Editor's Letter: The Danger in Categorical Thinking

A few thoughts about challenging ourselves to think differently, and questioning old assumptions about beer and the industry.

Jamie Bogner Jan 28, 2020 - 4 min read

Editor's Letter: The Danger in Categorical Thinking Primary Image

There’s danger in categorical thinking, yet it has defined much of beer’s recent history. Our brains, in fact, are hardwired toward this mental shorthand, as for much of human existence this categorical ability to make decisions quickly based on experience with similar things has meant the difference between life and death.

An article I read recently by Bart de Langhe and Phillip Fernbach in the Harvard Business Review hits awfully close to home on the subject. It outlines a few of the ways this type of thinking can manifest itself in the negative effects of compression, amplification, discrimination, and fossilization.

Compression is the tendency to treat members of a category as more similar than they actually are. Whether we’re talking about the taxonomy of beer styles or classes of craft-beer consumers, it’s easy to fall into this trap of oversimplification and not look at the broader complexity that makes up everything from lovers of certain styles of beers to the commercial examples that make up our idea of what those styles are. Under the magnifying glass, many of those assumptions don’t hold up.

Amplification is the means by which differences between categories are overstated. We’re all guilty of this (we’ve spent far too much time discussing the minute differences between porter and stout, for example), but when you put a similar lens to customer classes such as “IPA drinker” or “sour-beer fan” or “Untappd ticker,” the assumption of lines between them fall away and the overlap becomes more and more apparent.

Discrimination is the tendency to favor certain categories over others. IPA is the perfect illustration of this, as the favoring of the category by both producers and consumers has led to a broadening that has rendered the category itself almost meaningless. But from a consumer perspective, this incessant focus on a narrow range of style categories may lead to misplaced judgements based on limited contact. Will a customer who has an unenjoyable experience with one example of a certain style then give it a fair shake on their visit to another brewery?

Fossilization refers to the assumption that category definitions are static, lasting, or permanent. Consumer tastes are dynamic. Beer as a product of agriculture is dynamic. Just because a style has existed and prospered in the past does not mean it will continue to do so in the future. Just because consumers are enamored with a new and exciting new flavor profile does not mean that new thing will be a viable product 5 or 10 years from now. In the business of beer, brewers and business operators must continuously challenge old assumptions as well as treat new data with a healthy skepticism.

It’s time to think beyond these reductive categorical definitions. We hope the perspectives and viewpoints in the Brewing Industry Guide inform your own broader, more nuanced views.