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.

Illustration by William L. Brown

I love beer, but lately I've been wondering: Am I getting full value for my beer dollar? As I've stocked up on microbrews and fancy imports, I've told myself that their taste is deeper, richer, more complicated, more compelling--and therefore worth the 50 percent to 200 percent premium they command over cheap mass products or even mainstream Bud. And yet, I've started to wonder, is this just costly snobbery? If I didn't know what I was drinking, could I even tell whether it was something from Belgium, vs. something from Pabst?

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I'm afraid we'll never know the answer to that exact question, since I'm not brave enough to expose my own taste to a real test. But I'm brave enough to expose my friends'. This summer, while working at Microsoft, I put out a call for volunteers for a "science of beer" experiment. Testing candidates had to meet two criteria: 1) they had to like beer; and 2) they had to think they knew the difference between mass products and high-end microbrews.

Twelve tasters were selected, mainly on the basis of essays detailing their background with beer. A few were selected because they had been bosses in the Microsoft department where I worked. All were software managers or developers at Microsoft; all were male, but I repeat myself. Nearly half had grown up outside the United States or lived abroad for enough years to speak haughtily about American macrobrews. Most tasters came in talking big about the refinement of their palates. When they entered the laboratory (which mere moments before had been a Microsoft conference room), they discovered an experiment set up on the following lines:

1.Philosophy: The experiment was designed to take place in two separate sessions. The first session, whose results are revealed here, involved beers exclusively from the lager group. Lagers are the light-colored, relatively lightly flavored brews that make up most of the vattage of beer consumption in the United States. Imported lagers include Foster's, Corona, and Heineken. Budweiser is a lager; so are Coors, Miller, most light beers, and most bargain-basement beers.

Beer snobs sneer at lagers, because they look so watery and because so many bad beers are in the group. But the lager test came first, for two reasons. One, lagers pose the only honest test of the ability to tell expensive from dirt-cheap beers. There are very few inexpensive nut brown ales, India pale ales, extra special bitters, or other fancy-pantsy, microbrew-style, nonlager drinks. So if you want to see whether people can taste a money difference among beers of the same type, you've got to go lager. Two, the ideal of public service requires lager coverage. This is what most people drink, so new findings about lager quality could do the greatest good for the greatest number.

In the second stage of the experiment, held several weeks later, the same testers reassembled to try the fancier beers. The results of that tasting will be reported separately, once Microsoft's mighty Windows 2000-powered central computers have tabulated the findings.

2. Materials: Ten lagers were selected for testing, representing three distinct price-and-quality groups. Through the magic of the market, it turns out that lager prices nearly all fall into one of three ranges:

a) High end at $1.50 to $1.60 per pint. ("Per pint" was the unit-pricing measure at the Safeway in Bellevue, Wash., that was the standard supply source for the experiment. There are 4.5 pints per six pack, so the high-end price point is around $7 per six pack.)

b) Middle at around 80 cents per pint, or under $4 per six pack.

c) Low at 50 cents to 55 cents per pint, or under $3 per six pack.

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