Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Magical Words of Beer

A story appearing in the Chicago Tribune yesterday pointed to an interesting study detailing the influence a simple label had on coffee drinkers' perception of flavor.  By telling study volunteers one of two identical cups of coffee was "eco-friendly," volunteers who cared about the environment said they preferred the taste of the faux eco-friendly coffee 74% of the time.

As the Chicago Tribune's Karen Kaplan aptly noted, "[t]his isn't the first time scientists have demonstrated that lying to people about a product's characteristics can influence how much they think they like it."

My attention was drawn to this article by a question posed by Ray Daniels, Cicerone Certification Program Director, in this tweet:

My immediate reaction, which I tweeted back (@GrowlerFills), was that we already have two magic words that automatically raise craft beer fans' perception of flavor and the price they're willing to pay for it:  Barrel Aged.

After a moment to ponder, I think Ray was reflecting upon the use of the actual words "craft beer" rather than words within the craft beer sphere, but they are two parallel components of the same conversation.

There is zero question the words "craft beer" have a huge influence on craft beer fans' perceptions of quality and flavor.  Consistent with the coffee study's examination of the influence of  the "eco-friendly" label on people who identified themselves as caring about the environment, I suspect the more one considers him/herself to be a craft beer geek, snob, connoisseur (insert your preferred term here), the more influence these words have.

Try this test: consider your immediate reaction to the words Blue Moon and Shock Top. Positive or negative?  For the vast majority of craft beer fans, there's an immediate, inherent bias that precedes any flavors hitting one's tongue. Indeed, festival goers were rather chagrined to learn Shock Top Lemon Shandy beat out several local favorites for best fruit beer at the 2011 and 2012 Garden City Brewfests in Missoula.  Funny what a little blind taste testing will do sometimes.

The indisputable fact is this: "craft" does not equal "quality." You and I both know there is "craft beer" out there that is not cutting it.  More than we'd like to admit.  Conversely, there is non-craft beer out there that is damn tasty.  Again, probably more than we'd like to admit.

That's not to say I have a problem with the term "craft beer."  After all, I use it as the tag line for the name of my blog.  And show me an industry that does not use words with . . . . . what's the right term . . . . . questionable validity (?) . . .  to play off the inherent bias in a group of consumers while simultaneously trying to distinguish between segments of that same industry.  

Here's one we just experienced: "Small Business Saturday," local businesses' counter to the Black Friday insanity made popular by big box stores.  (Ironically, its an event created by one of the world's biggest credit card companies, American Express.)

There's little question the term creates warm fuzzies in the many who care about supporting local businesses - like neighborhood breweries.  Include me in that list.  Like "eco-friendly" and "craft beer," the term "small business" can be an indicator of positive traits.  Keeping money in the local economy, creating better paying jobs, ensuring a healthy downtown are frequently touted examples.

Yet, like "craft" beer, "small business" does not automatically equal good service, higher wages, better products, or a favorable experience.

As the Brewers Association pushes ever harder to create a specific meaning behind the term "craft beer," some are pushing back.  Max Bahnson, author of the blog Beer Philosopher, argues its an attempt in many ways to define the undefinable, a sentiment he captures succinctly with this image:

Credit: Max Bahnson
I appreciate this sentiment. Regardless, the term craft beer is not going away anytime soon.  We started out calling it "microbrewed," a term that now seems quaint and antiquated. That was back in the dinosaur days (ha!) when the MillerCoors and AB InBev's of the world did not have competing products. Now that they do, its no surprise the various industry trade groups like the Brewers Association utilize imperfect methods in an attempt to create separation within the industry.

But back to my original quick response to Ray's tweet. Within craft beer there are any number of magical words that (potentially) artificially inflate the perceived quality of the beer.  Heck, it's not only a question of perceived quality, but perceived flavors.

Twice on popular beer ratings websites I've seen beer reviewers discuss the whiskey/bourbon flavors in Blackfoot River Brewing Co.'s Single Malt IPA.  Sure, "single malt" conjures up images of fine bottles of scotch, but in this case Blackfoot's clever name refers to the fact their outstanding IPA is brewed with only one malt - Maris Otter.

None of us is immune to these multiple sources of persuasion whether they be pure marketing speak or the well founded opinions of a friend.

What the coffee study provides most is a reminder to maintain critical thinking.  Nothing new there, yet I perceive we're more likely to be overly influenced in an area we particularly enjoy. Like the environmentally-friendly component of the study, we gravitate toward things which reflect our values.  Even more so when the information aligns with how we want things to be. If you don't think you're predisposed to rate an imperial stout higher after you paid $18+ for the bomber and spent two months trying to locate it, you're a far more objective person than me.

So I ask you: what magical words do you identify with craft beer and what influence do they have?


  1. Nice write up alan, I read blog once where the writer stated that he compiled all of the scores for Barrel aged stouts and Double IPA's from a highly popular beer judging website and compared them to the scores for the Blonde ales. Not surprising he found that the barrel aged beers and the Double IPA s had average scores in the 90's while the in the blonde ale category he couldnt find a single one greater than 85. Astounding, that means according to this site there are no world class examples of a blonde ale. I find this issue to be most disconcerting in my homebrew, I find it very hard to judge my own beer objectively due to my involvement in the process. Thank goodness for my wife, she has no problem telling me exactly how my beer tastes =)

  2. Thanks Dan. You're right, a pilsner, blonde ale, etc. has zero chance of winning "best in show" in any beer competition. We just don't place the same kind of "appreciation" on those styles of beers even though some of them are harder to get right than a big stout, for example. But my even bigger pet peeve is this. Someone I follow on twitter/untappd gave The Bruery's Tart of Darkness a one star rating and made this comment: "Wow, NOT a sour beer fan. This was as close to terrible as I think I've ever tasted." Here's a tip. If it's a style you don't like, don't rate it. You're not fit to judge and you're not doing anyone any favors. But enough of my soap box for the time being.