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March 26, 2013 3:27 PM Why I’m Fascinated by Beer Even Though It Usually Tastes Terrible

By Michael O'Hare

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.

[Originally posted from The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.