More Booze You Can Use

In Round 2, Slate’s beer tasters test the high-price brews.

When we last heard from them, the members of the Slate beer-testing team were coping with lagers and trying to see if they could taste the 3-to-1 price difference between the most- and least-expensive brands. (Click here for a wrap-up of the first round of beer tasting.) The answer was: They found one beer they really liked, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and one they really hated, imported Grolsch from Holland. Both were expensive beers–Grolsch was the most expensive in the test–and otherwise the testers had a hard time telling beers apart. The members of the team, as noted in the original article, all hold day jobs at Microsoft, mainly as designers, managers, and coders for Microsoft Word.

The point of the second test was not to find the difference between cheap and expensive beers but instead to compare a variety of top-of-the-line beers. Was there one kind the tasters preferred consistently? Could they detect any of the subtleties of brewing style and provenance that microbrew customers pay such attention to when choosing some Doppelbock over a cream ale?

Since the tasting panel had left the first round grumbling that cheap lagers were not a fair test of their abilities, this second round of testing was advertised to the panel as a reward. Every beer in Round 2 would be a fancy beer. A microbrew. A “craft beer.” A prestigious import. These were the kinds of beer the panel members said they liked–and the ones they said they were most familiar with. One aspect of the reward was that they would presumably enjoy the actual testing more–fewer rueful beer descriptions along the lines of “urine” or “get it away!” were expected than in the first round. The other aspect of anticipated reward was the panelists’ unspoken but obvious assumption that this time they would “do better” on the test. Intellectual vanity being what it is, people who had fought for and won jobs at Microsoft and who still must fight every six months for primacy on the employee-ranking scale (which determines–gasp!--how many new stock options they receive) would assume that their skill as tasters was on trial, just as much as the beer was. Of course they were right, which is what made this round as amusing to administer as the first one had been.

Here is what happened and what it meant:

1.Procedure. This was similar in most ways to the experimental approach of Round 1. The nine testers who showed up were a subset of the original 12. The missing three dropped out with excuses of “my wife is sick” (one person) and “meeting is running long” (two).

As before, each tester found before him on a table 10 red plastic cups, labeled A through J. Each cup held 3 ounces of one of the beers. The A-to-J labeling scheme was the same for all testers. Instead of saltines for palate-cleansing, this time we had popcorn and nuts. As they began, the tasters were given these and only these clues:

  • that the flight included one “holdover” beer from the previous round (Sam Adams);
  • that it included at least one import (Bass);
  • that it included at least one macrobrew, specifically, a member of the vast Anheuser-Busch family (Michelob Hefeweizen).

After sampling all beers, the tasters rated them as follows:

2.Philosophy. The first round of testing was All Lager. This second round was All Fancy, and Mainly Not Lager. As several correspondents (for instance, the author of Best American Beers) have helpfully pointed out, the definition of lager provided last time was not exactly “accurate.” If you want to stay within the realm of textbook definitions, a lager is a beer brewed a particular way–slowly, at cool temperatures, with yeast that settles on the bottom of the vat. This is in contrast with an ale, which is brewed faster, warmer, and with the yeast on top. By this same reasoning, lagers don’t have to be light-colored, weak-flavored, and watery, as mainstream American lagers are. In principle, lagers can be dark, fierce, manly. Therefore, the correspondents suggest, it was wrong to impugn Sam Adams or Pete’s Wicked for deceptive labeling, in presenting their tawnier, more flavorful beers as lagers too.

To this the beer scientist must say: Book-learning is fine in its place. But let’s be realistic. Actual drinking experience teaches the American beer consumer that a) all cheap beers are lagers; and b) most lagers are light-colored and weak. The first test was designed to evaluate low-end beers and therefore had to be lager-centric. This one is designed to test fancy beers–but in the spirit of open-mindedness and technical accuracy, it includes a few “strong” lagers too.

