A bit over a year ago I tried to sound a rallying call to Beijing drinkers to dig in their heels and start refusing to pay more for drinks here than they would back home. Alas, lone voice in the wilderness, and all that; nobody reads this blog any more.
I identified 30rmb as my key psychological threshold. I'll pay more than that occasionally, for a premium drink - but that is the point at which serious price resistance starts to kick in. I can't drink uninhibitedly at more than 30rmb per drink, there'll be a brake on my fun. And, because of that, I won't spend as freely and bar owners won't do as well out of me.
Now, clearly, the times, they have a-changed. Things have got a lot more expensive all around the world since my drinking heyday, not just here in Beijing. And there seem to be far more very affluent types around these days who do not think much of dropping 35 or 40, or even 45 or 50rmb on one drink. And, even if you're not rolling in money, it's easier to bear that level of expenditure if you're only a very moderate drinker rather than a volume boozer like me.
Even so, I think I represent a sizeable demographic. Most people are budget-conscious and price-sensitive to some extent. Most foreigners in Beijing are not particularly well-off. And I'm sure everyone - if they would just stop and think about it for a moment - must see how outrageous it is that bars here, with minimal overheads other than rent and stock (and with minimal service standards, to boot!), and with very low tax on alcoholic beverages, should be charging us more for our drinks than bars back home.
Maybe I'm in a particularly grumpy mood at the moment, and thus tending to bump up against the irritating this-is-TOO-MUCH threshold more often and more violently... even in places that I like.
Jeff Powell's Frost, for example, is a charmingly quirky little venture, and a very welcome refuelling stop on my way home from Sanlitun, but... he's stocking premium imported beers and spirits, and they're all in the 35rmb-and-UP range... which is just a little bit too much. Well, for a divey hole-in-the-wall that piggybacks off his Mrs' beauty salon, quite a lot too much. The 18rmb bottles of San Miguel are the only thing I can bring myself to drink there regularly.
Or The Little Easy, Chad Lager's attempt to convert the awful E-Log bar into a cosy, laowai-friendly, N'Awlins-themed drinking den... He's spearheading this makeover with a list of special cocktails served in carry-out plastic 'hurricane' glasses. Quirky, fun, and fairly strong, yes - but worth 60rmb?? I'm not so sure. I'm not sure that anything is worth 60rmb. I expect to be able to drink for an hour or more and start getting well wrecked for that kind of money; one of these cocktails is going to slip down the gullet in 10 minutes... and I'm not sure how much of a dent in the liver it will really make. (I think Chad told me they were supposed to contain 60ml of spirits each. I've seen 90ml reported elsewhere. Since the glasses can't hold much more than 250ml and are two-thirds filled with ice, it's scarcely possible that there's that much drink in them... and a lot of it is mixer. the couple of times I've seen one being made, the measures going in were well short of the brim.)
I have a similar problem with the draft beer at The Easy. There's a range of three craft-brewed ales from Slow Boat Brewing available, but they're 40rmb each... for a fairly small glass! They're interesting beers, but not that wonderful. They're not worth 40rmb a pop. I don't really think they're worth 30rmb, but I would pay that; 40rmb, NO.
Even my best beloved 12 Square Metres causes me pain on this. JK's parting shot before returning to his homeland last year was to bump up the price of the draft Kronenbourg to 40rmb for 500ml. In fact, he'd let me continue to have it at the old price of 35rmb, because he knew that was already 'beyond my limit'; but I didn't often take him up on the offer because I don't like to exploit favouritism - I feel I ought to pay the same price as everybody else. He was making money on it at 35rmb, and selling way more of it. Only tourists pay 40rmb. Moreover, although 35rmb is already beyond my psychological threshold, at least it's not too far over; and, if I've begun enjoying knocking back the Kronies at the 'happy hour' tariff of 25rmb, another 10rmb isn't too much of a step up. 15rmb is. I actually think there's more chance I'd occasionally drink the full-price Kronenbourg there if they increased the 'happy hour' price to 30rmb (I did suggest it to JK once!!); but a 60% price-hike puts an end to my evening at 8pm every night.
Just last weekend, I was going to head out to Hot Cat Club, my favourite of the newer rock venues in my neighbourhood. They're still struggling to put together a regular programme, or to advertise it if they do; but they're a friendly bunch, and the place is appealingly grungy - and CHEAP. And most shows there are free, as in the good old days. I thought Saturday's show had been advertised as being free; or, at any rate, it hadn't been advertised as having a cover charge. The imposition of a cover charge seemed to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was only 40rmb, but... when you're a very divey little club, and still struggling to make your mark on the music scene, and you've become known for not having cover charges, well, even 40rmb is seriously off-putting. Especially when there are still NO PUNTERS and NO MUSICIANS there at 10.30pm. At least they let me come in for one drink without paying the door, but I got the impression that the gig was likely to be completely spurned because of the unadvertised door fee.
The weekend before, Mongolian folk-rockers Hanggai had put together an impressive two-day lineup of Chinese and international 'folk' acts for a mini-festival at the Mako Live House club down in Shuangjing. Impressive... but not worth 200rmb a day. Come on, guys: we still don't pay that for one of the full-scale outdoor festivals that has a much greater range of music and other activities on offer. 100rmb, certainly; 150rmb, maybe; but 200?? No way! I heard a lot of people expressing excitement about many of the bands participating in the event, but then drawing in their breath in a suppressed 'Ouch!' at the mention of the door charge and regretfully deciding to give it a miss.
Here's the key dynamic, I think, for bar owners to consider. A typical punter like me is willing to spend about 300rmb a night. If it turns into A LONG NIGHT, and I'm really having fun, it might end up being a little bit more.
But if I get near to spending out my limit quickly because your drinks are so goddamned expensive, or because you have a door charge, I'm actually likely to SPEND LESS.
The profit is in the volume. Most people can't drink volume at 35rmb or 40rmb per drink.