Beer and behavioral economics at Nats Park

When an exhibition game at Nationals Park this spring revealed that beer prices there this season would hit $16, the sports commentariat went entirely and understandably crazy. Sixteen bucks?! That’s absurd.

Nats Park beerOr as a Yahoo Sports headline put it, “The Nationals’ new beer prices could pay for Bryce Harper’s contract themselves.”

But Mark Townsend’s post and others also noted that these higher prices were for 25-ounce servings. Paying either $15 or $16 for the equivalent of two quality beers doesn’t seem so bad.

And with the price of a pint at Nats Park having escalated from $10.50 or $10.75 to $12–the less-obvious land grab in this year’s changes to ballpark eating and drinking–spending $15 or $16 for a 24-ounce pour or a 25-ounce can becomes the only defensible option if you don’t want to feel quite so abused by your transaction.

Also less obvious: After you’ve had one of these economy-sized servings, buying another seems much less defensible than getting a second round might have appeared last year. Even with the Nats’ angst-inducing performance this summer, do you really want to down the equivalent of two-thirds of a six-pack at a game? The marginal utility just isn’t the same, not if you want to pay attention to the proceedings on the field.

And that’s how the Nats have gotten me to spend and drink less at the yard this year–not simply by charging more, but by exceeding the 25- to 50-cent annual price increase they’d conditioned me to expect, then giving me an option that only requires accepting the risk of beer getting warm in the sun.

Still free after this year’s round of ballpark price hikes: real-world lessons in behavioral economics.

Homebrewing economics

Wednesday night, I observed Repeal Day by opening the first bottle of a batch of homebrewed beer–the fifth I’ve done since getting into this hobby last year.

HomebrewWhat I didn’t realize until doing the math today, however, was that the almost five gallons of lightly hopped winter ale now  sitting in bottles in my basement also represent a break-even point. My expenses on homebrewing equipment and supplies now about equal what I would have spent to buy the same volume of beer at a store.

I didn’t quite think that would be possible, but the numbers line up. I’ve spent a total of $273.91 at the local homebew shop (called, surprisingly enough, My Local Home Brew Shop), for an average cost of $54.78 for each five-gallon batch. Each yielded about 50 bottles’ worth, or just over two cases.

(Five gallons actually equals just over 53 12-ounce bottles, but I usually pour a little more than 12 ounces into each bottle. Plus, you can’t get everything out of the bottom of a fermenting or bottling bucket–and if you’ve ever seen what collects there, you’ll know why you shouldn’t try.)

My retail alternative, as a beer snob, would be picking up cases of a good, reasonably hoppy ale. You do pay for quality; the cheapest options I could find in a little searching online today were Redhook IPA at $25.99 a case and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for $28.99. The former might be barely cheaper than my homebrew habit (were I repetitive enough to stick with the same beer over a year and change), the latter more expensive.

Homebrewing hardwareAnd from here on out, I could be in the black: The recipe kits I buy–with the grains, malt extracts, hops, yeast, priming sugar and bottle caps all in one box–average around $40. The equation could change if I start buying ingredients separately, something I’ve been thinking of doing. (The White House’s honey ale recipe is apparently pretty good.)

It’s true that I had the advantage of getting three necessary pieces of hardware for free: A five-gallon pot came from my brother as a gift, a friend who had given up homebrewing gave me a fermenting bucket, and I’ve been borrowing a capper from a homebrewing neighbor down the street. And the candy thermometer we got years ago suffices to check the temperature of the wort during the stovetop stage of homebrewing.

But I also probably could have saved money buying the equipment online instead of in a store. (Beyond those three items, you need a long paddle to stir the wort while it’s boiling on the stovetop, an airlock to let carbon dioxide escape from the fermenting bucket, a bottling bucket with a spout to pour the beer into bottles, a siphon to transfer the beer from the fermenting bucket to the bottling bucket, and a test jar and hydrometer to measure the specific gravity before and after fermenting, without which you can’t get an alcohol by volume estimate.)

Sure, if you want to factor in the time homebrewing can take up–about four hours on brewing day, then an hour and change on bottling day–the math might not look so positive. It’s also possible that I’m more likely to pop open a bottle of beer when I’ve got the equivalent of two cases downstairs, much as buying skis and boots eliminates the cost of rentals but then costs you money by leading you to ski more often.

But there’s also this intangible: the look of pleased surprise on friends’ faces when you hand them an unlabeled bottle of beer and they realize who made it.