3.Materials. The 10 test beers were chosen with several goals in mind:

  • To cover at least a modest range of fancy beer types–extra special bitter, India pale ale, Hefeweizen, and so on.
  • To include both imported and domestic beers. Among the domestic microbrews, there’s an obvious skew toward beers from the Pacific Northwest. But as Microsoft would put it, that’s a feature not a bug. These beers all came from the Safeway nearest the Redmond, Wash., “main campus” of Microsoft, and microbrews are supposed to be local.
  • To include one holdover from the previous test, as a scientific control on our tasters’ preferences. This was Sam Adams, runaway winner of Round 1.
  • To include one fancy product from a monster-scale U.S. mass brewery, to see if the tasters liked it better or worse than the cute little microbrews. This was Michelob Hefeweizen, from the pride of St. Louis, Anheuser-Busch.

Click here for pricing information and pre-quaffing evaluations. The beers tasted were:

Beer A: Michelob Hefeweizen.

Beer B: George Killian’s Irish Red.

Beer C: Henry Weinhard Dark.

Beer D: Sam Adams Boston Lager.

Beer E: Redhook “Ballard Bitter” IPA.

Beer F: Pyramid Hefeweizen.

Beer G: Bert Grant’s Summer Ale.

Beer H: Full Sail “Equinox” ESB (extra special bitter).

Beer I: Bass Ale.

Beer J: Redhook ESB.

4. Data Analysis.

a)Best and Worst. Compared to the lager test, we would expect the range of “best” choices to be more varied, since all the tested beers were supposed to be good. This expectation was most dramatically borne out in the “Best and Worst” rankings.

The nine tasters cast a total of nine Worst votes and 11.5 Best votes. (Tester No. 1 turned in a sheet with three Best selections, or two more than his theoretical quota. Tester No. 4 listed a Best and a Best-minus, which counted as half a vote.)

 The results were clearest at the bottom: three Worsts for Pyramid Hefeweizen, even though most comments about the beer were more or less respectful. (“Bitter, drinkable.”) But at the top and middle the situation was muddier:


There were three Bests for Full Sail ESB, which most of the tasters later said they weren’t familiar with, and 2.5 for Redhook IPA, which all the tasters knew. But each of these also got a Worst vote, and most of the other beers had a mixed reading. So far, the tasters are meeting expectations, finding something to like in nearly all these fancy beers.

b)Overall preference points. Here the complications increase. The loser was again apparent: Pyramid Hefeweizen came in last on rating points, as it had in the Best/Worst derby. But the amazing dark horse winner was Michelob Hefeweizen. The three elements of surprise here, in ascending order of unexpectedness, are:

  • This best-liked beer belonged to the same category, Hefeweizen, as the least-liked product, from Pyramid.
  • This was also the only outright Anheuser-Busch product in the contest (the Redhooks are 75 percent A-B free). It is safe to say that all tasters would have said beforehand that they would rank an American macrobrew last, and Anheuser-Busch last of all.
  • Although it clearly won on overall preference points, Michelob Hefeweizen was the only beer not to have received a single “Best” vote.

The first two anomalies can be written off as testament to the power of a blind taste test. The third suggests an important difference in concepts of “bestness.” Sometimes a product seems to be the best of a group simply because it’s the most unusual or distinctive. This is why very high Wine Spectator ratings often go to wines that mainly taste odd. But another kind of bestness involves an unobtrusive, day-in day-out acceptability. That seems to be Michelob Hefe’s achievement here: no one’s first choice, but high on everyone’s list. Let’s go to the charts:

This table shows how the beers performed on “raw score”–that is, without the advanced statistical adjustment of throwing out the highest and lowest score each beer received.


