The Tyranny of Choice: Why a Big Beer Range Could Hinder the Growth of ‘Craft’

When I first published a version of this article in March 2011, the craft beer ‘Mecca’, with dozens of beer options was a new concept. Now, in London, this type of bar seems almost ubiquitous as pubs race to have the biggest range and appeal to the craft beer mavens. This week came the news of the potential for more and more pubs to become free of the beer tie. This would be good for the beer consumer, was one of the arguments I saw, because it will increase choice. While I agree with this to an extent, publicans need to be careful about how they present beer to new or infrequent drinkers. This modification of my original article reveals why:

There was excitement as I travelled into London on the train after work on Monday. I was going for my first trip to Cask Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico to meet a former colleague for dinner. When I arrived it was heaving. It turned out it was a meet the brewer evening for Bristol Beer Factory. In the end we didn’t stay long. We couldn’t get a table to eat and it was a little too packed and noisy to have a comfortable conversation.

I consider myself knowledgeable and well-versed in beer styles and different breweries. Yet there was something I found quite intimidating about the place. Not in a threatening way at all. Yes, there were some superior beer ‘experts’ hovering at the bar.  The kind of people that make you feel a little uncomfortable if you seem uncertain about what to choose. But I can cope with that.

The choice was amazing. There were ten beers on from Bristol Beer Factory and then countless others on keg and in bottles, many of which I was unfamiliar with.  Great as it seemed, on the surface, it was this vast choice that caused most of my discomfort.

In marketing there’s a phenomenon known as the ‘tyranny of choice’. This pertains to retailing in particular. As people have become richer and as distribution channels have become more efficient, myriad new products have become available to us. In the seventies the average supermarket carried about 10,000 lines. Nowadays that figure is closer to 50,000. There was a time when you had a choice of two or three different types of orange juice at the supermarket, now it’s more like about 30. The received wisdom would have us believe that increasing choice will make us happier, but in fact the reverse can be true. During the cold war, this choice, relative to the Eastern Bloc was held up as a paragon. Increased choice appears, on the surface, to have improved our lives. But in actual fact, there comes a point where too many choices become stressful.

For an example of this, one only has to walk into the local purveyor of mobile phones.  The choices on offer are bamboozling. Handsets, price plans, insurance options. I just want a phone! The information I have to take in is too much and I leave befuddled to do some more research online. That’s why the insurance comparison sites have done so well. They curate the mass of choices down to a manageable number for you to compare based on your basic needs.

When you walk into a pub though, you don’t have the luxury of being able to go away and do some research. You need to try a beer at least twice before you can form a real opinion on it. It’s difficult to form an opinion based on a taster. So what to do then, if like me you’ve walked into a packed pub and there is a choice of 300 or more beers? Well me, I like to try new things, so I just started on the left of the bar, checked the ABV wasn’t too high (it was a Monday night!) and tried the first couple. That fact it was so busy meant I didn’t feel that I could ask the barman for advice. And there didn’t appear to be any literature on the beer range to help me.

Cask is an extreme example aimed at the real experts. But it shows that pubs hoping to cater for a more mainstream crowd have an educational job to do. When faced with an enormous array of beer many of us will opt for the safe option. With more and more micro-breweries springing up, it’s only going to get harder. And that’s before we think about the vast array of new or re-introduced beer styles or hop varieties.

The publican needs to become the curator, selecting the beers and teaching his or her customers about them. Offering free tasters to curious punters is one option. But I maintain that you have to drink a full pint and most likely two, before you can judge a beer. Pubs must also make sure that they do keep a regular line-up behind the bar. People don’t  adapt well to continuous change and as we have seen, too much choice can cause stress. Tasting evenings and meet the brewer events are great, but whatever you do, try to be inclusive and not just appeal to the beer ‘geeks’.

I’d be very interested to hear what others think of this. Please comment below.

For more on the ‘Tyranny of Choice’, see this excellent article from the Economist.

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