A special breed of beer drinker happily pays top dollar for a rare brew, writes Willie Simpson.
Little did I realise when I was shelling out $35 for a bottle of local craft beer in a Melbourne bottle shop that I was doing so in the name of ''bromance''. The beer in question was a 750-millilitre bottle of Bridge Road Brewers' Saison Noir, a one-off anniversary brew from Beechworth, which I picked up along with a longneck of Belgian import Dupont Saison - a mere snip at $13 - to share with an old mate.
Bridge Road owner Ben Kraus says people often buy special beers, such as his Saison Noir or Brew 500, as a gift or for the so-called bromance factor. ''Blokes who are having a celebration or doing something special together,'' he says.
Which was exactly my motivation - to share a new beer experience with a close friend. But what about the premium price tag, especially compared with something that has travelled halfway around the world?
''One-off brews cost a lot more to produce in the way of ingredients, packaging, short print-run labels and distribution costs,'' Kraus says. ''We take a higher margin but they take a lot longer to sell.''
Kraus produces only 1000 bottles of single-batch brews, compared with 5000 bottles of Crown Ambassador, for instance, which retails for $90. ''We sell Saison Noir for $30 at our cellar door bar, which is cheaper than a bottle of white wine in most restaurants.''
Eden Gilbert, a beer buyer for Melbourne's Blackhearts and Sparrows specialty bottle shops - where I purchased my beers - says he's often surprised how well higher-priced, local craft beers sell.
''Some of our regular customers will buy two or three bottles of something special like Saison Noir,'' Gilbert says. ''One customer came in and bought six bottles of Moo Brew Imperial Stout [$30 for a 330-millilitre bottle].
''Obviously they are not your average customer but maybe one or two in every 150 customers … And we sat on six bottles of BrewDog [Sink the Bismark and Tactical Nuclear Penguin at $100-plus a 330-millilitre bottle] for around 18 months.''
Many imports are becoming more competitively priced, Gilbert says. ''Look at something like [Belgian import] Deus, which has come down massively in price from $60 to around $40.''
He says the same mark-up percentage is, in most instances, applied to all beers, based on the wholesale price, but other retailers might not share the philosophy.
''Retailers are a bit less greedy because times are tough,'' says the owner of Beer Importers and Distributors and the importer of Deus, Franck Berges. ''Whereas previously some retailers just doubled my wholesale price.
''Sales of Deus have gone through the roof. [Australian] sales have trebled in the last 18 months.''
Whether it's catering for the bromance factor or just a new breed of beer buyer, the seemingly two-speed pricing regime for imports and local specialty craft brands is a curious sideshow in the premium beer market.
DUPONT SAISON (6.5 per cent) Cloudy, watery-gold; tightly packed head of persistent foam. Aroma: fresh grain, spice and wine hints. Palate: fluffy and mouth-filling; coriander, allspice and grape notes in mid-palate; firm, slightly astringent finish with hints of dried lemon peel. Overall: complex and dryly refreshing, with a seductive drinkability; the global benchmark for the saison style. $13.
BRIDGE ROAD SAISON NOIR (6.5 per cent) Black with reddish highlights; blooming, dark-beige, mousse-like foam. Aroma: heady mix of espresso, wine-gum, treacle and stone fruit. Palate: dense mouth-feel and toasted marshmallow notes up front; mid-palate shows burnt toffee, black jelly bean, dark cocoa and blackcurrant notes; finishes dry and tart-edged. Overall: intriguing new-world style with roasty flavours ultimately overwhelming the saison characters. $35.