The Thirsty Beagle: Thirsty Beagle commentary: Beer Outrage Edition No. 1

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Thirsty Beagle commentary: Beer Outrage Edition No. 1

There's a lot of anger and outrage in the beer world these days, across the country and right here in good ol' Oklahoma, as well.

In the event you don't know what's going on, let me get you up to speed. Let's start today with Oklahoma.

On Friday, Prairie announced its new beer society membership, Prairie Dawgs. For the price of $500 (plus tax) members will get 16 bottles of beer to be released over the course of six to eight member-only events each year. You also get special merchandise, access to special member-only events, first crack at renewing your membership next year and the option to purchase unclaimed bottles of special-release beers.

The beer membership is not a new concept. Breweries around the country have been doing it for years. Even in Oklahoma, Tulsa's American Solera launched its society last year.

But the price of Prairie's society is what set the Oklahoma beer world off -- in a big way.

Most society prices range anywhere from $200 to $350 a year, so Prairie's price tag brought on some sticker shock, with many people pointing out that the 16 beers (many are expected to be 12 oz. bottles) work out to a cost of about $31 each (of course, this doesn't factor in merchandise and special  member events and privileges).

Once people started doing that math, the general reaction in local beer circles broke down into three main categories:

1. Prairie is awesome and I can't wait to sign up
2. This may be a little expensive for me, I'm going to pass
3. How dare Prairie do this?! I've loved Prairie for years and now this is akin to being cracked over the skull with a magnum of Prairie beer and not even getting the chance to let any of the beer drip into my mouth as the glass shards slide down my face! Damn you Prairie!

OK, maybe a slight exaggeration on No. 3, but also not that far off, if you read any of the various Facebook comments.

What's not up for debate is that Prairie has been catching heat ever since its announcement, with people calling the company all sorts of unflattering names. I thought it would be fair to give Prairie President Zach Prichard a chance to respond, so I asked him if he had a message for people who say the $500 price tag is too steep.

"I can understand people thinking that $500 is too much," Prichard told me. "It is not an insignificant amount of money. As we thought about the idea of a membership club it became important to me that we achieved two objectives. First, we had to be able to create value for the members. We had to be sure that we could deliver our best beers ever and pair them up with a great experience.

"Secondly, it had to make financial sense for us. That was tougher. I knew going into it that many of these beers would be considerably more expensive for us to do. We had to charge for that. Even that part was still pretty straightforward. The really tricky factor was the idea of debt and crowd-sourcing and creating great beer.

"The structure of most beer clubs is taking people's money months ahead of the delivery and giving a discount on the actual product. This is just debt under a different guise. Debt as a concept is not inherently risky. Debt paired up with the expectations of some of the most fervent beer fans looks a lot different. I do not want to take on that debt. I want to create beers and a membership experience that is worth something more to our members. I hope that the beer community will value that.

"To those people that disagree with my approach, we are still going to make the same great beers. Bomb!, Standard, Paradise, Phantasmagoria, and others will still be in stores. Pirate Paradise and BA Christmas Bomb will still be available to everyone at the Krebs Brewery. We will be cranking out great beers in OKC soon. None of that is affected by Prairie Dawgs. I hope everyone finds a Prairie beer to love."

Most interesting to me is the idea of Prairie creating their "best beers ever." Can they make new/different beers that exceed the type of things they're doing now? Does this not put somewhat of a different spin on the value equation? After all, how do you know exactly what each bottle is worth when you don't yet know what will be in each bottle? And of course, Prairie has inherently guaranteed the beers will be valuable based on apparent exclusivity.

So maybe $500 will end up being a pretty good deal in the end, in spite of the fact it certainly is a lot of money to spend on beer?

Look, I totally get that some people have been all-in on Prairie since its founding and feel a certain emotional connection with the brand. I've enjoyed Prairie beers over the years -- I always think Bomb! is a go-to and I'm really fond of Prairie Weisse as well, among others. I've never been what you would describe as a fan-boy, so take my opinion with a grain of salt -- maybe I can't view this through the same lens as the hardcore fans out there.

That being said, I like to think the objective side of me relates with reaction No. 2 from above. I guess I just don't feel like any brewery, or company for that matter, is obligated to follow any particular business model, regardless of how emotionally invested I am in their business. They can charge what they want, and sell what product they want. I can decide if I want to pay what they're charging.

They run the risk of turning me off as a customer, yes, but in the end, the market will decide if this is a good tactic for Prairie.

And just maybe it serves as a good reminder that we (the beer community) have a tendency to become overly invested in enterprises which, in the end, are about business and profit and watching the bottom line.

Just one man's opinion. Stay tuned for next time as I take on another source of outrage -- Wicked Weed's sale to ABI.

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