Quick: do you know the full name of the person who delivers your mail? How about that dude at Dunkin Donuts who makes your greasy sausage and croissant heart-stoppers? What about your neighbor, four houses down?
No? Don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault.
As postulated by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, our brains literally cannot hold onto so many relationships at once. Turns out we’re socially crippled by anatomy. After much research on primates, primitive social groups, and modern culture, Dunbar came to the conclusion that the size of our neocortex limits how many concurrent relationships we can maintain.
The maximum number of relationships is called “Dunbar’s Number,” and the average clocks in right around 150.
That’s right, even with 1000 Facebook friends and 2000 Twitter followers, you really only have about 150 meaningful, reciprocating relationships in your entire life. The Dunbar Number quantifies your varying levels of caring, and explains why we think more of our mother than some other random woman, even if they’re both good human beings.
David Wong (of Cracked.com fame) dug deeper, dubbing your ~150 relationships your “monkeysphere;” an invisible domain of other monkey-brains you keep close, who mean more to you, who you interact and associate with regularly. The inner most sphere is made up of your direct family, the next layer your close friends, the next your coworkers and neighbors, etc. As you move towards the edge of the sphere, the less you know about the people, and the weaker the relationships become.
Outside the sphere reside those we cognitively acknowledge are living on our planet, but can’t, because of sheer number, take the time to get to know. Of course we know these people exist, but they’re on the periphery of reality for us, in that shadowy realm of “people” made up of passersby and citizens of far off countries that, given their proximity to our daily lives, might as well be other planets.
Some extraordinary folk might be able to stretch how many people they can know, but generally, we’re doomed to a finite, insular core of relationships due to our basic biology.
“What the hell does this have to do with beer?” You might ask.
“Everything.” I might answer
The popular conversation surrounding the growth of craft beer (we were at 3418 breweries in the US in 2014 in case you hadn’t heard that stat in the past 10 minutes) focuses on economics and sustainability, questioning bubbles and boundaries, examining whether demand will continue to stay ahead of supply, and if so, for how long.
This is a great conversation, and it should be had long into the night over many pints. But I worry that it won’t matter if the average consumer cannot hold the concept of so many breweries (and beers) in her head in any meaningful way.
Thus the truth revealed by applying Dunbar’s Number to contemporary beer: the rampant growth of the brewing industry is outpacing our brain’s ability to create relationships with beer.
Even as a beer nerd, I’ve reached the point where I skim over the announcement of a new brewery, not because I’m inherently jaded, but because I’ve reached near-critical mass for how many breweries I can care about. I want to love the next new startup, but at some point, my connection to and understanding of said brewery is going to be cursory, if even that, unless I sacrifice some other relationship to build a new one.
For example: In my area, a decent, but hardly ridiculous beer scene (I’m looking at you, both Portlands), I have Heavy Seas, Evolution, Oliver Ales, Jailbreak, DuClaw, Union Brewing, Brewer’s Art, Flying Dog, Port City, Full Tilt, Ellicott City Brewing, DC Brau, BlueJacket, and several more. If we’re being conservative and saying each of these breweries has 5 flagship beers and 5 more seasonal/limited releases, that’s thirteen breweries and one hundred and thirty beers (130!) at my libatious disposal just within the confines of my own geographic comfort zone.
That’s not including nationally distributed brands like Lagunitas, Stone, Anchor, Sierra Nevada, and Sam Adams, and doesn’t even mention the suffocating ubiquity of macro beers or a growing selection of imports. If you add those in, and drop them all in a store with enough room to flaunt them (hello, Total Wine) you’re looking at three hundred plus beers available to me at any give time.
Because of their overwhelming numbers, most beers are relegated to an area outside of the sphere where we can form relationships; bottle shops promote craft promiscuity, encouraging drinkers to have one-night stands with single, sexy bottles. Our brains can recall about ~1500 human faces (and probably a similar amount of beer labels), but recall doesn’t involve anything beyond a simple connection to a tiny fragment of longterm memory. We’re tasting like ships passing in the night, twelve ounces slipping by lips without sign or context, isolated, clinical experiences measured in acronyms and percentages.
Modern drinkers often aren’t taking the time to get to know the beer, to court the beer, to woo the beer.
And can we blame them?
If I took the time to experience every beer in my area, I’d be (using averages) plus 19,500 calories and minus $258.70.
Every beer in the country? I’d be dangerously diabetic and in student-loan levels of debt.
We’ve developed tools to help us track the sprawl, databases to bring order to the chaos, let us think we have control over what my basic math says are ~35,000 beers being actively* brewed across the US. But tools only help catalog data for dissection, doing next to nothing to help us establish and maintain relationships with breweries. A goal, I’d surmise, nearly every member of the Brewers Association holds dear.
Drink local because your brain says you have to
Enter the concept of the beer monkeysphere, or the “beerosphere,” if you will: a geographic and sociologic area that you associate with “your” beer either by physical location in relation to your home or some kind of shared history.
Much argument about the “local” aspect of craft beer grows from hipster roots; feel good warm and fuzzies about supporting local economies and being a good member of the community. It has some merit, but I argue it’s much less deliberate, much more primal.
We associate with local breweries because they are the nearest and most comfortable; the inner circle of family in our inebriated appropriation of Dunbar’s Number. It makes sense that we can more easily form relationships with the breweries and brewers we can actually visit, making “drink local” a function of cognitive effluence more than an active sociological trend.
We drink local because distant breweries, even the great ones, exist outside of our beerosphere. We cannot care about all the breweries at once, so we default to those we’re proximate to, those with who we can tangibly interact, and most importantly, form a real, significant relationship with. A distant brewery is like the garbage man; we know he’s there and does an important thing, but we just can’t find the room to care about him personally.
It may seem extreme to think of consumers creating social (or even romantic) relationships with breweries or beers, but it’s the crux of all marketing and dollar decision making. There’s a reason you buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch over the store brand or another cereal entirely, and it has very little to do with quality. At some point you developed a connection with the “taste that you can see,” and now you’re partial because fundamentally you care about the cereal.
The same goes for beer. You’re being guided by your brain to find meaning in all of your choices, which means piling layers of experiences together to make a delicious relational sandwich. We won’t be psychologically satisfied with anything less.
Continued growth means geographically distant breweries have to find a way to become and remain relevant in a remote beer drinker’s life. For a while, the quality and execution of the beer was enough, but now, with your hometown brewery offering both good beer and good psychological validation, their job is much harder.
Some breweries, like Oskar Blues, New Belgium, and Sierra Nevada are opening secondary facilities. This is obviously a smart logistics move, but also a powerful marketing gambit, too; when the brewery is actually closer, drinkers can more easily lump it into their personal beerosphere, and start to consider it within their select, familial circle.
Ultimately, once quality and consistency become status quo, the war for consumer dollar might be fought over who can develop the best and longest lasting relationship with its drinkers. The onus could shift from brewing to storytelling, from quality assurance to marketing messaging, as breweries fight as hard for brain space as they do for shelf space.
*I say actively, because I know there are thousands upon thousands of legacy beers. A note from Greg Avola on the Untappd message boards in 2012 said that they have 175,000 beers in the database, a number that has surely grown since (but does include one-offs and homebrews, too).
Additional reading that also act as crude citations: