Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Frustrating Quest

A short diversion in our quest to report on all of the commercially available Oktoberfests being produced here in Wisconsin. As mentioned in the first post on this topic, I wanted to compare the Oktobers of Wisconsin against the classics; the six major Munich breweries that have tents at the Oktoberfest (a quick reminder: Paulaner, Spaten, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, and Hofbrau). But, there's a catch (actually 2 catches) to finding these around town.

First, not all of the Munich breweries are available and of the ones that are available, not all of them have Oktoberfest styles available. Second, it is impossible to find single bottles of them at retail.

It turns out Augustiner isn't available anywhere. Which, in itself is not entirely true. I was cruising the aisles of the West Side Woodman's and found a set of sixes from Augustiner (though not the Oktober). The beer was in blank-labelled American-style beer bottles in "Augustiner" boxes, but the shelf-tag was handwritten. Now, go look here and here, look at the bottles and tell me what you think of that situation. Yeah. Seems a little shady to me, too. If I get a chance, I'll head over there and snap a photo so y'all can see for yourselves. Hofbrau (aka "Hoff Brau") has been spotted, but no Oktobers, ditto with Lowenbrau. I'm not really that surprised, these are definitely not huge international breweries. Lowenbrau's lager is fairly popular, but there isn't much diversity in availability. Ditto with Hofbrau, except that it's "popular" beers aren't nearly as popular as Lowenbrau's.

So, Augustiner, Hofbrau, and Lowenbrau Oktobers have not been spotted here in Madison. Hacker-Pschorr Oktober has been seen occasionally in the wild, including places like the Copp's in Fitchburg (sorry for the West Coast bias all you East-Siders). Spaten and Paulaner are all over the place; probably because they are both now owned by super-mega-worldwide conglomerate InBev.

Suffice to say, while this blog is popular, it's not popular enough that we're flush with beer around here. We buy our beer in the stores just like everyone else; and buying a six pack of every style of Oktoberfest is prohibitively expensive. I've been able to find (sometimes by subterfuge) some of the Wisconsin Oktobers as singles. But, the German Oktobers remain elusive as singles and we just can't shell out $7.99 a six for each of the beers. This is extraordinarily frustrating.

Why is retail afraid of singles? They can charge more for 6 singles than they can for a six pack. And one isn't really substitute for the other. For example, I'd love to buy a single of Capital's Autumnal Fire (an award winning dopplebock). But it's not really a beer I need six of (unless I want to cellar them). So, I won't buy any. But, if I could buy a single of that, a single of some others of a similar style, I might find one I like and actually want to buy six (or four). And, while, yes, I know that somewhere in town there is a single of Autumnal Fire floating around, the effort required to find it is fairly high - no store in town has a consistent singles policy.

More importantly for retailers there's no downside to selling singles. Retail can charge $2 for a single, but only $8 for a six (generally). If they sell six singles they can make $12, an increase of $4 per six ($16 per case). Ultimately, they would sell more beer. People, like me, might be curious enough to pay $2 for a single of a beer that they've never had even if they might be hesitant to purchase a whole six. It would promote high-margin craft and foreign beers and allow the less initiated to explore these beers for a more reasonable introductory price. Instead, the retailers just sell singles of beers no one wants or local year-long beers (e.g., spotted cow - who the hell buys a single spotted cow!?!?).

My best guess for the reason is a fear on the part of the retailers that if they allow singles of the seasonals or limited releases people would never buy sixes. There are two responses to this: 1) so what? and 2) that's not really true. In the first case, as it is, they are missing sales, the question is whether they are missing five sales; and really, in terms of raw dollars, the question is whether they are missing three sales (remember, you can sell four singles for the same price as one six). I would argue that they are missing sales from those who would be willing to try one, but don't want to risk (without knowledge) the price of six. As to the second point, while I don't have any actual, empirical knowledge, I suspect that people who want to buy sixes aren't going to forego the six to just buy one (or two or three - because remember anything four and above is, at minimum, a wash in terms of dollars). Moreover, those who would be disposed to buy a six and only purchase one are more likely to actually purchase seven - one, plus a six when they realize they like it and want to share with their friends, or cellar it, or just drink six themselves. And, if they don't like it, people are likely to be far less irritated and unsolicitous having shelled out only $2 than being out $8 and have five beers they don't like.

The one reason I have heard for the non-singles policy is that singles sections are difficult to maintain. But, I find this hard to believe. It can't take more than 30 minutes a day, if that. Moreover, this would be a viable argument if a store didn't have any singles. But, most of the beer retailers in Madison do have some singles; just not nearly as comprehensive a selection as one would hope.

So, the policy of limited single bottles is baffling to me. Both the retailers and the breweries (by failing to encourage distributors and retailers to promote singles) are missing a great opportunity to sell more beer. Hopefully they rectify this. Beer retailers in other cities have figured this out. If you go to Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc. you will see stores (and beer caves) that specialize in single bottles. The reason is because it makes money.

Nonetheless, that leaves us wanting to find Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner, and/or Spaten Oktobers in single servings somewhere around town. The first thought: a bar somehwere in this town will have these on tap. If you were looking for German beer on tap in Madison where is the first place you'd think of? Probably the first place I thought of: Essen Haus. Our review of the Essen Haus and the Spaten consumed therein is coming next week, so stay tuned!


  1. Singles of Autumnal Fire were available at Steve's on the west side late last week. It seems that some stores use singles as a way to get rid of stock that's gotta go. Ergo you see summer seasonals in mid-winter.

    I went to a liquor store in Lombard, IL last fall and they had shelves and shelves of singles. The Belgian and English ales were best represented but every variety of brew had at least as much space as Steve's gives in toto.

    Let me know how I can contribute to the MBR fund.

  2. Are there any plans to make spot on the site that is more reader-input based that we can post where we found certain singles? A sort of "I'm looking for..." and "I found it" type space.

    As you said, it is difficult to go around a beer circuit just to find one bottle of whatever. Especially, when I could just go to one place even if it is on the opposite side if town because I know it is there. Whaddya think?

  3. Star Liquor also had Autumnal singles last night.

  4. Hey at Star we have Hofbrau, Paulaner, and Spaten in singles as of today. (9/19).


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