Deep Thought Friday: On Choices

It's a slow Friday morning, perhaps because almost everyone in the good beer world is in San Francisco for the Craft Brewers Conference. Looking for a little content fodder, I found an interesting couplet from Jeff Linkous and Lew Bryson. The topic is choice, and whether the staggering selection of beer is detrimental to the market. The thrust of the inquiry goes like this:
  1. Choice is great unless there's so much that it leaves consumers with a nagging feeling that they're choosing an inferior beer when something truly tasty is available.
  2. As a consequence, they go back to the well for the beers they know are winners.
  3. Moral: too much choice can be a dangerous thing.
Let's unpack this a bit. How much choice is there really? It is true that there are upwards of 15,000 different beers brewed in the US right now (1700 brewers ~ nine beers per)--but most of these are made by brewpubs. Go to your local grocery store, and if you're lucky you'll find 20 craft products. (Recognize that not all grocery stores have the selection of your local Portland New Seasons.) The biggies will all be there: Sierra Nevada Pale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, New Belgium Fat Tire, Widmer Hefeweizen. These, not by unrelated chance, are also the best-selling craft brands in the US--along with Blue Moon and Shiner Bock. Regions matter, so depending on where you're standing while looking at these beers, you might see Bell's or Brooklyn or Lauganitas, too.

We could run the same thought experiment for the average bar, again acknowledging that places like Bailey's represent a vanishingly small portion of the draft market. Ultimately, not a huge amount of choices.

The craft market is small, but the number of people who drink craft beer is actually massive: 59% of beer drinkers, according to results in recent study. Most of these people drink a few of the major national brands and not a whole lot else--they are probably relatively untroubled by the tyranny of choice. A small number of these--ten percent, twenty?--are avid beer fans. they drink the 14,900 niche beers that aren't regularly sold in supermarkets. They are fanatics for choice and will choose a new beer, no matter how low the likelihood that it is tasty, just because it's new. They are also untroubled by the tyranny of choice.

The craft beer market has grown by 40% over the past five years--amid the worst recession since the time when you legally buy no beer. I would say that the abundance of choice is not particularly dangerous.