Keith’s post reminds me that I love almost everything about beer except drinking it (on the latter, I like it with spicy food or on hot summer afternoons, but as often as not I’d be equally happy with a nice cold glass of milk or lemonade).  As a beer is any fermented grain [fermented fruit is wine; I don’t know whether the precursor of rum – fermented cane juice – is technically a beer or a wine or what], it can be steered to a lot of different futures, including distillation into whiskey or vehicle fuel, or  all the interesting craft brew variations between American mass-market lager and opaque stout.

What I love about beer is its commercial history and marketing.  Ever wonder why so many tropical countries with distinctive cuisines have domestic beers that all taste pretty much the same? The revolution of 1848 sent German refugees all over the world, including a lot of brewers who got off the boat in places like Rio and said “what this country really needs is some good beer…I think I’ll write home to cousin Fritz; if he can send me a boatload of hops, I could make a bunch of it.”

American lagers are brewed to taste the same, and as little as possible. I know, I know, you have a favorite and know to a certainty that it’s much better than other inferior brands, how can people drink that swill, yada yada. That’s the point: taste is difficult to manage and predict, but image and identity, what you “know” in this context, are pretty easy with attractive women, athletes, and seductive sets. Exhibit A here is (unflavored) vodka: legally defined as grain neutral spirits (that means ethanol and water) without distinctive taste or odor, it can be differentiated by advertising to the point that people will think they have a favorite brand, and that the stuff with one label is worth much more than the same stuff under a different moniker.

Back in the day, when the writing on the wall for cigarettes became clear, Philip Morris bought Miller and turned it from the favorite beer of everyone who didn’t drink much beer into a national winner with the “Miller time” campaign, but they didn’t change the beer in any way you or I can taste. These guys are very good at what they do, and can even sell the radiant nonsense that one brand of beer is colder than another! If you don’t believe me, and are willing to ruin a party, set up a blind test of a few mass-market beers like Budweiser and Coors for people who swear up and down that their brand is best, and see who can distinguish them.

Keith points to the socioeconomic leap beers make when they cross borders.  I think this is fairly common: Corona, a Mexican working-class beer, is lately the drink of rich yuppies on the beach or wishing they were, and Levis and McDonalds jumped upscale when they went to Europe.  What’s happening is simply that our enjoyment of a product is only partly, often a very small part, related to the product’s intrinsic properties and much more a function of how we get to think of ourselves possessing or using it. When you can buy cheap stuff and introduce it to a market where it has no pre-existing status, you can provide the latter by marketing.  I think it was H.L. Mencken who said you could market goat poop as candy if you wrapped it in gold foil. When your friends see you drink beer A rather than beer B, they have no idea what’s happening in your mouth [actually, if it’s really cold and you’ve further anesthetized your taste buds with some alcohol, neither do you] , but you know they can see the label, and the brewer can attach a whole bunch of associations with that label, associations that young people (= conformist and socially insecure) can read like large print.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

26 thoughts on “Beer”

  1. The mass produced domestics all taste a bit different from one another, but despite having consumed an awful lot of each of them, I probably couldn’t tell you which was which in a blind taste test. If I’m stuck drinking one of them, I’d probably prefer MGD or Miller Lite, but at this point that’s probably a brand loyalty thing, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why, since I have no particular appreciation for any of them.

    I’m a craft beer geek for the most part, and you won’t find anything in my refrigerator (or aging in my closet) except higher end, vary flavorful beers, be they pales, IPAs, DIPAs, or fairly heavy stouts and barleywines (most of the barrel aged stuff is stockpiled, but consumed sparingly). We’re fortunate to have many fine examples in Chicago, and I stock up on frequent trips to Michigan as well. That said, I’ll pretty much drink whatever you put in front of me, which is why I was drinking plenty of Miller Lite while watching college basketball on Friday night. And there’s definitely something to be said for keeping a few bottles of Dos Equis on hand, because sometimes after all the heavy stuff, you just need something light and crisp with decent flavor.

    Another good example of the cross-border marketing from a cheap product to premium is tequila.

    1. I did actually drink a Bud Light last night, but that’s because it was purchased for me by someone I was celebrating the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ national championship and perfect 41-0-0 season. It was mildly disappointing that the person who chose to buy us a Bud Light is Canadian and ought to know better, but what the hell. It was a great evening.

