Booze You Can Use

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Aug. 31 1999 2:00 AM

Booze You Can Use

Getting the best beer for your money.

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To see all the grids for all the beers, click here.

Illustration by William L. Brown
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4. Data Analysis: The ratings led to four ways to assess the quality of the beers.

1. Best and Worst. Least scientific, yet clearest cut in its results. Eleven tasters named a favorite beer. Ten of them chose Sam Adams. The other one chose Busch, the cheapest of all beers in the sample. (The taster who made this choice advises Microsoft on what new features should go into the next version of Word.) Busch was the only beer to receive both a Best and a Worst vote.

Bottom rankings were also clear. Of the 11 naming a Worst beer, five chose Grolsch, the most expensive beer in the survey. Results by best/worst preference:

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2. Overallpreference points. This was a subtler and more illuminating look at similar trends. The beers were ranked on "corrected average preference points"--an average of the zero-to-100 points assigned by each taster, corrected, just like ice skating scores, by throwing out the highest and lowest score each beer received. The tasters used widely varying scales--one confining all beers to the range between zero and 30, another giving 67 as his lowest mark. But the power of our corrected ranking system surmounted such difficulties to provide these results:

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Here again one costly beer--Sam Adams--shows up well, while another, Grolsch, continues to struggle, but not as badly as the medium-price Miller Genuine Draft. Sam's success could reflect its quasi-mislabeling, presenting a strong-flavored beer as a "lager." It could also reflect that participants simply thought it was good. (Only one guessed it was Sam Adams.) As for Grolsch ... it is very strongly hopped, which can seem exotic if you know you're drinking a pricey import but simply bad if you don't. MGD overtook Grolsch in the race for the bottom because, while many people hated Grolsch, some actually liked it; no one liked MGD. There are some other important findings buried in the chart, but they're clearest if we move to ...

3.Value for Money: the Taste-o-meter®. Since this experiment's real purpose was to find the connection between cost and taste, the next step was to adjust subjective preference points by objective cost. The Taste-o-meter rating for each beer was calculated by dividing its corrected average preference rating by its price per pint. If Beer X had ratings twice as high as Beer Y, but it cost three times as much, Beer Y would have the higher Taste-o-meter rating. When the 10 beers are reranked this way, the results are:

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In a familiar pattern, we have Grolsch bringing up the rear, with less than one-quarter the Taste-o-meter power of Busch, the No. 1 value beer. The real news in this ranking is: the success of Busch; the embarrassment of Heineken and Miller Genuine Draft, an expensive and a medium beer, respectively, which share the cellar with the hapless Grolsch; and the nearly Busch-like value of Milwaukee's Best and Schmidt's. It is safe to say that none of our testers would have confessed respect for Busch, Milwaukee's Best, or Schmidt's before the contest began. But when they didn't know what they were drinking, they found these beers much closer in quality to "best" beers than the prices would indicate.

4. Social Value for Money: the Snob-o-meter®. In addition to saying which beers they preferred, the tasters were asked to estimate whether the beers were expensive or not--in effect, to judge whether other people would like and be impressed by the beers. One taster perfectly understood the intention of this measure when he said, in comments about Beer B (Heineken), "I don't like it, but I bet it's what the snobs buy." The Snob-o-meter rating for each beer is similar to the Taste-o-meter. You start with the "group" ranking--whether the tasters thought the beer belonged in Group 1 (cheap), 2, or 3--and then divide by the price per pint. The result tells you the social-mobility power of the beer--how impressive it will seem, relative to how much it costs. The Snob-o-meter rankings are:

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We won't even speak of poor Grolsch or MGD any more. The story here is the amazing snob-power-per-dollar of Busch, closely followed by Schmidt's. A dollar spent on Busch gets you three times the impressiveness of a dollar spent in Grolsch, useful information when planning a party. Not everyone liked Busch--one called it "crap"; another, "Water. LITE." But the magic of statistics lets us see the larger trends.

5. Conclusions. Further study is needed. But on the basis of evidence to date, we can say:

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