In the beer world, it’s often de rigueur to make fun of seemingly naïve, judgment averse wine snobs and their penchants for spending money based upon label consciousness rather than actual flavor and quality. We’ve all read about behavioral science experiments where wine drinkers are given two bottles of wine, both filled with the same liquid but with two different labels. After being told that one bottle is considerably more expensive than the other, study participants routinely prefer the pricier bottle. Similarly, The Wine Trials, a 2009 book from Fearless Critic, caused a stir in the wine industry by reporting its findings that participants, both experts and novices, preferred much less costly wines to more expensive offerings in scientific blind tastings. Grounds for a good chuckle at snooty wine’s expense, right?
Well, not so fast. Who’s to say the same dilemma doesn’t also plague the world of craft beer? While a follow-up book, called The Beer Trials, failed to account for such wide disconnect between price and quality—Budweiser and Celebrator ended up about where you’d expect them to be—beer is a difficult comparator to wine in terms of testing whether people prefer to drink more or less expensive products. As the authors note, the price differentials between the most expensive craft beers (with certain scarcity promoting outliers aside) and the average macro offering isn’t particularly significant, paling in comparison to the difference between a $15 and a $150 bottle of wine.
But does that mean beer drinkers are off the hook when it comes to bias in our tasting preferences? We do live in a world where fans of Miller Lite can sit elbow to elbow at a bar with another patron who is enjoying a $8 short pour chalice of a world classic Belgian dubbel. It’s hard to find a similar comparison in the wine world. But I keep coming back to the imperial stout ratings conundrum. A quick look at the Best of BeerAdvocate beer list reveals a few things. First, about half of the top 50 beers are imperial stouts, with the rest comprised of other big, boozy styles or funkified options. Second, dozens and dozens of styles fail to make the list, with an entire branch of beer—the lager family—completely shut out of the party.
And while many of the listed beers are indeed excellent, what accounts for the odd stylistic disparity? Are we a collective of booze hounds? Or is high alcohol dark beer simply the most popular choice at many bars? To be sure, some inevitable factors, such as scarcity, are at work. Standing on a Portsmouth street corner all night waiting for the local brewery to offer its specialty imperial stout for sale the next day better make the beer taste awesome. But perhaps something else is at work that we should consider.
In preparing my book, Great American Craft Beer, I participated in a lot of blind tastings, something with which I had only limited previous experience. After creating the initial list of selections for the project, I expected that particular beers would certainly make the final cut due to their reputations. To my surprise, many of these highly sought after beers failed to qualify. I think the same experience applies to many highly hyped beers, as buzz attracts crowds for particular products.
The take away is this: while beer is a social beverage that is meant to be enjoyed in good company, it helps to occasionally step back and inspect the foundations of our beer knowledge and beliefs. As a means of improving your tasting ability or just to spice up your parties, the occasional blind tasting may lead to a newfound respect for a big brewery’s hefe-weizen or an often overlooked German Pilsener.