      1. Even as large as they are, it takes a lot of clydesdales to produce all that Bud.

  2. A key differentiator in mass market beers is the adjunct grain used in place of some malt. Budweiser uses rice, Miller uses corn, Pabst uses wheat. This does influence the flavor.

    1. I would agree with this and disagree with Seitz… I could almost certainly blind-differentiate most of the major American brands, even though I drink much less beer overall, and far less of the major brands, than I did in my younger years. However, I also agree with the original post to the extent that I think most people don’t think too hard about it.

      Miller: Sweeter than the others, particularly in the case of High Life. Miller Lite is the wateriest of light beers and therefore typically the one I would choose if I’m stuck with light beer for some godawful reason.
      Budweiser: I have trouble describing this one in words, but you know what you’re drinking when you drink it. Bud Light is a very generic beer.
      Coors: Somewhere between the two aforementioned beers. Exceedingly bland. Probably could not differentiate Coors Light from Bud Light.
      PBR: Tastes more like beer than the others described above; much more noticeably alcoholic. Probably what I choose to drink when I’m stuck with one of these. Still kind of gross though.
      Busch: Swill. Tastes awful, akin to ‘discount’ brands like Natural and Milwaukee’s Best.
      Regional Beers: Most of these breweries went extinct for a reason, and the ones that are still alive are not good (Lone Star, National Bohemian, Lion’s Head, etc.)

      All of that said, give me something with flavor, preferably really complex flavor like an amber ale or an oaked IPA or an oatmeal stout with my meal, and I’m a lot happier.

      1. I can generally differentiate Coors from Bud by the fruit esters the yeast leave behind — Coors has a bit of an apple flavor, while Bud is more of a pineapple taste. Lone Star reliably tastes like bananas. Not sure I’ve got a fruit to put with Miller, although I do agree that it’s sweeter than the others…

  3. There was also a bit of German colonialism involved. Togolese beer, IIRC, is very Teutonic in character. However, Germany never was all that good at the colony business, so I’ll buy 1848 as the primary explanation.

  4. Partypoop.


    Effete snob (so much so that I don’t even detect an impudent corps!)[1]

    [1] I think my mangling of the quote sounds much better.

  5. Hey, I love big cheap cans of American mass-market beer! … for the slugs in my vegetable garden.

  6. Michael, for your non-drinking interest in beer, you might enjoy the video “How Beer Saved the World”. It’s actually interesting and on Netflix.

  7. Oh Geez, I really can’t stand boring beer – the traditional “domestics”. I drink one microbrew nightly, with dinner, and it is a little slice of heaven.

  8. Personally, the only sort of beer I can stand to drink is ginger beer, (And where’s the grain in that?) though the more conventional sort makes a fine ingredient in several of my favorite dishes. Really don’t know that I’d bother with breakfast sausage if I couldn’t cook them in beer.

    1. I think most commercial ginger beers are ultra low alcohol beers – malted grain mash produces a wort, ginger added during boil, very light fermentation that is arrested using sorbate… I make a nice dark ginger ale with a low gravity wort – target about 3.0% ABV. It’s a wonderful lawnmower beer (consumed after yardwork in the summer).

  9. I’ll note that in truly blind taste tests a sizable majority of regular wine drinkers can’t distinguish between red and white wine. Note that I didn’t say that they can’t distinguish between 7 year old merlot from Napa Valley and 7 year old merlot from France, or even that they can’t distinguish Pinot noir from Zinfandel. They can’t tell WHITE from RED.

    Taste is a really funny thing.

    1. “Note that I didn’t say that they can’t distinguish between 7 year old merlot from Napa Valley and 7 year old merlot from France, or even that they can’t distinguish Pinot noir from Zinfandel.”

      No, to fail to distinguish those in a blind taste test, you need to be an experienced wine taster. I believe the objective evidence is that, once you get past the real rotgut, there’s no actual difference in taste, and that wine tasting is as much a scam as “therapeutic touch”.

    2. A friend of mine served come ordinary rotgut … to some wine-snob friends, only he poured from a beautiful crystal decanter. It was a clear victory for presentation over taste.

      “Experienced wine tasters” have failed to distinguish vinegar from wine, let alone red from white!

