Friday, November 06, 2009

The Beer Spread Index

I offer this further little appendix to last week's introduction to the Beer Equivalence Index, which endeavours to provide a useful guide to the comparative cost of living in different countries by calculating the price of everything in terms of how much that would buy you of the cheapest available beer.

You can also, I suggest, draw some interesting inferences about a country's state of socio-economic development by charting the difference between the highest and lowest prices charged for a beer, the Beer Spread Index - a kind of corollary of the better known Gini coefficient.

As I described in last week's addendum on Beer Equivalence, when I first came to Beijing seven years ago, a big bottle (700ml, sometimes a little more) of the local Yanjing brew could be got for a little over 1 rmb (if you were getting your deposit back on the bottle afterwards); less than 1 rmb if you were able to buy wholesale; but generally for 2 rmb from mom & pop stores and grotty kerbside restaurants. That base price has now sneaked up to 3 rmb, but that's still agreeably inexpensive.

In those far-off 'good old days', there were a few places where you could get the cursed Tsingtao (usually the only budget beer on offer in most bars, and not usually very nice) for a mere 5 rmb, and quite a lot that only asked 10 rmb. Now, it's 15 rmb as a minimum almost everywhere. It's quite instructive, actually, to consider the Beer Spread of Tsingtao alone: it only costs 2.50 or 3 rmb in supermarkets, so presumably isn't much more than 1 or 1.50 rmb wholesale. It's usually 15 or 20 rmb in regular bars. In fancy-pants, up-themselves bars, it can be as much as 35 or 40 rmb. That's a heck of a broad range.

The spread gets even more dramatic if you include imported or 'premium' brews. Even bog-standard foreign lagers like Heineken or Corona usually cost at least 25 rmb for a 330ml bottle, and sometimes 30-40 rmb. More exotic beers like Hoegaarden or Sam Adams can cost even more. And then, if you want a decent foreign beer on draught, you're typically looking at more like 50 rmb or so (55 or 60 rmb, for the fiendishly expensive Guinness). I've never attempted to order a pint of draught at one of those very upmarket places like Lan or Ruby Khi, but I imagine (if they deign to carry something as plebeian as draught beers at all) they might well be charging 70 or 80 rmb or more for that kind of thing. The preposterous German theme pub, Drei Kronen 1308, charges, I think, nearly 70 rmb for a glass of its home-brewed beer.

Local draught beer, on the other hand, is rarely more than 20 rmb for a pint even in foreigner-oriented bars, and can often be got for 10 rmb or even 5 rmb in restaurants (I believe it's currently 8 rmb per pint in alcoholic-friendly Russian joint, Traktirr Pushkin). In fact, there have been a few places in the past that gave the stuff away free - but I'm afraid we have to ignore such instances of unihibited largesse in calculating our Beer Spread.

No, our range seems to be 3 rmb (big bottle of Yanjing in a standard Chinese restaurant) to 70-80 rmb + (posh beer in an upscale bar/nightclub) - giving a BSI of at least 25.

This is indicative of massive inequalities of income distribution, and one fears that the social fabric of the country may start to tear itself apart....

[If anyone's organising a pitchfork-toting mob to besiege Lan - or Drei Kronen, or Paddy O'Shea's - to demand more affordable beer, you can put my name down.]

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