It’s the ongoing dilemma: you want to drink well, but are on a budget. Sure, you could always bite the (silver) bullet and go with the always-cheap "American macro lager" a là Budweiser or Coors. But notice the headline says "inexpensive" beer and not "cheap" beer—the distinction is important because all too often, "cheap beer" means those very same American macros I’m hoping to avoid—and of course when I write "drink well," I mean not drinking those industrial pilsners.
Seeking out those inexpensive "step up" beers can be a bit of an adventure—often you’ll come across beers you’ve never heard of before, some of which will just barely be a step up from MGD and some which will be jewels in the rough. Sometimes you’ll find some excellent, well-known microbrew for a really good deal, too.
But be warned: if you have to have that really good bottle of Rogue or Dogfish Head, most of the time you’ll just have to suck it up and pay the premium price for it.
So where do you go about finding inexpensive beer? Let’s examine some of the options.
"Dock sales" refer to the practice of buying the beer directly at reduced prices, often for wholesale. Typically there are two sources for dock sales: a beverage distributor and the brewery itself. Not all states allow such dock sales, however.
Beverage distributors usually have dock sales where the general public can purchase a variety of brews (as well as other drinks). The catch is you usually don’t know in advance exactly what will be available—sales are announced on a day-to-day basis—so it can be hit or miss. One day they might have Anchor Steam Beer or Stone Pale Ale and the next it’s all Coors Light and Zima.
The other catch is that they usually operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Show up early to maximize your options.
According to Caldera’s Dock Sales page, you can buy beer direct from the brewery (cash only) two days a week from 3pm until 6pm. In additional to buying by the keg, they sell their pale ale for $25 per case—compare with the average microbrew retail of around $32 per case. Plus, they helpfully list other distributors in Oregon where you can find their beer in dock sales.
In some cases you can find beer even cheaper; anecdotally, we used to make the occasional trip to the Portland Brewing (MacTarnahan’s) dock sales location in Northwest Portland, and very often the beer they were selling were cases that had been mislabeled or otherwise mispackaged in some way. This was always the best deal, around $8 for a half-case, if memory serves.
This is the one place I’ve named specifically, for one main reason: they have locations all over the country, in 23 states and the District of Columbia. And when it comes to beer, this is what they say:
In addition to wines, we’re known for our eclectic selection of beers. Craft brews/microbrews and imports are what we’re known for – you won’t find the “big brands” at Trader Joe’s. You will find interesting, craft beers in a variety of styles from around the country and around the world at great prices, every day.
Those "great prices" aren’t just PR copy—I’ve seen six-packs of beer for as little as $2.99 at TJ’s. You likely won’t find prices over five or six dollars per six-pack, either. No matter how you look at it, that’s a great price for beer; most supermarket outlets sell microbrews for (on average) seven to nine dollars per six-pack, or more.
One way they’re able to do this is by having beer contract brewed under their own label, Trader Joe’s Brewing. I first blogged about that here, and Stan in the comments indicated that they go through Gordon Birsch and Goose Island for some of their brews. Contract brewing and cutting out the middleman of normal distribution channels is a good way to be able to control costs and still deliver a quality product.
And while many of the beers I’ve tried from Trader Joe’s are just average, they have all still been head and shoulders above the cheap macros out there. And in some cases, they might be cheaper than those, too.
Even though there is a western-U.S. chain of stores actually called "Grocery Outlet", I don’t mean to point to one specific name or company in this case (although they are an excellent example): what I’m referring to are outlets of overstock, closeout, and liquidation items. These are mostly canned and pre-packaged goods and are sold at discounted prices.
These aren’t the types of places you would expect to find beer, either—but you may be surprised. I’ve found otherwise-unknown craft beers at our local store (Pocono Blonde Ale from The Lion Brewery comes immediately to mind) that were much cheaper than retail counterparts.
What were the circumstances bringing the beer to an outlet store? In the case of the Pocono Blonde, that particular beer appears to have been discontinued.
Happy hours & Brewpub deals
Ah, the obvious options for cheap beer. Happy hours are always good sources for beer deals—if you don’t mind drinking the beer on-premise and being constrained to the time limitation. Years ago, a local sports bar had $1.50 pints during their happy hour—and not just on the cheap macros, but a good selection of microbrews. A great deal, and we were visiting every Saturday from 4 until 6pm. Of course, we couldn’t get there during the week because we worked until 5pm or later, and they didn’t have happy hour on Sunday. So we were limited to the two-hour window once a week.
Of course, this is the common lament that everyone is familiar with. If you have a place with a good happy hour you can enjoy—great. But as an alternative, check out growler deals at your local brewpub.
Obligatory definition: a growler is simply a half-gallon glass jug that the brewery will fill with beer to go. Some breweries, like Stone Brewing in Southern California, offer growlers in a variety of sizes—one, two, and three liters.
While the initial cost of a growler full of beer may not seem like such a deal—you’re paying for the beer and the container, after all—many brewpubs offer refill deals if you bring the growler back (cleaned, of course). For instance, you may pay $12 or more for the initial growler—but if you bring it back, you can get it refilled for only $8. And there’s no limit to the number of times you can get it refilled.
Finding deals like that and like I outlined above can really be a boon to the budget. And I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface; I didn’t even get into the economics of homebrewing, for example. The main thing is to keep an eye out for deals, and be willing to experiment now and again.