Winking Lizard partner John Lane never paid much attention to the beer prices charged by distributors in past years. The bill would come in and if his cost rose, he'd raise his price accordingly for his customers.
But not anymore, Lane told about 200 distributors and suppliers gathered Wednesday for his annual Winking Lizard meeting in Bedford Heights. "I cannot push it anymore on our consumer -- not in the state of Ohio," he said.
Lane made waves in the industry last week by dumping Bud Light and Miller Lite on draft -- two of the nation's best selling beers -- in favor of Yuengling Light throughout the Winking Lizard chain, which extends from the Cleveland area into Columbus. He complained about constant keg price increases from Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, saying on-premise bars and restaurants are unfairly bearing the brunt of the hikes.
On Wednesday, he noted that his cost for a keg of Miller Lite has jumped 27 percent over the last five years to $96.23. But his irritation extended beyond Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, and he directed a warning to craft brewers, as well. (Kegs of Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale climbed 21.5 percent to $147.48 and 16 percent to $146.48, respectively.)
Draft beer is the lifeblood of the industry but pint prices are threatening to drive away everyday beer drinkers, Lane said. People are turned off by anything over $5, he said. Sure, hard-core craft beer drinkers are willing to pay a premium for a special brew, but "we still need to keep beer accessible to the working man," Lane said.
Some Ohio brewers who attended the gathering recognize the concern.
"It's a re-occuring conversation we have at the brewery about pricing and making sure we're maintaining an approachable price," said Eric Bean, brewer and owner of Columbus Brewing Co. in Columbus. He's also the head of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association.
So what does he consider the price tipping point for consumers?
"I don't even pretend to know," Bean said. "There's plenty of crafts that I think are on the high-end but they are still moving. So I don't think we know what that is."
The real question, he said, is how much an American premium domestic drinker is willing to pay as he or she moves into the entry level craft scene.
Jason Roeper, co-owner and brewer at Rivertown Brewing in Cincinnati, said he believes that price is anywhere from $4 to $6. He said Rivertown is approached every year about raising its keg prices.
"We've taken a stance where we've chosen not to, especially when it comes to draft," he said. "You want to be competitive. You certainly don't want to be the lowest priced guy but you don't want to be the highest priced guy."
Here are some other highlights from the annual Winking Lizard meeting:
-- Labatt Blue is the best-selling draft beer so far this year (January through Sept. 5), garnering 9.7 percent of draft sales. Miller Lite is second at 9.1 percent. Amazingly, two beers that were available for only two months each grabbed 1 percent: Great Lakes Lake Erie Monster and Dogfish Head 90 Minute.
-- Bud Light is the best-selling domestic beer in a bottle, making up 27.5 percent of domestic bottle sales. Miller Lite is second at 19.4 percent.
-- The Winking Lizard chain's top five import/craft bottle brands by volume sales are, in order, Corona, Corona Light, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, Harpoon Cider and Heineken. Meanwhile, the top five by dollar sales are: Corona, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel, Corona Light, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy and Harpoon Cider.
-- Revolution Brewing Co. from Chicago will enter the Ohio market next year starting with the Winking Lizard.
-- Lane reiterated that 2013 will be a major year for the chain. A Winking Lizard Bar and Grille is slated to open in Grandview Heights in January. The Fairlawn Winking Lizard is moving to Copley Township and adding a Lizardville in February. A Winking Lizard Bar and Grille will open in March in Washington Square in Canton. A Winks Bar and Grille will open in Beachwood in April. And the Macedonia Winking Lizard will be shut down for a major remodeling, including the addition of an outdoor patio, in May.