Craft Beer – a(n overwhelming) world of (too much) choice

Choice. Does it genuinely exist? A determinist philosopher may argue that no one really has free will and that every decision we make has already been chosen for us by the universe.

But this isn’t philosophy, it’s a beer blog.

Choice in the beer world, or even the illusion of choice, is what is perplexing me of late.

By the illusion of choice, I mean the presentation of a variety of beers that, on the face of it, appear to be different. Different styles, different breweries, different countries. Until you learn that they are all owned by one monolithic corporation and their presence on the bar is as a result of thousands of hours and pounds of marketing and research.

They’re not the best beers, they’re probably not even good beers. They’re just the beers that you will think are the best beers because they’re sold in a nice glass, dispensed from a frozen bar font and make you feel like James Bond.

Did you choose that beer or was it chosen for you? That’s some real red pill, blue pill Morpheus shit right there.

For pure, indiscriminate choice in beer, go to Belgium. Hundreds of beers, all priced pretty much the same. Heaven for a schooled beer geek, overwhelming for most others. I mean, where the fuck do you start with a beer list of 300, none of which have a description beyond the colour and the alcohol content. You stick to what you know, of course. Which is probably the one owned by that monolithic corporation. Someone chose that beer for you dammit.

As beer advocates, what do we want from this industry apart from to drink good beer ourselves? I suppose we want people to recognise that they do have a choice. That what they’re told to drink, what is chosen for them, isn’t necessarily the right thing or the nicest thing to drink. But I’m not sure you achieve that by presenting people with overwhelming choice.

I experienced an interesting example of this in practice yesterday. We stopped off in Brown’s, a bit of an institution in Bristol, known mainly for the fact that it’s where middle class Bristol university students take their parents for dinner, rather than being a beer bar. It does, however, have Pilsner Urquel and a Rothaus Hefewizen on tap, both very decent beers, along with a Veltins, “the beer that wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for Pizza Express” (Peroni) and a few others. It’s a reasonable selection. Queue group of early 20 something males on the piss.

“You got any Fosters?”

“No, we only have what’s in front of you”

Subtext – “We don’t have a secret Fosters tap hiding behind the bar just for idiots like you”.

When presented with even a moderate amount of choice, people tend to revert to what they recognise.

“I knows what I likes and I likes what I know”.

This is an extreme example of course, and converting that kind of weekend lager drinker isn’t particularly high on the list of must-dos of any beer activist. But there are plenty of examples of it closer to home. Why do you think the dreaded triumvirate of Doombar, Butcombe and Tribute (or Gem if you’re in Bristol or Bath) exists in the West Country*?

This is the stage where I attempt to coin my very own definition of “craft beer”. See, I think all you lot have been completely missing the point, arguing about size and dispense method and ingredients and blah, fucking blah (ok, I have too, but I’ve grown, I’ve matured).

Craft Beer – “choice where there previously was none”

That’s the point of it though right? That’s why it took off in the US. Because everyone was sick to the teeth of cold, yellow, sweet corn tasting lager. The fact that the good beer, the farmhouse saison; the imperial stout; the dry hopped pale, was made by a nice little artisan outfit in a garage at the back of an industrial estate was just a happy coincidence.

And there lies the really hidden danger of “craft beer”. Too much bloody choice. Nothing excites me more than walking into a bar with 10 keg lines, 10 hand pulls and hundreds of bottles in the fridges. But I am (and you probably are if you’re reading this) a bit of an anomaly. It doesn’t work like that for most people.

It’s no different to a restaurant that presents you with a book for a wine list. Even with a sommelier, you’re probably going to choose one of 4 or 5 wines that are within your comfort region of cost and recognition.

As an industry, we have to acknowledge that not everyone wants this level of choice in beer otherwise we’re in serious danger of becoming a snobbish elite with our own special places to go where knowing what beer to drink is the equivalent of a secret entry handshake.

That might sound good to some people but personally, I want to go the pub with my mates and have a laugh, not constantly have to justify why they’re paying £4 for half a pint of beer they’re not that fussed about when all they wanted was a decent lager that they recognised. There must be a middle ground and the sooner we find it, the more likely “craft beer” will develop into a real thing, better known as “good beer”, rather than something people argue about on Twitter.

*I must credit Bristol Culture for this lovely observation and turn of phrase.

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