One year (and a few hours) ago, I started down the road on a unique beer challenge. I mean that literally: I wanted to see what it would be like to have only one real pour of any beer for an entire year. Once I'd had one serving of it, that was it, I couldn't have it again until 2018.
Well, here we are, one year (and a few hours) later, and I'm happy to report that it was a highly enjoyable experience that, I think, casts light on some interested beer and beer culture questions. The short version is that there's a ton of beer out there, I barely scratched the surface, and vacationing is a far bigger threat to beer diversity than anything else I've noticed.
It was quite a year.
First, one number: 409. I had 409 unique "tagged" (in Untappd) beers this year, and some number of homebrewed beers, but most of those weren't trackable. I did, though, make a conscious, good-faith effort to avoid any potential repeaters there, and I think I was successful.
Now, some of you Untappd Rambo-like figures out there might be scoffing at my humble 409 total, but I'd contextualize that. First, I wasn't trying to rack up a huge number - in fact, I was hoping to avoid it, since the second I checked a beer in, I couldn't have it again! As a result, that number doesn't represent every beer I shared or tasted over the course of a year, just the number where I had a "proper" serving of it (between 6-22 ounces, plus three very enjoyable and totally within the rules liters of different beers at an Oktoberfest event!). It could have been a bit higher. But still, admittedly, nowhere near you folks that rack up 1,000 or more every year...
Second, that number squares pretty neatly with my "normal" consumption tally for the year, which is telling. In 2016 I tracked every beer I drank, and ended up at 381 pints. If we assume that most of these in 2017 were 14 ounces in size, on average (which is probably right, if we assume a reasonable mix of at-home 12-ouncers, pints out, and the occasional lonely bomber), then that 409 beers works out to 351 pints, plus whatever homebrew I had.
My takeaway? Having to open/order a brand-new beer every time didn't seem to be much of a hinderance in terms of being able to enjoy beer when I wanted. I can't think of any occasions where, for example, I couldn't find anything on tap that was fair game for me and had to pivot to wine, mead, liquor, etc.
Then there were the beers I was drinking. I guarded pretty jealously what I assumed would be my "bail out" beers: those macros you find everywhere. I figured that I'd be forced into situations where the only option was a Big Beer product or lineup, and so these were my "In Emergency Break Glass" (maybe literally, based on the flavor of some of these things...) beers.
I was totally wrong. I was almost never forced into that situation. In fact, I remember only twice: a dinner at a chain Latin place where I'd just been a week before, and a lunch at a beach town dive bar that we often visit more than once when we're in town. In both cases, though, there were still local craft options available - but only two or three, and I'd returned before the taps had a chance to change over.
As a result, I had almost the entire macro roster at my disposal right up until the end of the year. In order to heighten my enjoyment of a return to beers I'd last had a year before, in fact, this was my New Year's Eve lineup from last night (plus one Thomas Hardy 2006 barleywine, because you need to pair something good with a 10-plus pound prime rib and shrimp):
You really should have seen the nasty looks I got from the craft beer lovers at Wegmans when I put that beauty of a mixed sixer together...
Finding new craft beers was easy. Even at corporate and chain locations, craft taps were available. And even in places that don't choose from the hyperinflating universe of craft beers, but instead brew their own, I still didn't have any trouble. We visit one particular brewpub 2-3 times per month, and I never even got to half of their "core" lineup because there were so many seasonals and one-offs to choose from.
The Weak Link
If there was a weak link here, it was...me. I don't mean personally (though it's definitely possible), I mean that the only real challenge I encountered was keeping beer in stock at home or, especially, on vacation. A five-hour game night might mean 4-6 cans/bottles of unique beer. A week at the shore might mean a case. A visit to a local BYO becomes a fridge-depleting hit.
This was hardly a concern, though. First, because my family, friends, and homebrew club made it super tolerable. We do a couple of mixed-case buys in the club per year, and even with a couple of "oops, already had that one..." selections in them, they were incredibly useful in keeping my beer diversity needs met. Plus, friends and family would pick up or split out singles of beers from their travels and visits. Then there were the beers I get to review for Beer Connoisseur. Yes, I had to visit the bottle shop now and again and pay a bit of a premium for mixed packs, but so what?
After all, this was a problem not of beer quality, quantity, or availability, but rather a structural problem unique to this challenge. It's not as though it was hard because the local beer stores only carried a few brands - it was because I only needed one can (leading to absurdities like when you need to buy a 30-pack of Narragansett to make your "Quint from Jaws" costume work because they only have it in a megapack, but can only drink one...).
All told, this was a fun year. I highly encourage you all to give this a shot - maybe not for a whole year, but for some length of time.
The biggest benefit was that it encouraged me to experiment. Ordering a beer from a brewery I'd never heard of or hadn't yet tried out became an advantage, and it broke me out of an ordering rut in terms of breweries and styles. I had more fruit beer, Belgian beer, seasonal beers of all kinds in this year than I've had in years, and it showed me how surprisingly narrow my beer buying habits had become (I still brew a crazily-diverse array of beers at home).
It also confirmed that, at least in my area, there's absolutely no empirical evidence of a serious re-consolidation of the beer market. I know that buyouts, mergers, and more make us legitimately concerned about contraction in the market yielding fewer choices, but if it's even possible it's still a long ways off. 409 beers this year, and I don't think I even made a dent in what's out there.
Finally, and I think this is always a good thing, it made me more-conscious of what I was ordering and drinking. Whether we're too enamored of the latest trendy thing and knee-jerk order every "limited release," or routinely order your old stand-byes rather than branching out, "habit" in consumption is arguably not a great thing. I loved being forced to scrutinize tap lists and bottle shop shelves for something different.
This was a great experience, and while I'm not going to keep it going (though that would be fascinating - I wonder how long you could keep it up??? Years, I imagine), I do have a new challenge for 2018 that should yield a lot of the same benefits.
The New Challenge
This year, I can drink as many of each beer as I want (and I'm looking forward to a few carefully-preserved Sierra Nevada Celebrations later today). But what's life without some kind of fun challenge?
In 2018, my goal is to drink geographically and see just how much of the globe I can span. There are about 195 countries in the world, 64 states/territories in the US, and 67 counties in Pennsylvania. That's 326 jurisdictions. Let's see how many can be checked off between now and December 31st, 2018!
Same basic rule: at least six ounces constitutes a real "serving" of the beer. Some of these places (I'm thinking of the rural counties in PA) may not have any breweries, but this is a perfect excuse to hunt down those that do! I feel confident I'll be surprised how few "blank" spots there are on the beer map (though we're not discounting at all the plight of those who live in effective beer deserts, even if they happen to have one craft brewery in the county). I'm looking forward to doing the survey of what's out there...and then doing so again in a few months to see if new breweries have popped up!
Should be fun.
Have yourselves a great New Year's Day, I'll be back later this week or next week with this year's Brew Year's Resolutions, and thanks for reading in 2017.
Keep it simple.
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