SCIENCE. It is a thing where you learn through experimentation and alcohol consumption. At least it was in a recent case, when K, her brother M, and myself recently undertook a taste test of beers; specifically lagers. Though not the most exciting or flavorful of beers, the concept would address at least two important questions:
- Have K and I become hopelessly irredeemable beer snobs?
- Can I honestly say I can tell the difference between a delicious and expensive top shelf craft brew and a traditional blue collar American macrobrew, or have I been marketed into a corner of self-delusion from which I can never escape?
The idea for the experiment came from a few places. First, we have long suspected we have gone overboard on the beer snobbishness. To the point that we have genuine fear not having enough disposable income to afford it. “What would we do?” This is a discussion we’ve had driving home from the grocery store more than once. If we only had one income, could we still have Dogfish Head or would we still have any dignified quality of life with only New Belgium? Second, we ended up with a couple of Sam Adams Boston Lagers in the fridge after we’d started out with a whole variety pack, which we invited people over to consume. Like a particularly well-adapted species of antelope, the plain janes survived the predatory hunting and consumption of all the more tempting offerings. And we wondered aloud how we would dispose of them. Because, when would we be compelled to drink something so gauche as the humblest variety of the largest craft brewery in the country. (See point number one, beer snobbery). Third and finally, we have had great, great amusement at the commercials we see for national brands, like the one for Miller Lite or some such national brand winning a probably fictional award for being the best “American-style light lager.” Or whatever the heck Bud Light Platinum is supposed to be and for whom such a thing could possibly be intended.
So we would pit the Sam Adams, probably among the best of its kind, and another of its kind, against some of the mass-market varieties in a blind taste test. Here, I give you learning.
We decided to bring in one more craft variety, settling on Bell’s Lager, to compete against a Budweiser and a Bud Light. The field of five was rounded out with a Yuengling. It would be a blind taste test, so we wouldn’t have any identifying information except color, scent, and taste.
Skip to the next section if you wish, as I will now geek out a little and painstakingly describe My System. Yes, I have a System for things like this and was excited to employ it. Here’s how it works:
- Everyone leaves the room but one volunteer, Person 1, who pours each drink into portions for each taster. The drinks get temporarily labeled by letter, A through E (or however many letters you need) by placing tags on the table, as shown in the picture. Person 1 writes down which drink goes with which letter and pockets the information to keep it secret. Also, don’t leave the drink containers sitting around in the same order they were poured–this could inadvertently tip off Person 2 as to which letter goes with which drink.
- Person 1 leaves the room, Person 2 enters.
- Person 2’s job is to encrypt the letters by randomly assigning numbers 1 through 5 (or, again, however many numbers you need) to each letter. Person 2 writes down which number goes with each letter, and keeps that information secret. Use a sharpie or something to label the cups by number, toss the letter tags. Person 2 then brings the drinks out to the testing area–do this in random order to avoid inadvertently correlating the numbers with the pouring order to Person 1.
I love this system. Person 1 knows which beer goes with what letter, but that information is encoded into the numbers. Person 2 knows which letters go with which numbers, but has no information about which drink was associated with each letter. At the end of testing, both keys are revealed to find out what’s what, and everyone can participate without anybody having to sacrifice delicious testing to be the organizer.
We sampled the beers in order, together, discussing each, then ordered them from favorite to worst. K and I put them in the exact same order:
Number 4: The most complex and hoppy, and quite tasty. M rated this one lower, not being a fan of the stronger flavor.
Number 5: Similar to #4 and also very good, though a little less interesting to me. M rated this one the best.
Number 1: Definitely different than 4 & 5. Good, but certainly a different class than those better entries. Still drinkable and good. We liked the darker color and aroma. K and I had this one right in the middle, M put it second, above #4.
Number 3: A significant drop-off here. A creepy dandelion-yellow color that seems more and more wrong with time. Very little flavor at all, and entirely odorless.
Number 2: Also pretty bad. Really hard to tell 2 & 3 apart, but we arrived at a consensus that this one was slightly worse. I described it as “vaguely not water.”
We were sure that 4 & 5 would be Sam Adams and Bell’s, in some order. We were right, but the surprise was that 4, my favorite, was Sam Adams. I like Sam Adams, but assumed Bell’s would beat it out. Good job, Sam. Proof that a mass-market craft beer is doing a pretty swell job.
We assumed 1, the good but not great one, was Yuengling, and we were right about that. Yuengling is pretty distinctively good but not great. A good lesson here: Yuengling is exactly what you expect it to be.
2 & 3 were not surprisingly Bud & Bud Light. But again, a twist! Though they were really similar, we definitely felt like 3 was a bit better, and this turned out to be Bud Light. Budweiser was the weakest of this whole bunch. It’s not saying much for Bud Light, but interesting that it’s actually sort of better.
First and foremost, my beer snobbery is real and authenticated. I understand craft beers are not for everyone. They can be really strong tasting (my Mom calls them “too yeasty” whenever we are home and having them) or just have a lot more alcohol. K noted a few times that macrobrews are for people to drink a lot of, for cheap. That’s fine. I generally don’t care for them, but I understand their purpose.
Second, yes we can tell the difference. That’s not a huge surprise but it’s good to have confirmation.
Third, taste tests are fun and beer is good.
Thank you for your time.