The Seductive Stupidity of Self-Service

By Stephen Beaumont

If you’re old enough, you will recall when self-serve gas arrived on the scene. At the time, you pulled your car into the station and someone pumped your gas, cleaned your windshield and, if requested, checked your oil. He –  it was always a ‘he’ – then told you how much you owed and you paid him, all without having to leave your car!

When self-serve arrived, it came with a discount. If you were willing to do the work yourself, and save the station owner the cost of hiring a gas jockey, some of that savings was passed along in the form of a reduced price for the gas you pumped. It was a classic win-win situation.

Then we got used to pumping our own gas and suddenly self-serve was the standard and full service the premium-priced extra. One still costs more than the other, except that now you were expected to pump your own gas and clean your own windshield and most gas stations don’t even offer you the full service option anymore.

Today, self-service is everywhere, and forget asking for a discount. My grocery store wants me to check out on my own, but don’t think for a minute that they’re willing to knock 2% or 3% off my food bill for doing so. Bars want me to avail myself of their “famous self-serve Bloody Mary station,” often asking me to pay extra for the privilege. The only reason I ever see a teller at my bank these days is because I often have foreign currency cheques that can’t be deposited at the ATM, but my bank fees are higher than ever.

And now a small but growing cohort of bars want me to pour my own beer.

When first I encountered this in North Carolina, I admit that I thought it was kind of cool. There were dozens of taps, each with a reasonable description of what was pouring, and I could taste different beers a few ounces at a time from a well-sized and well-shaped glass, rather than having to order half-pints or a flight of tasters filled right to the brim. From a sampling and assessing perspective, it was quite handy.

From a drinking point of view, however, I quickly grew to loathe self-serve. It’s worse than just an inconvenience, it’s actually contrary to the very nature of beer!

At its most elemental, beer is a sociable beverage.

At its most elemental, beer is a sociable beverage, regardless of style, strength or brewery size. (Yes, you can “session” a strong beer by sipping it slowly.) And that sociability is witnessed in any number of forms, from the conversation over pints begun between strangers at a bar to the interaction of friends out for a drink or a chat with the bartender on a quiet afternoon.

What is not sociable is eliminating human interaction, whether between bartender and customer or drinkers who no longer have anything to bond over because they’re too busy scurrying around getting their own beers. As for those “tap your own beer” table-centre founts some bars are now touting as hip and oh-so-cool, some people may want to drink foamy pint after foamy pint of the same beer all night, but I’m not among them. When I go out to drink, I do so for the variety, the novelty of having my drinks brought to me, and the joy of interaction with other human beings.

Besides, to paraphrase a very wise bartender who commented to me once about bottle service in clubs, if I want to make my own drinks, or pour and fetch my own beers, I’ll just stay at home, thank you very much.