Next, we have “corrected average preference points,” throwing out the high and low marks for each beer. The result is basically the same:


It is worth noting the fate of Sam Adams on these charts. Here it ends up with a score of less than 61. These were the numbers awarded by the very same tasters who gave it a corrected preference rating of 83.33 the last time around–and 10 “Best” votes, vs. one Best (and one Worst) this time. The shift in Bests is understandable and demonstrates the importance of picking your competition. The severe drop in preference points illustrates more acutely the ancient principle of being a big fish in a small pond. These same tasters thought that Sam Adams was objectively much better when it was surrounded by Busch and Schmidt’s.

c)Value rankings. Last time this calculation led to what the colorful French would call a bouleversement. One of the cheapest beers, Busch, which had been in the lower ranks on overall preference points, came out at the top on value-for-money ratings, because it was so cheap. The big surprise now is that the highest-rated beer was also the cheapest one, Michelob Hefe, so the value calculation turned into a rout:


PyramidHefeweizen was expensive on top of being unpopular, so its position at the bottom was hammered home–but not as painfully as that of Bass Ale. Bass had been in the respectable lower middle class of the preference rankings, so its disappointing Val-u-meter showing mainly reflects the fact that it was the only beer not on “sale” and therefore by far the costliest entry in the experiment.

d)Taster skill. As members of the tasting panel began to suspect, they themselves were being judged while they judged the beer. One of the tasters, No. 7, decided to live dangerously and give specific brands and breweries for Samples A through J. This man was the only panel member whose job does not involve designing Microsoft Word–and the only one to identify two or more of the beers accurately and specifically. (He spotted Redhook IPA and Redhook ESB.) The fact that the beers correctly identified were the two most popular microbrews in the Seattle area suggests that familiarity is the main ingredient in knowing your beer.

Many others were simply lost. Barely half the tasters, five of nine, recognized that Michelob Hefeweizenwas a Hefeweizen. Before the test, nine of nine would have said that picking out a Hefe was easy, because of its cloudy look and wheaty flavor. Three tasters thought Sam Adams was an IPA; two thought Redhook’s IPA was a Hefeweizen. In fairness, six of nine testers identified Pyramid Hefeweizen as a Hefe, and six recognized Full Sail ESB as a bitter. Much in the fashion of blind men describing an elephant, here is a how the testers handled Sam Adams Boston Lager:


5. Implicationsand Directions for Future Research. Science does not always answer questions; often, it raises many new ones. This excursion into beer science mainly raises the question: What kind of people are we?

If we are Gradgrind-like empiricists, living our life for “welfare maximization” as described in introductory econ. courses, the conclusion is obvious. We learned from the first experiment to buy either Sam Adams (when we wanted maximum lager enjoyment per bottle) or Busch (for maximum taste and snob appeal per dollar). From this second round we see an even more efficient possibility: Buy Michelob Hefeweizen and nothing else, since on the basis of this test it’s the best liked and the cheapest beer. By the way, if there is a single company whose achievements the testing panel honored, it would be Anheuser-Busch. From its brewing tanks came two of the double-crown winners of the taste tests: plain old Busch, the Taste-o-meter and Snob-o-meter victor of Round 1, and Michelob Hefeweizen, the preference-point and Val-u-meter winner this time.

But, of course, there is another possibility: that what is excluded in a blind taste test is in fact what we want, and are happy to pay for, when we sit down with a beer. The complicated label, the fancy bottle, the exotic concept that this beer has traveled from some far-off corner of Bohemia or even the Yakima Valley–all this may be cheap at the $1.25-per-pint cost difference between the cheapest and the most expensive beers. In elementary school, we all endured a standard science experiment: If you shut your eyes and pinch your nose closed, can you tell any difference in the taste of a slice of apple, of carrot, of pear? You can’t–but that doesn’t mean that from then on you should close your eyes, hold your nose, and chew a cheap carrot when you feel like having some fruit. There is a time and place for carrots, but also for juicy pears. There is a time for Busch, but also for Full Sail “Equinox.”

For scientists who want to continue this work at home, here are a few suggestions for further research:

  • Tell the testers ahead of time what beers they will be drinking. Ask them to rank the beers, 1 through 10, based on how well they like them. Then compare the list with the “revealed preferences” that come from the blind test.
  • As a variation, show them the list ahead of time and ask them to pick out the beer they know they love and the one they know they hate. Then compare this with the “after” list.
  • If you’re going to test imported lagers, try Foster’s or Corona rather than Grolsch.
  • Remember to stay strictly in the scientist’s role. Don’t take the test yourself.