The panelists: Emma Janzen, Imbibe’s digital content editor; Jason Kosmas, co-founder of the 86 Co.; Michael Graham, Austin Beerworks co-founder; and Tom Thornton, section editor at CultureMap
The gist: Now that craft beer and whiskey have become incredibly popular, many of them on the market today are getting expensive — and people are willing to buy them.
But paying top-dollar for these products, many of which aren’t worth their hefty price tag, is a trend that could ultimately hurt the industry. As the frenzy for small-batch brews and whiskey drives their prices up, they’re almost beyond affordability and, thus, accessibility for many an average drinker.
Even if you are willing to fork over more money for them than you devote toward your weekly grocery budget, you’re going to want the best possible bang for your buck, a tricky thing to find in a market being constantly inundated with new and exciting releases.
“Just because something is ‘craft’ doesn’t make it better,” Kosmas, whose company creates spirits designed for cocktails, said.
That’s especially true with the barriers to opening a brewery or a distillery much lower than they used to be. In beer, at least, Austin Beerworks’ Graham has noticed that people are founding breweries “without necessarily any experience,” he said. “I’d say quality has gone down over the past few years. There is some mediocre stuff at the local level.”
Then, there’s the phenomenon of “whales”: the rarest and most sought-after brews that many beer lovers will go to great lengths to acquire, including through the use of mules, or people they hire to help them get extra bottles. And even an everyman’s beverage like beer has a black market.
Whiskey is similar. Aficionados of the dark aged spirit are forever on the hunt for a bottle, any bottle, of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, which are hard to find and very expensive.
Don’t you worry, though. The panelists all had recommendations for other beers and whiskeys to try instead that are just as good but don’t put as big a dent in your wallet (see below).
The takeaway: The popularity of these beverages has one benefit, especially as new drinkers join the fold: Adventurous beers and whiskeys, like sours or rye, are on the rise.
That’s because the people drinking them have developed more sophisticated palates, and they’re willing to try off-the-wall, experimental releases, as Janzen — a former American-Statesman reporter — noted.
"Flavor preference is really shifting from sweeter and neutral to savory and more complex, something reflected in the whiskey boom," she said.
Whiskey isn’t the only spirit that she thinks will fly off the shelves thanks to consumers’ evolving tastes. “Rum is going to be a category we see a ton more of,” she said. “Aged rums are a natural progression from whiskey, and as a whole, it’s a very versatile spirit. Flavors within the category are huge and insane. It’s going to catch on once people recognize that.”
Right now, IPAs are probably the most beloved style of beer, and they’re only getting hotter.
“It’s weird; I wouldn’t have thought the IPA would be such a gateway style,” Graham said. “I would’ve expected blonde and golden ales to be instead, but then again, Budweiser is so light and the IPA is so different and has such a big flavor. It’s converted more beer drinkers than pale ales or pilsners.”
With any of these beverages, there are going to be steep rises in price for some and also far more affordable options. And if you decide to pay a little more for a bomber of barrel-aged brew or a 20-year-old Scotch, that’s OK.
“At the end of the day, it’s about finding what you like at a price point you’re comfortable with,” Janzen said.
Hops & Grain
Real Ale Brewing
Jester King Brewery
Four Roses Single Barrel
Evan Williams Bourbon
Old Overholt Rye
Wild Turkey 101
Hashtags: #sxsw #sxwisely
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