By Russell Edwards
Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history. Many people enjoy raising a pint with friends. But how do they go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in glass, aluminum, or some other vessel? Rather than simply guess, I’ll explore potential answers with one of the great beer pairings: Science!
Anthropologist Donald Brown claims that every society with sufficient supplies to produce drinkable ethanol has produced it 1. While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction goes to wine2), beer is considered to be a staple of many past and present societies3. However, today most people no longer simply have to settle for the only beer being produced in their immediate vicinity, but instead they have a wide range of choices available. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” That begs another simple question: What are the driving forces behind the increased popularity of craft beer?
Craft Beer in the United States
Between 2011 and 2013 the number of craft breweries operating within the US jumped from 1,970 to 2,483. The trend does not appear to be slowing, with at least 413 new breweries opening between January 1st of 2013 and March 17th of 2014. What is responsible for such a sizable increase in a rather short period of time?
Let’s explore the factors that account for this growth using the Tampa Bay area as a case study. Specifically, I will draw on on-going research that consults everyone from brewers, executives, and consumers. Part of this work has focused on how people engage with craft beer. I also provide an overview of a subsequent small-scale pilot study that further explores sensory engagement and vessel preference.
An Analytical Framework for Consumption
As most people would argue, consumption is influenced by a variety of factors. The framework that I will use to understand beer drinking comes from anthropologist Daniel Lende, who proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful4. He claims that “companies and commodities that exploit more of the six interactive processes will create more consumption.” But since I’m in to the whole brevity thing, man, I’ll only explore a couple of these items.
Engaging the Senses
The first of the factors is “sensorial.” Lende describes this factor as something “provoking our tastes and catching our eye”. Craft beer undoubtedly strives to engage in a sensorial response, with considerably more ingredients, and larger quantities of them, being used in their brewing process. My own ethnographic research reveals that craft brewers and consumers alike are quick to label mainstream domestic beers as “watered down” and “flavorless,” insinuating that craft beer can elicit a greater engagement with their senses. But just what senses are engaged when someone drinks beer?
Hervé Abdi, a behavioral scientist, provides a fascinating overview of the senses involved in perceiving “flavor” (and not “taste”) and their interaction with each other in the brain. Flavor is something experienced by the convergence of three different sensory systems: olfactory, gustatory, and trigeminal5. The olfactory sense is controlled by the nose, allowing consumers to experience as many as 100,000 smells. The gustatory sense is synonymous with what most people refer to as taste, which has no more than 5 distinguishable classifications (“salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami”). Finally, the trigeminal sense is more complex, with it controlling a number of items including touch and temperature.
All of these inputs are thought to be processed by the orbitofrontal cortex in the brain to produce what we unconsciously recognize as flavor. Therefore, a product that can elicit more pleasurable stimulation of these individual senses is likely to be viewed as “more flavorful.” In essence, this is what craft brewers seek to accomplish, even if the flavor varies from batch to batch of a particular beer they produce (see video below).
A Pilot Study to Explore Sensory Engagement and Descriptive Critiques
My research with craft brewers showed engagement with the different processes outlined by Lende. In quasi-experimental work, I wanted to also create a bridge between Abdi’s three-sensory system approach and beer consumption. I decided to explore some of the sensory engagement with beer by rounding up eight willing participants to taste a number of beers and offer their thoughts. (I know what you are thinking; and yes, it was difficult to find people willing to drink free beer.) I concealed the identity of 12 cans of beer (through a very sophisticated process colloquially referred to as “brown bagging”), and served them in five different vessels:
*Red Solo cups – ubiquitous at any frat party
*Dixie (paper) cups – like the ones that dentists use to administer that oh so flavorful fluoride
*Traditional pint glasses – used at bars and tasting rooms
*Clear plastic cups – ubiquitous at any college bar offering a “all the cheapest beer you can drink night”
*Finally, the cans themselves (covered in a paper bag).
Participants were asked to rank the three offerings for each round, and the results offer some interesting insights. One important item to note is that the 12 cans were not 12 different types of beer, as all 12 cans were comprised of only four different beers.
Participants were not told that they were only getting four different beers, but there was also no indication given that the beers served in different cups were all different (save for the possibility that numbering each can one through 12 and requesting that this number be noted in the corresponding tasting notes might have insinuated this was the case). That said, if it is claimed that a “new” or “different” beer was offered, this simply means that the participant at least received a beer from a different numbered can, even if that can contained the same beer as the one preceding it that bore a different number.
For the first round, I asked participants to hold their noses and try not to look at the beer as they sampled it. This request was made to try and isolate the gustatory and trigeminal senses, as the olfactory sense can have a huge impact on the interpretation of flavor. The second round consisted of the same beers served in the same vessels, but participants were allowed to evaluate the brews using all of their senses. Neither round three nor four requested any intentional depriving of any senses when consuming the beer.
Three of the eight participants actually changed their rankings between the first to second rounds (with two of these three being completely different), despite knowing that the beers or vessels used didn’t change. Tasting notes for round two seem to incorporate more comments tied to odors (which is not surprising given that a rudimentary form of olfactory sensory deprivation was used in round one). Additionally, six of the eight participants claimed that the beers “tasted” different between rounds one and two.
Round three, which used an entirely new set of beers and vessels, allowed participants to use a provided beer flavor wheel while making their tasting notes.
