturer must pay a 10% Federal Excise Tax on the wholesale price of the goods (this is the Federal 720 Excise Tax that you’ve probably never heard of, which is hidden from consumers, but still paid by them)…but I don’t think that’s the case with guitar makers. However, if they’re importing the guitar from overseas, as with the brand I’m referring to here, but not naming, you can bet they’re paying an import duty, and shipping expenses.
Once you’ve got the manufacturer’s selling price figured out, and further reduced that by any taxes or shipping expenses, you have something like a gross wholesale figure. From this, you have to subtract the actual business expenses to include raw materials (wood, etc.) and manufactured parts (electronics), labor, overhead, taxes built into their supply chain, and a dozen other things. You wind up realizing at least two things. First, after you pull out the manufacturer’s (or designer’s) profit and other expenses, there’s very little investment in quality supplies used to make the object. You also realize that a manufacturer, or designer, of the mid-range guitar, has very little financial incentive to even care about their output in terms of quality. When it’s cheaper to ship a replacement on a bum item than it is to fix the instrument, this isn’t a tool you want buy with hard-earned dollars. I’d be amazed if the brand owner of a six hundred dollar guitar earned sixty dollars on each sale; more likely they’re pleased if they actually put thirty bucks toward the bottom line – what a profit. What can you, the retail buyer, expect when the incentive you’re offering the producer nets out at a case of middling beer? Not much.
With the kids, I ask them, would you take the time and effort to make a guitar like this if all I was paying you was thirty bucks? “Heck no,” is the correct response. But, if you had the skills, would you make a guitar for a thousand bucks in your pocket after expenses? A thousand bucks gets a kid’s attention. Of course this whole game is vastly simplistic, I know that. I make, or design and have produced, products sold at wholesale and retail, so I know I’m turning a book of details into a few paragraphs, but the gist is sufficient to show a kid how little is actually invested in the crap they’re about to buy, or have already bought.
With the nice Gibson, you might be looking at a $4600.00 MSRP, an actual selling price of $3200.00, with the guitar store buying direct from the manufacturer, that gives the manufacturer a selling price of $1600-2600.00. And that leaves Gibson with an incentive to pay their workers well, to put some money toward the bottom line, and to take pride in their output. And guess what, a $4600.00 instrument, even a $3200.00 instrument, sings. It’s glorious by comparison. Same for a $4600.00 flyrod that is made by a top-notch custom maker; even if he’s selling through a local flyshop that is taking 40% off the top, he’s still making half-decent money.
At the end of your life, it’s better, far better, to own -and to have used well – a few exceptional tools and toys, than to own an unused stack of similar objects that don’t sing for you. In the realm of woodworking, the author and publisher Christopher Schwarz refers to the latter category, the functional mutes, as “tool shaped objects” and he contrasts these with tools, actual, functional tools, tools that feel good in the hand and accomplish their intended task perfectly (assuming there’s a skilled user manipulating the tool). To run further with Chris’s example, I’ve always assumed that it was his rant against the Craftsman coping saw of his youth, in his book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, that prompted the recent decision by the tool maven of Blue Spruce Toolworks, Dave Jeske, to offer his interpretation of this “same” tool, The Ultimate Coping Saw. Whether you’re coping with a saw or the challenge of a musical instrument, the quality of the object in your hands will dramatically alter your ability to use it as you strive to use it well. Poor tools limit you; great tools are limited by you. Great tools challenge you.
You can play Banging Bucks with any two comparable products and you’ll find that even, say, an $80.00 pair of rollerblades is probably being made overseas for ten dollars or less and what you’re getting for your bucks is a few bucks worth of uncomfortable, unbalanced crap, while the $180.00 pair of blades might be comfortable and might last for a decade of hard use (assuming you don’t grow out of the things). My kids are learning to work hard, earn and save money, and then invest that money wisely by purchasing fewer things, but good things, worthy things.
Now, back to beer. You should purchase worthy beer. Play Banging Bucks with $15.00/case swill and you realize that after the brewery gets their portion of the retail sale and pays for the aluminum cans, they can’t be spending much on quality ingredients, or world-class brewing talent. And you really don’t want to trace their water source, or you might puke. Filtered sewage water is still pretty shitty. Shift that equation over to a $15.00/sixer and you’re starting to drink really nice beer, beer that is rewarding for its brewer, and for you – that’s the win/win relationship between the craftsman and their patron.
And how on earth does a working class craftsman – working class anybody – afford spectacular craft beer? How do you become a patron of an art you don’t practice? Simple, in this case. Buy less volume, drink less volume – but drink it all well. On the advice of a local brew pub known for their hearty, high-alcohol offerings, you should drink a pint of cold water before, then between, every pint of beer you down. Let the water slake the better half of your thirst; let the beer slake your desire to enjoy a particularly well-crafted micro-brew, slowly, intently, and safely. Let the taste of great beers challenge your notion of the possible, stretch your horizons. You may never turn back once you’ve sailed over the cusp of this world and into your next.
In time, I’ll use this page, or a sub-page, to delve into beers I love, beers of my world.