What's a Label Worth?

When's a dollar not worth a buck?  When everyone begins to doubt it.  Money, in its most basic sense, is a collective agreement about value: we exchange it for hard goods because it stands for something with real, external value.  This is why, on the assumption that the zombie apocalypse is nigh, goldbugs hoard shiny metal (even though the value of that shiny metal is as provisional as the value of a Ben Franklin).

How does this relate to beer?  In a very direct and possibly unsettling way.  First, let me quote from John Foyston's great article about the 20th anniversary of Hair of the Dog.  He cites an anecdote:
Owner/brewer Alan Sprints recently put a dozen 12.7-ounce bottles of Dave, a 19-year-old Barleywine of nearly 30 percent alcohol, up for sale. The price? $1,500 a bottle if you drank it at the tasting room, $2,000 to go. Needless to say, he expected to have them available for a little while, but they all sold in five hours. 
The value placed on that liquid--$118 an ounce--was not purely intrinsic.  There was some combination of extrinsic factors that convinced people to pay such an extreme amount (call it liquid gold).  What they are is not so clear, but when you strip the liquid of them, the value would drop precipitously.  The artist-provocateur Banksy recently demonstrated this phenomenon with his original works:

In case you skip the video, this is the upshot: sold on the street, without the Banksy name attached to them, original works went for 1/500th their actual value. 

I doubt anyone's unfamiliar with the phenomenon, but the Banksy stunt made me stop and think.  At the moment, beer drinkers have set a valuation of "craft" beer that has in many cases been inflated by extrinsic factors.  (It explains why the Brewers Association is keen to popularize their fixed meaning of the term.)  It's not true for every beer in the grocery store, but when you start looking at bombers and special releases, you see that breweries are getting a lot more than the intrinsic value of the beverage--which is often no more than the value of the regular sixer of craft beer.  Like a Banksy canvas, that label means a whole lot to the consumer.

Why is this unsettling?  Because some beer has far higher intrinsic value.  It dawned on me when I stood in one of the 33 vast cellars underneath the Rodenbach brewery. In those gigantic foeders sat ale, aging for two years.  Every bottle of regular Rodenbach had 25% of the two-year-old stuff, and the Grand Cru is made up largely of it.  Yet to Belgians, it's just beer.  Rodenbach competes head-to-head with Stella Artois, a beer that can be made for a fraction of the cost. 

Beer made in small breweries is more expensive than mass market lagers.  Right now, the extrinsic value of "craft beer," small breweries can charge enough to make their business profitable.  If Budweiser makes an imperial stout, they won't be able to charge as much as Deschutes for it.  Right now.  But all that could change.  Beer sits on the borderline between a craft product and a commodity, and it seems like the market swings back and forth.  If people start thinking of even "craft beer" as a commodity and make purchasing decisions solely on price, small breweries will be screwed.