CONSUMER choice is one of the cornerstones of a free market economy. For many drinkers, this has no better expression than at beer festivals.
At the country's biggest, held earlier this month at Olympia in west London, there were 330 cask beers, 180 foreign beers, 27 bottled beers from the UK, and 40 types of cider or perry.
This beer celebration, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), was organised by the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) and, as a consumer pressure group, it would be expected to pull out all the stops. Beer festivals around the country, organised by Camra or others, have created an expectation of wide choice. It is seen as part of the "real ale" experience.
Customers may anticipate being offered variety when they use a bar but, as any successful retailer knows, an attempt to meet this expectation has to be mindful of the wastage and other costs of keeping a large stock.
It is a particular problem with cask beer. Some pub and bar managers think that just by stocking 10 cask beers will they qualify as a "real ale" pub. But this is often a road to ruin.
Too wide a range means some of the beers will be off, or at least past their best. It is better to focus on a handful, perhaps just one, if your turnover of cask beer is too low to guarantee quality.
Beers vary in how long they will maintain freshness once the cask is opened, depending in particular on alcoholic strength. Your supplier can give guidance to the exceptions but you should be emptying a cask within two or three days of it being opened. If not, switch to a smaller cask size or reduce your range.
Try to remember the point of stocking cask beer. Like good wine, it appeals to the more discerning drinker. These people will not be impressed by stale beer; they will be enthusiastic about well-kept ale and will help build your reputation, perhaps resulting in guide listings.
The question of choice appears to be a problem for the smaller pub or bar, but it need not be. A regular guest ale policy can work wonders. This needs to be a proper guest, one that comes for a short while and does not overstay its welcome. Try at least a weekly rotation.
If you only have the turnover to support one guest ale, stick with accessible drinking bitters. If you try something unusual, use a chalk board or a poster to explain what it is and why it should taste like it does, and to praise its virtues, such as any awards it has won.
It makes sense, therefore, to start with beers that have won what many consider to be the ultimate drinkers' accolade - a placing in the Champion Beer of Britain contest held at the GBBF each year.
In a break with tradition in these columns, I'm recommending three beers this month, the top three winners in Camra's contest.
lWoodforde's Wherry, 3.8% ABV. Tel: 01603 720353.
lCheriton Diggers Gold, 4.6% ABV. Tel: 01962 771166.
lButterknowle Banner Bitter, 4% ABV. Tel: 01388 710109