A new Henry’s Tavern opened last week and added 50 more taps to South Lake Union. For the Portland-based chain, this is something like restraint: the Bellevue and SoDo locations both have over 100 taps each. The SLU Henry’s carries less only because its footprint is smaller than its less centrally located siblings.
What feels odd, maybe, is that this doesn’t feel odd. These days serious taprooms—like Beer Star, TeKu Tavern, both locations of Chuck’s Hop Shop—tend to tap 40-50 beers at a time. There's an underlying logic to this. Everybody likes lots of choices. There's an ever-increasing wealth of good beer being brewed locally—you could realistically fill half those taps with just things being brewed at Reuben's—and just more beer variety than ever before (clocked at 5,300 breweries nationally earlier this year). So why not put in as many taps as the space can handle, right?
“I’m a huge believer that if you’re selecting well, you don’t need very many taps,” says Matt Storm, who owns Queen Anne’s The Masonry, an (excellent, artfully charred) wood-fired pizza place with a farmhouse/saison-heavy taplist. He just opened a second location in Fremont earlier this month, where he’s intentionally limited the beer taps to 20 (the first location has just 14). A few other newer places are keeping their lists short—No Anchor has 12 taps, Ballard Beer Company has 17—but Storm’s reasons are as much psychological as pragmatic:
“If you give people too many choices they almost get overwhelmed and then fall back to what they’re used to. Whereas if you don’t give them too many choices, maybe they take a leap of faith on something they’re unfamiliar with, which, in the case of what we pour, tends to be the majority of the beer.”
The lists at both locations tend toward the esoteric, the collector’s items: Fantome, Jester King, E9. So for people used to the local local local frenzy that is most Seattle lists, the beers seem obscure. In fact, the Holy Mountain and Seapine beers—the interesting choices on most local lists—are here the safe spots for the uninitiated.
There’s a theory that the modern proliferation of choices—whether it’s on Netflix or at the grocery store—actually make people less happy. Confronted with a few choices, goes this reasoning, people will pick quickly and be happy with their choice. Whereas if they have a lot of options they tend to choose more slowly and feel that they missed something, the thing.
Even seated in The Masonry's s glossy new Fremont space, with its gleaming white-webbed orbs around lights and tech-staff absorbing sprawl, I stared down the 20 brews. Minutes passed and I found myself in a fleeting superficial paralysis: I wanted the Fantome La Dalmantienne and two different Jester Kings and the Seapine Monk’s Meal and the E9 Tacoma Wild Black Currant Ale, but it was also 4pm on a Thursday and I had things to do.
I went with the Jester King El Cedro, a “dry-hopped saison aged on Spanish cedar, light and citrusy.” It was lovely, and satisfying, and had it been the only beer I wanted I would've been delighted by my choice. But as things stand, I'm still wondering about that Fantome.