How We Choose What to Drink

Illustration: beer pumps, splashes of colour.

You walk into a pub or bar and are faced with, say, eight or more beers. Which do you go for, and why?

We were trying to work out if we have a system, subconscious or otherwise, and here’s what we reckon our order of preference is.

  1. Anything that’s on our wish list.
  2. Something new by a favourite brewery.
  3. An old favourite we don’t see often.
  4. A beer we’ve tried but want to give more thought to.
  5. Something from a new brewery we’ve heard is interesting.
  6. Anything new that doesn’t ring alarm bells.
  7. An old favourite we have all the time.
  8. Whatever vaguely OK but boring cask ale or ‘craft beer’ they’ve got.
  9. Guinness, or gin and tonic.

Alcoholic strength also comes into it but we tend to deal with that by ordering halves or thirds where appropriate — it doesn’t usually influence our choice. And we might skip our choice if the bar staff warn us it’s insanely expensive. It’s probably fair to say we default to cask but that’s kind of built in to what’s on our wish list, what counts as an old favourite, and so on. We wouldn’t be swayed either way by fined/unfined although a few muted and muddy pints of Moor in recent months means they’ve slipped from ‘favourite brewery’ status.

The alarm bells mentioned in point 6 are hard to pin down but they’re probably fairly superficial: an awful pump-clip, grim-sounding ingredients, the word on the street.

Let’s test that order of preference against a few real-world line-ups.

Here, we reckon we’d go for a half of Siren Caribbean Chocolate Cake (because 4 — unfinished business) and a pint of Rooster’s Yankee (3).

This is a really easy decision: a pint of Thornbridge Lukas and a half of the Thornbridge/Magic Rock Altbier (1 and 2, in both cases).

Again, easy: a pint of Salopian Oracle and a half of Oakham Green Devil — both favourites that we get to drink maybe once every few months (3).

In practice, we probably override these ‘rules’ on gut instinct all the time — if it’s a bit hot, we might not fancy a stout even though it obviously fits category 2, for example, or we might just be craving something bonkers.

The fact that we tend to conservatism is one reason we’ve been asking other people to choose beer for us — left to our own devices, we miss out on new and interesting things, and thus miss out on things that might become old favourites once we get to know them. In certain pubs, like Hand Bar in Falmouth, we will take the advice of people behind the bar. (That’s especially true at Tap East in Stratford where the person behind the bar is often Boak’s little brother.)

One thing’s for certain: looking at beer lists and deciding what you’d order if you were there when you’re actually hundreds of miles away is one way to make yourself both frustrated and thirsty. We’ll probably pop out tonight for a couple of Number 7s by way of consolation.

20 thoughts on “How We Choose What to Drink”

    1. Not much — we maybe drink a bit more lager in the summer, more dark beer in winter (cliche, I know). The weather here isn’t that variable, though, especially in Cornwall, where it’s sometimes said we don’t have summer and winter, just spring-autumn weather all year round.

  1. I ‘took the test’ and funnily enough I chose exactly the same as you did on the first two boards…

    Reliability comes into it for my first drink, I want something familiar, or that I think I’ll defintely enjoy – almost to set a benchmark – then the rules go out of the window

  2. in some cask pubs have a pint of whatever you have just seen served to someone else, especially first thing in the morning, unless of course it’s something you don’t like.

      1. Anytime I go in a cask pub with more than 2 or 3 pumps, you’d be hard pressed to keep up with which beer was being ordered last. Its hard enough to get to the bar on a Tuesday night sometimes.

  3. Word on the street? Do you go to Huggy Bear seeking info, and he tells you “A little bird tells me Thornbridge have a new hopping regimen for Halcyon, and Magic Rock Unhuman Cannonball is sweeeeeeet right now.”?

    1. That’s what makes it a fun phrase to use. Less fun if it gets explained, obviously, but then we can’t exactly complain about over-explaining.

  4. 90% of the time I go in a pub, I just want a new wave style hoppy ale that is under 5%. If there is more than one on the bar, I tend to go for the one I haven’t tried before. If I don’t like it, I’ll revert to something I know for the 2nd pint. I don’t bother with halves because I find I drink them at the same rate and have an empty glass in front of me within 10 minutes when everyone else still has half full pints.

    I tend to default to cask, but not because I particularly prefer it, but because I feel more confident I won’t get a nasty shock when I am told the price of a pint. If there is nothing any good at all, I will begrudgingly have a pint of lager or some godawful ale like Doom Bar.

    Looking at those boards, I’d have a pint of 4, 9 or 10, and on the second board I’d choose one of the 4 labels I don’t recognise, probably starting with the one that says IPA on it.

  5. With you on the third board. On the second I’d start with the Altbier & then have a half (or possibly a third – did you notice they dispense in 2/3s, not pints?) of the 6deg North; I’ve been impressed with them before. On the first, the dry-hopped Yankee sounds good, but after that I’d move on unless I was with someone who wanted to stay; if I had to choose I’d have the Brugse Zot for holiday nostalgia value.

    1. No, didn’t notice the 2/3rds. Same point, though — a big one and a little one.

      1. I’ve actually been there & I didn’t notice the 2/3 line until I was on the point of ordering. Pricey place, & all keg. Wasn’t massively impressed by the range when we were there, tbh. There certainly wasn’t anything that leapt out at me on criteria 1-4, so I was left deciding between the various 5s & 6s by a process of elimination. I was only having one, so I didn’t want anything too strong or anything too weird; I didn’t want to take a punt on a complete unknown for quality reasons; but I didn’t want to have something that was probably just going to be a bog-standard pale ale. At which point (like Steve downthread) I realised I’d crossed off the entire board and had to start again. I ended up with a PA from a US brewery whose name I forgot almost immediately; it was fine, but it wasn’t worth what I paid for it.

  6. I suspect that many of us drink in pubs where category 6 does the trick and we can manage half if not a pint of everything fitting that criteria. Wish lists and fav brewers may make it higher priority but usually time to do full set of anything new.

  7. Do you ask for a taster of beers ever?
    I’d think I’d ask for one in most cases except 3,4,7,8,9. I know I am picky though.

    1. Occasionally, if a pub’s quiet and they make a point of offering them, or if it’s massively expensive. Certainly not as a way of ticking the beers without actually ordering them.

  8. I have favourites in the warmer weather that I don’t choose in cooler weather and vice versa. My choices go like this, if I am driving, I go by ABV (America doesn’t do 1/2 pints or 1/3 pints), if not driving then ABV doesn’t factor for me. I avoid the craze for oranges in beer and fruit in beer in general. If I don’t see any interesting craft beer or local beer, I go with Belgian beers. I ask for a taste of anything that strikes my fancy and go from there. Usually if I go to a place I frequent the samples of anything new arrive without me asking.

  9. In some pubs it feels more like a process of elimination, rather than a positive choice. Rule out anything that looks too strong, or too weak. Then rule out anything that rings alarm bells (dodgy pumpclip, weird ingredients, corporate beast attempting cask/craft). Then, if I’m in for the long haul, rule out anything dark, as I’ll probably work up to that, rather than try to go back to a paler beer later in the evening. Then price, and realise I have the start the whole process again as I’ve ruled everything out.

    So, much the same criteria, just applied in a different way.

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