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Who determines value? - Regular Series of Insights and Ideas from Hugh Alexander.

So many of today’s stories seem to centre around the idea of value. We buy items often because we have been given this concept of value. We know we can trust certain brands, because they are imbued with value. Possibly handed down through families for generations, and so here history plays its role in promoting value. Value here is sacrosanct, untouchable, reassuring. Or maybe it is scarcity. Rolls Royce at one time owned most of the osmium on the planet, because it is used in the production of jet engine turbine blades, and hence osmium had high value, as does gold or diamonds or artefacts made of these materials. Would a Rolex watch made of say aluminium and flint command such a premium? It’s a Rolex, isn’t it? In this case is it the name or the construction material, which gives it extreme value? Both could accurately tell the time, so in terms of time value both are equally important, in terms of name value both the same, so does only material give the value?

I understand that one of the kings of France was given a dinner service made of aluminium, which because of the scarcity of aluminium at the time, was valued above gold. The Mayan fishermen used hooks made from gold, because it was the only metal they had at their disposal. Bird feathers were much more highly prised in Mayan culture. You can see this for so many items we have arbitrarily given value to. And in my mind it comes down to not what something is, or scarcity, or name. All these are relative. No, what it is the human desire to be fickle, different, isolated, immune, glorified. I wear this, because I want to be seen as different. I have this to show status and independence. I eat this, not because gold leaf is good for me, but to say I am above the value of gold, its value means nothing to me. Whereas in truth the exact opposite holds. I have this, because I am a slave. I wear this, because I need you to see the logo. I eat this, because I am spiritually starved. Is this value?

You can take these ideas and put them to test in any situation. Naturally, I am fascinated by barley and how it works, and so I can test the idea of value in the malting arena. Is there such a thing as a valuable malt? Does it come from valuable barley and can we say that the beer or spirit from that barley is valuable?. Clearly in pure economic terms we can place a value on barley, malt and beer. All have an intrinsic value assigned to them in terms of production cost. It’s so obvious that it is now formulaic. You can take a plan to the bank for funding on such formulae and they listen attentively. It’s what economics is. So there is a baseline value to all things subject to the working of economics.

This idea makes sense to me. We grow this barley, because it is less dependent on agro-inputs, or yields well, or has a high malting score, is disease resistant. These barleys fit our modern ideals of sustainability and environmental well-being. The large brewing groups are happy to use these barleys, because they can be malted to suit their brewing plants, they allow the group’s profit margins to be maintained, to the extent that I see Stella Artois are now providing fresh water to arid areas, linked to sales of Stella Artois. A very laudable project.

There will always be a pattern that what the large groups do now, the smaller brewers will eventually follow suit, to an extent. So here we have a different vision of what value means. Fortunately we seem to be moving from the hedonistic view of value prevalent in the nineties and noughties, to one where keeping the planet alive has a high value. This is an ethereal and enigmatic value. And in my mind I think we have a duty to each other and the planet to embrace technologies which promote this value, such as the barley breeders, specifically in my world of malting. I know there is ultimately the need to make profit to sustain a business, but I do believe they are trying to meet the value ideals of this modern world.

We know these barleys have been selected to fit the model of easy malting and easy brewing, we have in place a whole series of yardsticks to ensure that if a barley is released for farmers to grow then it will perform to malting and brewing standards. They have met the value judgement we have in place.

What is it then that old, poor yielding varieties, prone to disease, have which makes the value of tradition outweigh the modern, more altruistic values of sustainability? Both types malt well, both types brew well, but will the craft brewers try the new varieties? Only with huge reluctance. I am told there is a distinct flavour associated with the old varieties. But this must also hold for the new varieties, otherwise how do we know the old varieties are distinct? Distinct from what? If that arguments holds, then surely if a beer is made from a pure variety of barley, it has a unique flavour signature, and isn’t that the point? If all the craft brewers will only use the old, tired variety won’t all their beers have the same flavour signature? Come on, there’s a whole spectrum of barleys out there, bred with the best intentions. If each has a unique signature, just think how many beers are out there waiting to be discovered.


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