How Many Taps is Too Many? — The Paradox of Choice in Beer Lists

It’s no secret that since the beginning of the local craft beer boom, there has been major change in the bar business as well. Not long ago were the days that every apathetic part-time barkeep could list all four beers on tap without taking the Marlboro out of their mouth. Today, the standards are very different. Eight taps, which was once viewed as a pretty-decent selection is now drastically sub-par. 24 lines seems to be the restaurant average today. Meanwhile the nuclear arms race for the biggest beer lists wages on. 15 years ago, installing a hundred tap lines might have landed you in the loony bin. Today, it puts you in the same category as restaurants like Happy Gnome, Republic 7 Corners, Tamarack Tap Room, City Works, and the soon-to-open HopCat. While I love frequenting these places, particularly looking to these restaurants to supply me with a selection of sours, I also recently had a very different experience that I think is underappreciated.

A Lesson from Wine Country

Prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella bruschetta with an amber lager at a cafe in Rome

Some call it passion and some call it Stockholm syndrome, but I will always be  restaurant industry person. There’s nothing like it. As such, I am always looking for new perspectives and small ways to change and improve the establishments where I work. Last summer, I spent a week in Rome, where I was enamored by the food and cafe culture. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect. Italy has great hospitality, but underwhelming service across the board. At the same time, the food culture is fantastic. Italians are very proud of their cuisine and rightfully so. However, the one thing I took away from the experience that I think should at least be noted and considered was the beer selection, or lack thereof. Every cafe in Rome we sat down at, I would ask for a beer. They would respond simply with “White or Amber?” I loved that!

It brings me to an important principal that I first ran into long ago called “the paradox of choice.” Oversimplified, it states that everyone thinks they would like more options, but greater variety leads to more stress in choosing and higher likelihood that you will regret your choice. If I were to ask which ice cream place you wanted to go to between a shop with 4 flavors and a shop with 40 flavors, the obvious choice is the one with 40. The more options you have, the more likely you are to find the perfect one, right? Wrong! Many studies have shown that when selecting from a limited selection, the consumer is less likely to regret their choice.

Seafood Risotto

So, back to beer. The option between white or amber (a Belgian-style witbier or Vienna Lager) takes the pressure off of the decision. It also eliminates the chance of a bad pairing. The limited-release raspberry milk stout may sound great to you, but when you’re in the mood for the grilled salmon with a bearnaise sauce and asparagus, you may find yourself sorely regretting your choice. Amber lagers and witbiers are very versatile with food pairings and work very well with most Italian cuisine. I also have seen plenty of customers become flustered and stressed over choosing a beer. It would seem odd to bring up a fear of public speaking, but for some, a fear of mispronouncing the words Dunkelweizen or Gose, can trigger the same reactions.

Beauty in Simplicity

It may seem weird for a former chef and Certified Cicerone® to say this, but people don’t go out to eat for the food or the drinks. They go for the experience. So, while they may think they want lots of choices, what they may really want is for that pesky ordering part of the evening to be over so they can put the beer lists down and actually enjoy the atmosphere and catch up with their family and friends or conversely get back to their awkward Tinder date.

Restaurant experts all agree that smaller food menus are a great indicator of a good restaurant with a focused and experienced chef. There’s no reason that the wine, beer and cocktail lists shouldn’t say the same. Speaking of wine, why is the “house” wine always the worst? Why can’t wine be the same, “white or red,” question and then the restaurant will bring you a great bottle of wine that will surely compliment your food?

Now, I’m not trying to advocate for all restaurants to go back to 4 beers, nor am I suggesting that restaurants with 100 taps are bad. My point is that we should stop to consider what is actually best for the customer. Consider the paradox of choice. Any beer bar worth their salt will have staff trained well enough to narrow down your options to one or two beers anyway based on your preferences and food selection. Perhaps that’s the answer or perhaps we need to look further and explore the impact of decision making theories on our views of the service and hospitality industry. In the mean time, if you need me, I’ll be at the Happy Gnome drinking sours.

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About the author

Sean is a Certified Cicerone® and restaurant consultant with the Better Beer Society. He has an expansive knowledge of beer styles, history, and pairings and advocates for support of local craft brewers. Follow Sean on twitter: @TCBeerDude for no reason at all!