Beer Analysis Paralysis a Problem?

Eno Sarris, August 28, 2014

Over at the Brewer's Association, their economist Ben Watson wrote about an unnamed piece in the popular press that purported to say that all this choice in the beer aisle is a problem. His response was scathing and correct. There might be one or two asterisks, though. 

Watson did a great job of tearing apart the idea that more choice is bad. He cited a meta-study that showed that more choice gave the marketplace in question a competitive advantage. He cited a Nielsen study that found that craft beer drinkers valued variety. He cited the long-held economic truth that competition equals innovation. 

All of this seems reasonable. But so, too, does the paragraph that spawned it. 

Bon Appetit ran a late July article titled "America Now Has Over 3,000 Craft Breweries—and That's Not Necessarily Great for Beer Drinkers"  (slugged too-many-craft-beers) by Joshua M. Bernstein. The paragraph that may have sent Watson on his journey: 

I’m onboard with America abandoning middle-of-the-road beer and exploring flavorful new directions. The highway, however, is getting mighty crowded. Hundreds of different beers debut weekly, creating a scrum of session IPAs, spiced witbiers, and barrel-aged stouts scuffling for shelf space. For consumers, the situation is doubly confusing. How can you pick a pint on a 100-brew tap list? Moreover, beer shops are chockablock with pale this and imperial that, each one boasting a different hop pun. When buying beer, I can’t count how many times I’ve assisted overwhelmed shoppers, playing the benevolent Sherpa in the wilds of modern brewing.

To the high-information readers of BeerGraphs, this may seem like a ridiculous setup. We love big long aisles of beer.

But I think of my mother in law, who hesitates to buy me beer because that aisle is so confusing there's so much there and I don't know what you like anyway. We all have that person in our lives. They may feel lost in the beer aisle. And I know they appear in my chats and on twitter, telling me they are overwhelmed and can I just tell them a beer or two to try. 

To Watson's credit, he does cover this information gap in a paragraph called Choices can be aided by information. And yes, if the buyer cares enough to seek out information, BeerGraphs and other sites are ready to help. But what if they don't care enough to seek out information? That wall of beer may turn into a wall of jelly, and alternatives may seem easier. Novices don't always want to read up before they buy.

There's more to the Bon Appetit post, too. More that perhaps contributed to Watson not wanting to link to the piece. More like this quote from Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione: “We’re heading into an incredibly competitive era of craft brewing,” he says. “ There’s a bloodbath coming." Then the post talks about how different breweries are looking at marketing and new styles to set themselves apart. 

I think of a personal tendency I call Beer Tourism when I see things like this. I'm much more likely to buy a new beer than one I've had before when I go shopping. Watson even admits this was a part of the Nielsen results: "When Nielsen asked its Household panel in March of 2013 why they bought craft beer, the found #1 reason was “like to experiment with different styles, flavors” – 50% of respondents cited it as a primary motivation for buying." Beer Tourism. 

What happens when a competitive industry is incentivized to merely innovate by these Beer Tourists? What if it's only about how many new tastes and styles and beers they can put on the shelf? That'll satisfy the Beer Tourist while making the Novice even more overwhelmed, and if the best beers don't continue to be rewarded, it could stifle growth. 

Maybe this isn't a real concern. Maybe the Novice and the Beer Tourist are archetypes on the extreme, and the vast majority of craft beer drinkers are willing to seek out information, happy with the choice they have, and also loyal to the beers they like. If so, innovation will find us new beers that will become great beers, and the breweries that make those great beers will grow. 

If not, we could find that the Tourist and the Novice are pulling the craft beer industry in a strange, niche direction even as breweries expand and money enters the market place. 

This deserves more attention and scrutiny, no? Maybe there are a few asterisks at play.