Food & Drink

Is a huge selection of beers on tap a blessing? Or a curse?

ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

It was the taplist penned by Tolstoy. How else would you explain the wall of text stretching across not one, but two pages? Front and back.

If you’re as indecisive as I, you can imagine how difficult it was to make a decision. After I worked my way through the taplist, the server went to get my beer. A few minutes later, she came back not with a beer but bad news. “Sorry,” she said, “that one’s out.”

These things happen. But in this case, it happened again. And again. Finally, I struck gold with my fourth choice. It would have been comical were I not so thirsty.

This happened a couple of years ago, at a bar boasting more than 100 beers on tap. And here I was having trouble ordering one beer.

While I’ve yet to have an experience since that rivals this one, I have had similar difficulties choosing a beer at bars with huge taplists.

Let’s not blame them. The fault, dear reader, is not in our bars but in ourselves. As breweries produce more beers, bars add more taps to accommodate them. We long for more: more breweries, more beer, more flavor, more hops, more options. These bars are providing choice, and what’s so bad about that? Isn’t that what the craft beer industry is built on?

Yes, but it’s also built on quality, which can be hard to maintain across that many draft lines. Sure, some beers (like the ones I ordered, perhaps) turn over quickly, but others can sit for months if a beer doesn’t move well at that location. For most styles, time does a beer no favors.

There are bars, though, that do more with less. Or I guess I should say fewer, since I’m speaking specifically of the number of taps in these bars. I’m talking about bars with no more than 20 taps, but with lists that seem to change completely from one day to the next. In the Charlotte area, such establishments include Brawley’s Beverage, Bulldog Beer & Wine, Carolina Beer Temple, Common Market, Crafty Beer Guys, Custom Home Pubs, Good Bottle Co., Grapevine Wine, Harris Teeter in Ballantyne (no, really), Salud Beer Shop, Twenty-Two or Vintner Wine Market.

When I visit these and other establishments with modest draft selections, I never have a problem deciding on a beer. I’m not overwhelmed by too many choices, and yet I can always find a diverse selection among the taps. And I can rest easy knowing the beer I order hasn’t been sitting for months being passed over for so many others.

What is a blessing to the drinker, however, can be a burden to the bar’s beer buyer. Imagine the difference in buying beer for a bar with more than 100 taps compared to one with, say, 16 taps. There’s a lot more leeway in the first instance. The buyer tasked with filling just 16 taps, on the other hand, must ensure that a range of styles are represented across a much smaller space. Buzzword though it is, they have to play more of an active role as a curator – someone who knows as much about beer as they do the preferences of their patrons.

With a record number of breweries in the United States and more diversity in beer than ever before, I do not envy the people faced with this challenge. This is not to say that the people behind some of the more abundantly tapped bars don’t handle the challenge admirably, because many do. Old beer can be eliminated by the kind of volume a bar goes through, what keg sizes they’re ordering, and of course what’s most popular at that location. There are bars in town that handle these large taplists well, including Duckworth’s and the newly-opened Growler USA in Ballantyne. In beer bars run by people that truly know and care about beer, more can be more no matter how many taps they have.

But sometimes less can be more, too.

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