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?

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.

The neat 6:3:2 mathematical relationship among the price groups should be noted. The high-end beers cost roughly three times as much as the cheapest ones, and twice as much as the middle range. The beers used in the experiment were as follows:

High End

Grolsch. Import lager (Holland). $1.67 per pint. (See an important note on pricing.) Chosen for the test because of its beer-snob chic; also, one of my favorite beers.

Heineken. Import lager (Holland). $1.53 per pint. (Sale price. List price was $1.71 per pint.) Chosen because it is America's long-standing most popular import.

Pete's Wicked Lager. National-scale "microbrew." $1.11 per pint. (Deep-discount sale. List price $1.46 per pint.) Like the next one, this put us into the gray zone for a lager test. Few American "microbreweries" produce lagers of any sort. Pete's is called a lager but was visibly darker than, say, Bud.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager. National macro-microbrew. $1.56 per pint. (That was list price. The following week it was on sale for $1.25 per pint, which would have made it do far better in the value rankings.) Calls itself America's Best Beer. Has dark orangey-amber color that was obviously different from all other lagers tested.

Mid-Range

Budweiser. $.84 per pint. (Sale. List price $.89 per pint.) Self-styled King of Beers.

Miller Genuine Draft. $.84 per pint. (Sale. List price $.89 per pint.)

Coors Light. $.84 per pint. (Sale. List price $.89 per pint. Isn't price competition a wonderful thing?) The Silver Bullet That Won't Slow You Down.

Cheap

Milwaukee's Best. $.55 per pint. (Sale. List price $.62 per pint.) A k a "Beast."

Schmidt's. $.54 per pint. (Sale. List $.62 per pint.) Box decorated with a nice painting of a trout.

Busch. $.50 per pint. (Sale. List $.69 per pint.) Painting of mountains.

The Safeway that supplied the beers didn't carry any true bargain-basement products, such as "Red, White, and Blue," "Old German," or the one with generic printing that just says "Beer." The experiment was incomplete in that regard, but no tester complained about a shortage of bad beer. Also, with heavy heart, the test administrator decided to leave malt liquors, such as Mickey's (with its trademark wide-mouth bottles), off the list. They have the air of cheapness but actually cost more than Bud, probably because they offer more alcohol per pint.

3.Experimentalprocedure: Each taster sat down before an array of 10 plastic cups labeled A through J. The A-to-J coding scheme was the same for all tasters. Each cup held 3 ounces of one of the sample beers. (Total intake, for a taster who drank all of every sample: 30 ounces, or two and a half normal beers. Not lethal; also, they were just going back to software coding when they were done.) Saltines were available to cleanse the palate. The cups were red opaque plastic, so tasters could judge the beer's color only from above. There was no time limit for the tasting, apart from the two-hour limit in which we had reserved the conference room. One experimenter (the boss of most of the others there) rushed through his rankings in 10 minutes and gave the lowest overall scores. The taster who took the longest, nearly the full two hours, had the ratings that came closest to the relative price of the beers. (This man grew up in Russia.) The experimenters were asked not to compare impressions until the test was over.

After tasting the beers, each taster rated beers A through J on the following standards:

Overall quality points: Zero to 100, zero as undrinkable and 100 as dream beer. Purely subjective measure of how well each taster liked each beer.

Price category: The tasters knew that each beer came from the expensive, medium, or cheap category--and they had to guess where A through J belonged. A rating of 3 was most expensive, 2 for average, 1 for cheap.

Description: "Amusing presumption," "fresh on the palate," "crap," etc.

Best and Worst: Tasters chose one Best and one Worst from the "flight" (as they would call it if this were a wine test).

When the session was over, results for each beer were collected in a grid like this:

33000_33918_chart1

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

Illustration by William L. Brown

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:

33000_33919_chart2

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:

33000_33920_chart3

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:

33000_33921_chart4

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:

33000_33922_chart5

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:

  • One and only one beer truly survived the blind taste test. This is Sam Adams, which 10 tasters independently ranked "best" without knowing they were drinking a fancy beer. (They knew it was darker than the others but couldn't have known whether this was some trick off-brand sneaked into the test.)
  • Don't serve Grolsch unless you know people will consider it exotic, or unless you've invited me.
  • Apart from Sam Adams and Grolsch, the tasters really had trouble telling one beer from another. This conclusion is implicit in many of the findings, but it was really obvious during the experiment itself, when the confident look of men-who-know-their-beer quickly turned to dismay and panic as they realized that all the lagers tasted pretty much the same.

The evidence suggests other implications about specific beers. For instance, the comments about Coors Light are much less enthusiastic than the average-or-better numerical rankings. Most tasters paused to complain about it--"fizzy and soapy"--before giving it reasonable marks. But the main implication, and the most useful consumer news from this study, is a radically simplified buying philosophy for lager beers. Based on this study, rational consumers should:

1) Buy Sam Adams when they want an individual glass of lager to be as good as it can be.

2) Buy Busch at all other times, since it gives them the maximum taste and social influence per dollar invested.

The detailed rankings and comments for all tasters on all beers may be found here.

Next installment: fancy beers.

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