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Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Paradox of Choice

I got into an unexpected Twitter conversation two days ago following this exchange:

Maureen's obvious and mild comment then sparked a discussion that ran 51 tweets, was joined by eleven people, and lasted 21 hours before everyone finally got exhausted by the terrible medium and wandered away. (Or anyway, that's how these conversations make me feel.) Along the way, it touched on just about everything that we love, hate, and worry about in the beer world.

Maureen's point was hardly controversial: "Sure, [they're] fun to try, but again, daily basis? I don't need zillion choices." I don't think there are many people who haven't confronted a wall of beer in the cooler and had exactly this thought--which is true at the pub as well. As the conversation went on, Maureen and others started stacking observations to the mix like cord wood:
  • When retailers stock many different beers, it's inevitable that some will get stale. (Good retailers and distributors, of course, will remove that stock, but that doesn't happen in every case.)
  • The risk of buying stale beer further makes consumers gun-shy.
  • The proliferation of beer means a decent amount of it is meh at best.
  • Lots of people do want choice, of course; this is true not only of advanced-case beer geeks, but regular consumers (who have made seasonals and mix-packs perennial best-sellers).
  • As another data point, pubs don't pull out handles because there's too much choice.
  • Breweries love choice, because it's a great way to attract new drinkers, but...
  • They also hate the need to continually offer new products and worry when workhorse best sellers flag due to disinterest.
  • The churn of choice can be expensive, particularly because not every choice is a win.
  • Finally, Joel Winn pointed to this article in which Anthony Bourdain complains that some of this choice seems to feed the thirst of dilettantes: "the entire place was filled with people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes. This is not what a bar is about." 
The truth is, all of this is right. Beer is no longer simple. That is both its great strength and weakness. When I came up, you walked into a bar and there were four taps all pouring the same basic beer. Since all the beer was the same, people made decisions based on loyalty or price. You went to the pub to drink, but not for the beer--it was the opposite of what Bourdain describes. This was a time of simplicity, but it was dismal.

There is no doubt beer drinkers have it far better now, but the world offers no utopias. With choice comes chance--bad beer, stale beer, and of course wondrous beer. This bounty has delivered a new culture and several subcultures. Even those of us who (sometimes) love fussy taprooms with exotic beer and little glasses can sometimes just want a nice session with simple, nuanced beer and no complications. There's a reason craft beer has been subject to satire about twee hipsters. All this choice has given brewers many more customers and sales, but also headaches. Trying to stay ahead of the novelty curve is maddening, and some breweries have had trouble replacing capacity lost when a flagship's sales start flagging.

All of this is why Schell's brewmaster, David Berg, tweeted "the paradox of choice strikes again." These are the best of times--but even still, they're not without their troubles.

Related: Bryan Roth riffs on the same Twitter storm.


  1. It is a terrible medium for some things. I went out for 18 holes, by the time I got back, I realized it would take at least an hour to figure out who was saying what to whom, etc.

  2. Whoa, Blogger let you comment, Maureen!

  3. Are you familiar with Barry Schwartz's concept of the Paradox of Choice? It's something that's been accelerating in many areas, not just beer. He wrote a book a while back, but I think there's a Ted talk about it too. Worth checking out...