Simply walking into a neighborhood grocery or bottle shop for beer is an increasingly taxing endeavor. So many options are available that it almost requires an academic knowledge of the beer industry just to make the most informed decision. Is this beer fresh? Is the brewery owned by big beer? Which bottle will “wow” them at the bottle share? What does this stout say about me as a person?
This quandary, known as “The Paradox of Choice,” was coined by psychologist and social theorist Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book by the same name. Schwartz found that test subjects were happier with their consumer purchases when there were, paradoxically, fewer options. As local and national brands continue to push the limits of just how much choice consumers can handle, how does a new brewery wedge its way onto the jam-packed shelves?
“Your primary goal has got to be to make great beer every time,” said Grant Tondro, co-founder of Mason Ale Works (2002 South Coast Highway, Oceanside).
Mason Ale Works’ bright yellow cans began peppering shelves at the beginning of the year. The brewery is part of the ever-expanding Urge Gastropub family of businesses that includes the eponymous Rancho Bernardo pub, Brother’s Provisions and the soon-to-be-open Urge Gastropub & Common House in San Marcos.
Tondro said he understood the nature of the market and trusted that San Diego consumers knew their beer.
“Patrons are educated enough that they can spot a bad beer a mile away,” he said. “They don’t necessarily fall for the simplest gimmicks like adding the latest citrus fruit to your IPA.”
Gene Fielden, manager and beer buyer at Bottlecraft in North Park, said limited space meant he had to be very choosy as to which beers it carried.
“Today’s consumer moves from beer to beer,” he said. “Being new and novel are selling points, but only once.”
“We picked canning because it’s a much better package for beer than glass bottles,” said Paul Sangster, Rip Current’s co-owner and brewmaster, in an email. “It seemed like the natural choice for us.”
Tondro said data from his distributor suggests that, except for specialty barrel-aged beer and sours, consumers are not grabbing 22-ounce bombers at the rates they used to. He characterized this trend as a potential trap for breweries just getting into the distribution game.
“There are many brewers out there who, in sort of the rush to get to package, are putting their beer into 22-ounce bombers,” he said. “There is so much competition that you have to be conscientious to make this whole thing sing.”
Tasting room sales might be the most profitable for individual breweries, but most beer sales take place in the retail environment. That is, liquor and grocery stores. It remains to be seen just how many more options that market can handle before unsuccessful entrants begin to be picked off. One certainty moving forward is that there will be more options in the store, along with more customers scratching their heads, paradoxically perplexed with what to buy.