The terms used in this round were more reflective of those found on the flavor wheel than the first round, suggesting that participants were agreeable to having more terms at their disposal to describe what they were experiencing. Interestingly enough, Abdi claims that the overwhelming majority of professional tasters and critics of beer and wine don’t actually have a more refined perception of flavor, but that they are simply able to draw on a more expansive vocabulary surrounding flavor than the average individual.
Finally, round four, which also varied from the other rounds as far as beer offerings and vessels, had participants try and guess what beer they were drinking by selecting from a list of seven descriptions from the beer label themselves (any heritage references were redacted, a topic discussed in such detail later on that it is going to be legen….wait for it….dary!) Not a single participant got all three of the beers correct, but two were able to correctly identify two of the three beers.
Surprisingly, one of these two participants claimed, “I don’t like beer. I only like sweet mixed drinks. I have a sweet tooth.” Contrast this with the fact that one of only two participants to claim they drink beer “frequently,” and offered comments consistent with a knowledgeable craft beer drinker, was only able to correctly identify one of three beers, and the notion that consistently drinking and critiquing beer refines the three sensory systems involved in flavor perception is again called in to question.
Last but not least, the vessel used to serve the beer did make a difference, although not as much as people claimed in their debriefing commentary or in their tasting notes. Six people claimed that the glass pints were their preferred vessel, while two said that the clear plastic cups were number one. Conversely, four people claimed that the Dixie (paper) cups were their least favorite, one considered the red solo cup to be downright awful, and three said the cans were the worst (which coincides with brewers claims that beers should be poured into a separate, specialized drinking vessel to get at the beer’s “aromatics”).
Despite these claims, the actual rankings of beer preference did not corroborate the stated opinions of participants about vessels. For instance, one participant found the paper cups to be particularly offensive. Comments from this individual concerning paper cups included, “Can’t identify the smell! Driving me crazy. Some unpleasant food smell – like a Bloody Mary? Yes, this smells like a Bloody Mary. Bleh.” And, “Bloody Mary pickle smell again! Is it the cup?” But this participant actually ranked one beer out of a paper cup better than a different beer out of a clear plastic cup in one round. These two beers were also ranked differently in a preceding round (when the former was served in glass and the latter out of a can). Admittedly, the design of the tasting was not randomized in a controlled manner that lent itself to advanced statistical analyses, but the results are nonetheless worthy of further exploration.
Returning to Lende’s framework, the “corporal” factor revolves around “providing commodities that are easy to manipulate and consume.” When compared to more mainstream domestic lagers, craft beer is considerably harder to produce. The knowledge needed to turn disparate ingredients into a refined product is not easy to acquire, especially considering the fact that most craft brewers produce a wide range of beers that span the style gamut. However, the craft brewers I spoke with do not view their beer brethren as “competitors.”
Instead, they consider craft beer to be a brand in and of itself, one that is in competition with the “big boys” of domestic brewing. Due to this mindset, craft brewers often collaborate with each other (sometimes as a form of (potential) conflict resolution), sharing best practices, lab equipment, and even raw materials.
While this usually goes unnoticed by the end consumer, one visible manifestation is special released bottles that are jointly produced by multiple brewers. Another is events put on by brewery collectives, with proceeds occasionally going to lobbyists that work on behalf of these brewers as they oppose legislation designed to favor larger non-craft brewers.
Another factor with rather noticeable manifestations is “meaningful”. Craft brewers don’t just provide you with a more flavorful experience; they transport you to a special time or place! Consumers don’t necessarily pick up on these themes on their own; instead, they need guidance to make these connections.
Enter the label (or website) to offer an explanation to consumers. These can cover a wide range of topics, from clues to pick up on tasting notes (the sensorial experience already discussed) to efforts to situate a particular beer within a given community. Take for example a description of “The Gilded Age,” produced by Two Henry’s Brewing Company in Plant City, Florida.
This description is taken from the company’s website and is indicative of what you would generally find on a beer label. A close examination reveals that nearly everything discussed above is covered.
“The Gilded Age” is supposed to take you back to a specific time and transport you to not only the place where the style was born (Bohemia), but also the place where it is produced (Florida, and yet again in a bygone era). Hints concerning the ingredients and tasting notes are also made available to help consumers interpret the flavor of the beer. Finally, this particular beer draws on the heritage topic reflected in the brewer’s name (Two Henrys, which references Florida railroad tycoons Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, with the latter being the namesake of Plant City, where the brewery is located.)
Beer has at times been considered the “working man’s drink,” something that works to inebriate. But, as illustrated above, craft brewers look to differentiate their product into something more than that. These are beers that engage consumers in a number of carefully “crafted” ways.
1 – Brown, D.E., 1991. Human Universal, McGraw-Hill: New York.
2 – McGrew, W.C., 2011. Natural Ingestion of Ethanol By Animals: Why? In Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-cultural Perspective. Vol. 7. Schiefenhövel, Wulf, and Helen M. Macbeth, eds. Berghahn Books: Oxford.
3 – Katz, S.H. and Mary M. Voigt, M.M., 1986. Bread and beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet. Expedition 28 (1986): 23-34.
4 – Lende, D., N.D. Compulsive Commodities: Where Culture, Cognition and Commerce Meet. Conference Presentation.
5 – Abdi, H., 2002. What can cognitive psychology and sensory evaluation learn from each other? Food Quality and Preference 13 (2002): 445-451.