How “good” is a bottle of mead, and how much should it cost? The relationship between consumer perception, product quality and commercial value in the beverage alcohol market is complex, mystifying, and continuously evolving. How the global consumer accords real worth to the drinks we consume is worth exploring.
The core question in the entire spectrum of beverage alcohol is this: which characteristics of a beverage differentiate itself from others in terms of worth? An alternate way to view this situation is: which differentiations actually create quality and confer value?
There are many starting points. Consistency is important, but consistency on its own only maintains value. It does not improve it. There are countless examples of products which are delivered with precise consistency which are not accorded high price (worth), nor do they deserve it. Fast food hamburgers are remarkably consistent, but they do not approach a great Peidmontese beef burger cooked to perfection and served on a bakery-fresh onion roll or pretzel bun, much less a world-class steak. It is important to not conflate repeatability with excellence.
Scarcity is also a factor which is frequently conflated with quality. While high quality beverages may in fact be scarce, scarcity is not an indicator of overall quality. The exploitation of this misperception is common in the beverage alcohol world, and a great deal of money has been made in wine, beer, mead and distilled beverages by manufacturers, distributors and retailers capitalizing on FOMO: fear of missing out.
On the other hand, there are many extremely high-quality makers whose process, geographic location, ingredient availability, and production capacity constrict their output dramatically. Many distillers use production systems whose capacity can only yield a defined amount. Wine makers are limited by the geography of small vineyards (and their necessary exposures), as well as annual weather. Hand harvesting limits vintners who will not use machines. Mead makers utilize rare fruits, or honeys with miniscule global production resulting from nectar source limitations and weather. Many beekeeping and honey harvesting practices are not automated at all, which decisively limits scale.
Overall beverage quality is always dependent on ingredient quality. The finest beers will be made with specific malts and hops grown under ideal conditions; great wines will be made from specific grapes grown with fastidious attention under ideal specific conditions, and harvested at precisely the right moment. Quality meads are made with spectacular honey, fruits and spices. Distilled beverages are not exempt from the reality of this situation.
In the world of beekeeping, there are different beekeeping practices which yield unique types of honey. The simplest is stationary hives, which will yield a honey based on a geographic location, and the blend of nectars which are present from the time that bees begin storing and capping honey through the conclusion of the foraging season. These honeys will always vary from year to year, based on factors like temperature, precipitation, forage blossom variations, and the practices of the beekeeper.
Then there is migratory beekeeping, in which beekeepers move their hives to various crops or nectar sources. This can be for fees paid by crop growers who need pollination (tree fruits, berries), or it can be expressly to collect the honey from specific high-quality sources (e.g., tupelo, mesquite, etc.). Mead makers seeking to deliver quality should be sampling from multiple sources and lots before making purchasing decisions.
Beyond ingredient quality, there is also the process skill of the makers. This can reflect significant commitment to craft on the part of ownership or staff, or the willingness of a producer to bring in hired guns with known skill. In any case, the ability to take high quality ingredients and deliver from them a correspondingly high quality beverage is paramount. Depth of knowledge in the intricacies of the task at hand will always be born out in the quality of the end product.
In some ways, “pedigree” can have some bearing on the long term value of a brand and its products. Within the theater of beverage alcohol critics and reviewers, the ability to produce high quality consistently over time frequently grants a producer an advantage at being portrayed as a maker to be respected and sought after. This long-term commitment to producing extraordinarily delicious products bestows the perception of integrity on a manufacturer.
There are also factors peripheral to the aromas and flavors of the beverage which can affect worth.
Respect for the environment can impact buyers’ granting of value. Sustainability through the adoption of organic or biodynamic agricultural practice can (and should) add value in the presence of deliciousness and consistency. Reducing ecological impacts and carbon footprint are at present more highly valued in Europe, but are becoming important in the US.
Acclaim, in the form of ratings and the opinions of acknowledged “experts” contribute to the value of products for many decades now. Especially in the worlds of wine and distilled spirits, a single high score from a noted authority can drive both prices and demand into the stratosphere. Another angle on this aspect of value is that through books, print media and online resources, many of these acknowledged experts play a huge role in the education of consumers. Their insights and opinions are often formative in individual consumers’ exploration, the development of deep knowledge of particular beverage styles, and their eventual preferences and value judgments.
Consumer perceptions of quality can also be affected as a result of brand image: the savvy use of design and artwork in packaging and presentation. Across the beverage alcohol spectrum, visual conventions intended to convey a producer’s commitment have been adopted by companies and integrated into the mindset of consumers.
The ultimate test of worth in any market is what the consumer is willing to pay. In the maturation of the market for any product, there is both a sorting and a fusion of the elements of ingredient quality, process quality, technical skill, alignment of ethical values, integrity, rarity, acclaim, and image that result in prolonged and accepted valuation for offerings. The same is inevitably becoming true for mead.