Part of the motivation behind The Beer Trials is to help people break out of their comfort zones, beer-wise, and find new beers and styles that fit their palates. The tendency to stick with what we know is a normal, human one—it’s one of the central pieces of the wonderful The Omnivore’s Dilemma—but the downsides are obvious.
I’m still trying to figure out what I believe and what I know about how this plays out in the beer world. And how to write about it in a way that’s empowering and motivating without being condescending. The world of large-production pale lager drinkers has a decent portion of brand loyalists—consumers who have a preferred bottle or pint that is their staple drink. This is odd, since this is exactly the style that our research suggests that people can’t distinguish. Some of these people are perfectly happy with their current drinking habits, and I doubt they’ll have much interest in my book beyond perhaps flipping to their brand to see how it has fared. On the other hand, some probably are interested in the broad realm of beer, but have had bad experiences choosing randomly or just feel intimidated by the huge array of brands and styles out there. Since large-production lagers are by a huge measure the most widely-consumed beers in North America, this group probably makes up the biggest portion of the audience for the book.
On the craft beer side, though, it’s harder to find data on drinking patterns. My anecdotal evidence suggests that craft beer drinkers are less likely to be brand-loyal, tending to be more open to exploration than other drinkers. But this observation has, without a doubt, a significant sampling bias; after all, craft beer drinkers tend to have had to make the positive step of trying non-mass-market beers to begin with. And I’m running into more craft beer drinkers lately with strong preferences for, or strong aversions to, certain styles and producers. And I’m starting to wonder if there might be a significant number of folks out there who only drink one brand of pale ale, for instance, to the exclusion of nearly all other beers.
Of course we all develop preferences and opinions; there’s nothing wrong with that. There are a good number of breweries that have earned my trust; I’m actively interested in trying anything they put on the market. And there are others who need to convince me that they’ve got a good idea before I’ll plunk my cash down. Part of the challenge here is recognizing drinkers who have figured out what they like and don’t like, and drinkers who just haven’t given unfamiliar styles a fair shake. One of the delights of running night after night of blind tasting is how often our assumptions are shaken up. Our preconceptions and expectations play an almost surreally active role in shaping our perceptions.
Last night our tasting panel sampled some sour beers&emdash;some fruited lambic ales, and some Flemish ales. These are potent, powerful beers, with a variety of love-’em-or-hate-’em flavors, and I’d never look down on anyone for deciding that they don’t like the taste of a Duchesse de Bourgogne or a Rodenbach Grand Cru (both of which I find unbelievably delicious). But it’s a too-rare delight to watch someone, like last night’s steward, exclaiming that she had no idea that anyone made such a beverage or called it beer, and demanding to know where she could purchase more. I hope that we’ll be able to have many more of those moments in the next few months.
How do you choose beers? Do you look for styles? Producers? Animals on the label? Or the old familiar? I can’t call your responses data, but I still might find it useful as I try to finish this guidebook to selecting and enjoying beers.