“Choice” is rather like “Peace” as something you can’t really argue with, but for it to actually make a difference, people have to be in a position to exercise choice between different options for which there is a genuine demand. There is also an element of diminishing returns. Two beers versus one represent an infinite increase in choice, and four is twice as much again. But you can only drink one beer at once, and it’s doubtful whether an increase from 1000 breweries to 1500 makes any meaningful difference to the choice available in the market. We also frequently hear complaints about why there is any need for supermarkets to sell a hundred varieties of breakfast cereal.
Choice can’t be considered in isolation without also looking at the degree of market concentration. I’d say a situation where there are 200 products, and the top five command an 80% market share, in practice gives the consumer a lot more options than one where there are 2000 products, but the top five command a 95% market share. And that’s rather how the beer market has moved in recent years. Actual diversity is good, not just a long tail of products with tiny volumes.
There can’t be any doubt that there is far more choice in the off-trade sector, and that overall it is good news for the consumer. Both the number of brands represented, and the variety of beer styles, has hugely increased. The range stocked in the average supermarket would put to shame the cutting-edge independent off-licence of twenty years ago. Partly, of course, it is due to the overall expansion of the off-trade from 10% of the beer market when CAMRA was formed to 50% now, but it’s also a genuine widening of vision and possibilities.
In the on-trade, though, the situation is less clear-cut. There’s an obvious limitation in that most beer drunk in the off-trade is draught, and there’s a trade-off between choice and turnover. There have been plenty of complaints about pubs stocking far more cask beers than they can sell, and it can even become a problem with keg beers, as Wetherspoon’s seemed to find with BrewDog This.Is.Lager.
The keg drinker isn’t likely to feel much expansion of choice, as the various industry upheavals of the past twenty-five years have led to a far greater concentration on a limited range of leading brands. Many smaller-volume keg products, both ale and lager, have fallen by the wayside, and it’s no exaggeration to say that John Smith’s, Carling or Fosters, Stella, Guinness and Strongbow is now the default range for many bottom-end pubs.
For many drinkers, such as those in Broadbottom or Parr, the fact that most of their local pubs have closed down obviously deprives them of much choice in the on-trade. And the decline of the tied house system means that, often, it’s far less obvious exactly what you’re choosing between. Of course there were local monopolies or near-monopolies, but in plenty of areas many different breweries were represented, with distinctive beers and also often styles of pub. Nowadays, beer ranges often seem to converge into one.
It’s arguable whether the option of “ever-changing guest beers” really offers a meaningful choice to the drinker. If you don’t know what you’re going to find until you turn up, then how are you in a position to exercise an informed choice? In effect, “various beers” just becomes a single choice in itself. And being presented with ten variations on the pale’n’hoppy theme doesn’t really offer much variety. It’s like going to the cereal aisle and finding ten different brands of cornflakes.
Yes, of course there are more different beers available now, in a wider range of styles, and the average pub undoubtedly offers more than it did forty years ago. But, in the on-trade at least, “increased choice” isn’t a completely unalloyed benefit.