Sometimes, too much choice can be stressful. It's an unpopular opinion around here, I know. After all, the American Dream is about having options—and lots of them.
Bars with lengthy beer lists provide a prime example. As a British person, the mile-long wall of taps has always struck me as a very American phenomenon. It goes hand in hand with the same "paralysis of choice" often seen on food menus. (“So you want the chicken wings? Which seasoning? And which sauce? We have 24 to choose from! And you can also pick two side dishes.”)
Boundless possibilities don't put me at ease; just the opposite. I often crave an absence of choice—perhaps to be told that there's only six items on the menu, and no, I can't make any substitutions.
To my chagrin, the endless tap list phenomenon has begun to spread. On a recent trip back to the UK, I was eager to revisit favorite ale haunts in the Midlands and in London. But as I wandered between pubs, I struggled to find the unique accents of the beer selections that I had first fallen in love with. At first, it seemed that my beloved local ales were gone. On further inspection, it turned out that they were still there, but harder to find. Lots of noise now stood between me and the perfect pint. The once carefully curated pump handles had multiplied ferociously. A decision which previously required a cursory look of all-local drafts now involved a walk along the length of the bar, providing plenty of opportunity to forget the names of the beers I'd shortlisted by the time someone came to take my order.
I begin to glaze over the options without truly considering their individual merits, in favor of getting something cold in front of me a little faster.”
It turns out that there's scientific research behind the futility I feel when faced with too many choices. A study conducted last year by Nature Human Behaviour provided subjects with sets of six, 12, and 24 options from which to choose, and found that subjects appeared to consider the benefits and value of the options most keenly for the selection of 12. This maps perfectly onto my beer selection experience; once the choice exceeds about 12 or so, I begin to glaze over the options without truly considering their individual merits, in favor of getting something cold in front of me a little faster.
At a pub that was my after-work hangout almost a decade ago, my eyes were drawn toward the garish colors of a large television screen displaying the current beer tap list. It was prominently positioned on a pillar next to the bar—an unwelcome addition to the quaint atmosphere, in my view. Call me old fashioned, but it reminded me of something that might be found in a grotty airport bar, or sticky-floored sports hall. TV screens showing a full analysis of the cellar situation provide just another injection of technology into pubs, when it's already hard enough to switch off from the daily grind for the time it takes to enjoy a pint. I maintain that a simple chalk board will always suffice. Something about seeing the bartenders occasionally rub out and write up the selections in real time is encouraging. It's a sign that the stock is moving, changing, staying fresh for drinking.
Fortunately, some pubs back in my homeland are keeping things small with full intention. The Barrel Drop, nestled in a little alleyway not far from the market square in Nottingham, is one such. “Cask ales don't keep as long as their keg counterparts, and having a smaller range means we can move through a cask quicker, ensuring we always have fresh beer,” general manager Aimee Harbison told me.
Martyn Hillier, owner of the UK's first micropub The Butcher's Arms, located in Kent, has a similar philosophy. “I wanted to go full circle—back to the days of the ale house, but with better beer,” he explained. Martyn's pub offers a range of cask options, but no lager and cider. “I have very small overheads. I don't need to turnover a lot to make a profit.”
Once back in the US, I became skeptical of the freshness of beer in bars with too many taps. This is a greater concern for places a little off the beaten path. For example: the empty sports bar I passed in suburban Atlanta while on a business trip several years ago, which was advertising “100 beers on tap.” I shuddered as I pondered how long the oldest beers had been there. Instinctively, I wouldn't want to drink beer that had been hanging about a while over something fresh from a brewery taproom.
One of my local breweries, Boxing Bear Co, confirmed my suspicions about the rate of diminishing beer quality. “After three months, we find the quality significantly decreases,” Jay Knigge tells me. “IPAs have the shortest lifespan and we try to keep our IPA kegs and bottles less than a month. The more taps, the slower the beers move.” Knigge explained that the brewery works closely with the local bars that it sells to, doing all it can to prevent quality attrition once the beer is in the hands of another establishment. “With accounts that have more than 60 taps, we typically advise them—or only supply them—with 1/6 barrels.”
This definitely seems a sensible approach, and since these smaller kegs only hold around 40 pints, they will be rotated faster than traditional full-sized kegs. It's clear that Knigge is passionate about serving his beer correctly, and this is just what I love about drinking in taprooms. The beer is fresh and the staff are often the most knowledgeable and adept at making recommendations. Once one gets a taste for straight-from-the-source beer quality, it can be hard to go back.
It's easy to drown in an ocean of choice and end up with just another slightly stale 6% dry-hopped IPA after reading a menu the length of a novel.”
That said, it is possible to serve large beer selections without compromising on quality, as evidenced by ChurchKey, a bar located in Washington, DC. Ranked among America's best bars by Thrillist, ChurchKey has 50 draft lines, and beer director an partner Greg Engert confirmed that they never switch out the brand on a tap without a full clean of the lines, faucets, and couplers. “It's extremely time consuming and costly, but we want the beers to taste just as great as they do at the brewery, and brewers come in here and always remark on that." So there's certainly scope for bars sporting large selections to be thoughtful and cautious when it comes to their line cleaning and other logistics. Sadly, there are plenty of bars not applying Engert's rigor, and the beer quality suffers for it.
The beer scene on both sides of the Atlantic is about as exciting as it's ever been, and it's easy to drown in an ocean of choice and end up with just another slightly stale 6% dry-hopped IPA after reading a menu the length of a novel. I believe that as drinkers, the best way to make the most of the choices available to us is to hand over a little bit of the legwork to experts—better known as your bartender.
Top photo courtesy of ChurchKey.