Sitting in a warm, cozy taproom, drinking amber beer. The tables are smooth-sanded wood, light and broad-grained, with a stack of coasters and a mustard pot in the middle. There’s a homey smell of roasting pork and fresh-spilled beer, and a constantly engaging show as the waiters swivel and dip, deftly placing glasses on tables. There’s no chance of a mistaken order; every beer is delivered to the right drinker, without a single error. I finish my beer and the next arrives quickly, fresh, cold, correct, without a word being said.
When you’re drinking at Im Füchschen in Düsseldorf, there’s only one beer available: the altbier. In this town, or just up the river in Cologne (Köln), beer variety takes a vacation. There are several brewers in each city, but the only beer any of them brews is its version of the local specialty, altbier or Kölsch, respectively. The taphouses sell one beer (they’re tied houses) and essentially identical menus: pork, sausages, cheese, rye bread, pickled vegetables. The differences in the beers from the various brewers are real, but subtle: one slightly more malty, one a bit drier, one a bit more aromatic in its hopping.
You might think this was a terrible business model: only one beer to order, the same menu as every other bar in town. Crazy, right? It’s similar to how things used to be here in the U.S., with maybe three beer choices, the same burger-and-fries kind of menu and everyone nodding: Yup, I’ll have another—another beer.
Then the multi-tap beer bar came along and blew it away. Have an IPA, then a soured wheat, then a different IPA and then an imperial stout, tap-dancing your way through the night with a different beer every time because you gotta taste ’em all! We revel in the variety, in all its glorious difference and daring.
I get it, and I do it, too, and I have no problem whatsoever with it. Variety and choice are what the revolutionary change in the American beer market has been all about, a change that’s spreading around the world. We love the multitude of beers. I wish I could get that kind of choice at coffee shops, where they may have a dozen different bagged coffees, but they usually only brew two, and maybe a decaf offering (why?) and a flavored brew.
No arguments: The current breadth of choice is awesome. Sometimes it’s so demanding that I’ll point and shoot—a Bell’s Two Hearted, a Deschutes Black Butte — so I can have a beer while I’m deciding what beer to have. It’s so absorbing it stops conversation.
But when I’m in Germany’s Twin Cities of Top Fermentation, all of that’s forgotten. I lean back against the wall, beer in hand, and relax. I don’t have the next beer to think about; I don’t even have to get the waiter’s attention. My glass is never empty longer than two minutes till a waiter swings by, plucks a full stange from his tray, places it on the table, marks a notch on my coaster, takes the empty, smiles and pivots … gone in 15 seconds.
Every beer is the same price, the same temperature, served in the same 200-mL glass, and every beer is fresh, cleanly served and delicious. It’s so relaxing. It’s almost like falling in love; you don’t even think about all the other beers you’re not drinking, you’re so happy with the beer in front of you.
Now think about this: The whole city is like that. There are a few bars in Cologne that have a wider selection of beers; there’s now a bar in Düsseldorf that advertises “100 varieties craft beer!” But mostly, it’s one choice, everywhere, all the time.
For a beer enthusiast, it might be unsettling. What if I want something else? What am I missing out on? The FOMO alone can be paralyzing!
But it makes me think back about 10 years ago when I dropped into a bar in Philly and saw four beers on the tap list I wanted to try. I happened to have Yards Philly Pale Ale first … and that was all she wrote. It hit me so right, I stuck with it the rest of the night. Is that so bad?
Don’t stop tap dancing. Don’t get away from the variety. But if one beer is pouring just right, and it’s hitting you square, let it happen. Have another: because sometimes, one beer is all you need.
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. On Twitter @LewBryson.