Choice is important. No-one really wants to eat or drink the same thing over and again. Many of us take this a step further and crave the new and interesting. We look to combine food and drink which compliment each other. Pairing food and drink is nothing revolutionary, but right now in the beer-sphere there seems to be more interest than ever before, which may have something to do with beer and its increasing recognition as something more than just a vehicle to cerebral annihilation.
Britain now has a healthy micro-brewing industry alongside the ever-present national and international mass-producers. Look on the beer aisle in most supermarkets these days and there is an attempt to supply something for everyone. The problem with supermarkets trying to be ‘all things to all men’ (and women) is that this approach to retail generally dilutes the quality of a product range. Being faced with so much choice can lead to indecision and a higher chance of selecting something you didn’t want in the first place.
The reason for me commenting on this topic is in response to a recent article on the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog. Sophie Atherton reports on the state of information provided by supermarkets when selling beer. On the one hand we are delighted to see supermarkets respond to our demands, we ask for real ale and they stock real ale, we ask for locally brewed beer and they stock it, and so on. Once they have an aisle full of beer we (the general ‘we’) scratch our heads and protest that there is too much choice, “how are we supposed to choose the beer we’ll enjoy”? Well, Sophie has information that suggests that supermarkets like Morrisons and Asda have the solution. Both businesses are looking to put computer systems in stores to assist shoppers with tasting notes and food pairing suggestions. Brilliant you might think, however this is where I start losing interest. I have benefited from the supermarkets muscle power and ability to react quickly and buy big to quench our thirst, but I am now of the opinion that maybe ‘they’ [the supermarkets] are in over their heads. What they are trying to solve is the customers want or need to be able to seek advice on their drink selection. Corporate beasts like Morrisons and Asda could, if they wanted to, provide a proper sommelier service i.e. a person, with knowledge, waiting to talk to you. But instead they buy some software and some more touch screens. Job done. They then get back to the important business of deciding where they’ll move the photo booth to this week so they can shoehorn their new range of 99 shoehorns in.
It’s my opinion that supermarkets should leave this kind of beer sales to the experts in our independent retailers and specialist shops. If we want to know which beer to try or what food to pair it with, we should find a business that actually cares about the product and take it from there. There are also a number of excellent blogs to turn to and real-time advice if you happen to Tweet. I realise that what I am saying here may contradict the notion that supermarkets selling micro-brewed or ‘craft’ beer is a positive step, and I’m certainly not suggesting that everything they are doing is ill thought out. They should just know their limits.
Zak Avery blogged about this too over on The Beer Boy and makes the point that we should use the specialist retailers or risk losing them.