Desire for Variety vs. Brand Loyalty

What’s a bar to do?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll concede that I decided not to write a second GABF post (hence the change in title of the first post). I had some interesting things to talk about, but I have limited time right now and this little op-ed post tickled my creative fancy.

Given my quasi-unique position as both a purveyor and drinker of craft beer, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon lately. There appears to be a tug-of-war between the “beer geek constantly on the prowl for a new taste experience” and the “person who just wants to drink good beer and sticks to what they already know they like” (wow, that was a mouthful).

As I see it, both groups of people are absolutely essential to the growth of craft beer. The beer geeks, though smaller in number, push brewers to try new things and extend the boundaries of what beer can be. The “people who want to drink good beer” ensure the sustained viability of the industry through their support of the core brands of successful breweries. The difficulty arises when the interests of one group necessarily infringe (for lack of a better term) on the interests of the other.

Here’s a for-instance:

Beer Bar A has a pretty consistent tap list. They might throw in a seasonal here or there, and have a couple rotating handles, but they carry the same beers most of the time. The regular beers are all good to excellent, but they don’t often change. Regular at Beer Bar A has one or two beers that he always orders there. He tried them the first time he came in a few years ago and has stuck to them since. It took a small leap of faith to even try those two and he doesn’t feel like confronting anew the fear of the unknown. Regular is typical of about half of Beer Bar A’s clientele (most of the rest being casual craft beer drinkers who will drink whatever is on so long as it’s good).

Given the beer geek desire for ever-rotating tap handles, Beer Bar A is missing out on a small, but potentially loyal and lucrative part of its possible consumer base. In an effort to pull in some beer geek business, Beer Bar A pulls off some its old standbys and throws on some new and exciting beers. Regular comes in and doesn’t see his one or two beers on tap anymore. He is afraid. He doesn’t know what to order. He considers leaving. What to do? Beer Bar A doesn’t want to lose the reliable business of Regular, but also doesn’t want to fall woefully behind the craft beer times.

A decade or so ago, this was a legitimate problem. The first craft beer bubble had burst (or was in the process of doing so) and the quality of much of the beer on the market was suspect at best. People had gotten into the brewing business purely for money, and the lack of passion was reflected in the product. The average consumer couldn’t be sure of what they would encounter when a new tap handle was thrown on the wall at the local watering hole.

These days however, especially in larger markets, quality is not a problem. The only problem is that there’s a whole lot of great beer out there and I can’t possibly drink all of it! I understand brand loyalty when it comes to one’s philosophical agreement with a brewery’s approach to production or marketing. However, staying loyal to a particular beer merely for fear of possibly drinking inferior beer can hardly be justified anymore. In fact, it can easily be argued that a fiercely loyal consumer is doing him or herself a serious disservice. If one is doggedly attached to a particular beer or brewery, one may be, and likely is, missing out on something they’ll like even more than their “favorite” beer.

Not only is better beer largely the rule rather than the exception these days, so too are bars who clearly care about the beer they serve. Such places are an equally important cog in the craft beer machine. The brewer can make an exquisite beer, but if it isn’t delivered fresh, at the right temperature, through clean lines and in a clean glass, then the consumer isn’t getting what they ordered. Luckily, with the availability of information these days, it is relatively easy to find out which bars care about their beer, if only you care to look or ask.

In other words, fear not the unknown. For if you find yourself at a better beer-dispensing establishment, and you decide to wade into unfamiliar waters you will likely find the temperature is just fine. If you trust the beer bar you’re patronizing, then that means you trust them to serve excellent beer. It also means that you trust them to train their staff to make recommendations based on your stated desires. It also means that you trust the bar to serve your beer properly. So, find a bar that cares and order a beer you’ve never had before. And don’t worry if your “regular” beer isn’t on tap. The well-trained server will be able to find you something you’ll like and maybe you’ll have a new “regular” beer.

Now, I consider myself a beer geek and spend a lot of time with others whom I also consider beer geeks. I like to think most of us have managed to strike a balance between a constant pursuit of new experience and loyalty to specific beers. It seems to me that the purpose of trying new beers is to find new “favorites.” When I try a new beer, and it’s truly excellent, it gets put into my mental catalogue of favorites. These are beers that I will drink whenever I see them at better beer-serving establishments (unless there’s something new on that I’m dying to try). I find comfort knowing that I can select exactly what I’m in the mood for, all but ensuring full satisfaction. I know enough different beers that cover enough different styles and flavors that I can find something I truly want to drink the majority of the time. If I can’t (I can’t always be at a beer bar), then there’s always bourbon. In other words, even beer geeks have favorites, but we have enough favorites that we don’t panic if one of them isn’t on tap.

I’m not suggesting that every consumer need be hell-bent as I on extreme palate education in order to enjoy themselves. What I am suggesting, is that there are enough passionate people brewing and serving beer that no consumer need worry about their “regular” beer being pulled off the tap wall. Most of the time, it’ll be replaced with something at least as good, if not better. Drink up!

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5 responses to “Desire for Variety vs. Brand Loyalty

  1. From one beer geek to another; I have my “go to” craft beers that work for most occasions, but then I have my special finds. What I find amazing is that many non beer geeks think that craft beer is (pick one) too hoppy, too dark, too heavy, too big, too expensive…the list goes on. One of my true peasures in life is turning on someone to a great beer (or wine) that they would not have chosen on their own. whether it be Firestone DBA, Stone IPA, Alaskan Amber or whatever, these might be more common craft beers to us, but they can be that “something special” to someone else. Enjoy the journey and share your experiences.

  2. On my first visit to Toronado SF, I was over whelmed with my options. I thought for sure, ordering fresh and fresh can be Pliny the Elder would be the equivalent of wearing the band’s t-shirt to their concert. Didn’t want to be that guy. Well, as I gazed around, that’s what the locals and regulars were drinking. Why? Because it’s the best damn beer they pour there. They weren’t jumping all over the menu trying to tick or even experiment. They knew they had a good thing going, and didn’t want to mess that up. While I like to try new beers (it’s kind of my gig), there is something to be said for enjoying something tried and true.

  3. I think I fall into that middle ground of having a “playful palate” too (for beer, for other drinks, for food) — not exactly Bizarre Foods crazy adventurous, but not falling into a “fish every Friday” funk either. I think first and foremost I think of myself a well-versed but open-minded student. I have my faves in bars and brands and I know what I like (and consider them my fallback comfort blanket,) but I always leave a little leeway to try something new and unusual.

  4. Was this sparked by the Pranqster debacle, by any chance?

    I wish more casual drinkers would read this post and understand the position we sit in.

    • I’ve been thinking about the issue for awhile, but the Pranqster debacle certainly brought the problem into sharper relief. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

      I would love it if casual drinkers found their way to my blog. Hopefully they would be inspired to expand their preferences and further educate their palates. I think education is the biggest factor in sustaining and growing the craft beer movement. The issue that needs to be resolved is finding a way to make people receptive to that education.

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