  10. The mass marketers may be very good at what they do, but I’m more interested in brewers who are very good at what they do. Personally, I haven’t been able to tolerate the flavor of mass-market beer since Sam Adams appeared on the scene.

    I can pretty much guarantee you that I could pick out a Lugene Chocolate Milk Stout from pretty much any other beer you wanted to blind-taste-test against, including other chocolaty milk stouts, like Left-Hand or Empyrean Fallen Angel (which I like a lot, but I’m not sure if I could pick it out in a blind test against their Darkside vanilla porter). As for marketing genius, let’s see Budweiser successfully sell anything they brew at $11 a 4-pack! And for those who like to cook with beer, ever tried baking a cake with beer as an ingredient? You wouldn’t want to use a mass-market beer for that! Seriously, anyone who loves craft beers and/or chocolate milk should really try Odell’s Lugene — it’s simply amazing! But hurry — they’re only available January through March. I’m stockpiling them in my garage.

    When you’re in the mood for bitters, it’s almost impossible to beat Odell’s IPA. It’s grapefruity finish places it above other IPA’s in my palate. For coffee stout my favorite is Mother’s Winter Grind. It’s like a perfectly-brewed cup of coffee. Sadly, I can no longer find that seasonal beer anywhere locally, and I’m down to two in my personal stock. When I run out, I’ll settle for Schlafly’s, which is almost as good and available year-round.

  11. Prior to (and during) my dissertation research (which focused on beverage alcohol use and regulation) I did a lot of taste-testing of mainstream US beers. To my curry-and-chile-befuddled palate, they all tasted pretty much the same when dead cold. I was living in Arizona, though, so they didn’t stay very cold for very long..and as I was living on grad student money, I couldn’t afford to drink fast and replenish as necessary. So, when warming slightly, the differences among the American Yellowbrews started to emerge. I concluded that most of the bottom-to-mid-rung beers, when warmed up, settled into three rough categories: the dank, the rank and the skank, depending on the presence and degree of tinny or sour aftertastes. My faves? alas, my research is too old, and I’m not inclined to repeat it. OTOH, some informed tasting of an assortment of Les Grands Vins de Texas might be worthwhile.

  12. You know what’s kind of funny? Even a pretty ordinary, inexpertly brewed homebrew is quite a bit better than most “craft” mass-produced beers. Yes — even the dark or hoppy ones with cute names. It comes down to the smaller batch process, I’ve heard.

    1. I love me some homebrew. I have several friends who brew and I’m always eager to sample the fruits of their efforts. One of the best beers I ever tasted was a chocolate-cherry stout my son-in-law brewed up. Sadly, he had improvised a bit with the recipe but didn’t write it down, and subsequent efforts to reproduce that batch were not nearly so successful, though still on par with most craft stouts. Many craft brewers hold homebrew contests and produce batches of the winning recipes.

      1. Truthfully? For about 28 cents a big glass, you can take apple juice* and make it into petillant hard cider in about a week with any ordinary brew yeast. And no having to make mash and all that.

        After just a few days right in the jug it tastes like apple soda and after a few more days, it’s lightly alcoholic (about like most beer) and sparkles even without bottling.

        (* if you can get some good fresh pressed cider locally, all the better)

        I honestly don’t understand why most homes don’t have a batch going most weeks.

        1. Fermenting fresh cider is incredibly easy to do, but you have to keep everything really clean for it to taste real good. Add some brown sugar and ferment with a high-attenuating yeast and you can get to some whalloping alcohol content, if that’s your goal. Otherwise, you can ferment fresh cider, and bottle it, and it will tend to continue to ferment in bottle, giving a nice fizzy beverage that — depending on how much of the sugar you ferment out — will take like either fermented cider right up to a white wine. Fresh cider, you may want to clarify too, it’s pretty full of precipitate.

          1. I don’t know about clean. Just pitch the yeast into the jug of cider, and place the cap on lightly and let it sit. After a couple of days you’ll have something fizzy. A couple of days after that you’ll have something awesome. Ad a couple of days after that, you won’t have anything in the jug at all.

            See? No need for bottles, sanitation, secondary or racking. Cider cider all the time!

  13. “I honestly don’t understand why most homes don’t have a batch going most weeks.”
    Why, I think you’ve caused me an epiphany!

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