I’m not typically a creepy dude, but I’ve been stalking you. For months, I’ve been watching you sip, slam, shotgun your way to lower states of consciousness. Many times I’ve joined you without your knowledge or consent.
Your drinking habits have always fascinated me. Your preferences have always perplexed me.1 And so, with some free time on my hands, I decided to play social scientist.
My theoretical foundation? Who gives a shit.2 My methodology? Rigorless.3 My apparatus? A pen, a notebook and a love of beer. Here, for the first time in print, I present my quasi-scientific study for peer review.
II. About the Author
I took my first sip of beer when I was five or six. I distinctly remember the taste, the smell. It was bitter, acrid.
I didn’t take my second sip of beer for another 13 years. My father’s sobriety was precious to him, and out of respect for his abstinence I became a teetotaler.4 Still, I was curious about beer and its devoted drinkers. I spent countless hours in my grandfather’s bar watching the regulars pound PBR, Budweiser and Yuengling while my dad did inventory in the basement.5 They taught me how to throw darts, shoot pool, play video poker, but never once did we discuss beer.
Beers were like extra appendages for them—so present, so conspicuous that no explanation was needed. The bar was a place for sports and gambling, not a place for experimentation.
By the time I finished high school, my resistance to alcohol had withered. It was obvious that college would be dull and difficult if I didn’t give cheap beer a chance. So I did, in a blackout binge.
Senior Week 2000 started with three cases of Coors Banquet Beer6 and a bottle of butterscotch schnapps. It ended abruptly in the wee hours of the morning with me scooping turds and shit juice off the bathroom floor with a Pringles can. Still wasted, I failed to notice that someone had clogged the toilet.
The trip was a lesson in tolerance—and plumbing— but it left me with only a primitive understanding of beer. College was slightly more enlightening. Like most broke college students, I drank a lot of Keystone Light. I was adventurous only when I had some extra money, or when some generous soul was willing to share a brewdog from his private stash. My tastebuds awakened over time, and soon I was trying styles of beers I never knew existed. Samuel Adams is largely to thank for this. His seasonal samplers introduced me to an array of ales, porters and stouts; bocks, lagers and lambics. More importantly, he taught me that beer wasn’t just for getting drunk or getting laid. He taught me that beer could be an enjoyable experience in itself.
III. Industry Research
At the beer distributor, I saw you pacing in the aisles before gravitating to the brands you knew. There were so many choices, so many unfamiliar names, but more often than not you selected a Bud, Miller or Coors product.
This wasn’t surprising.
Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors produce eight of the 10 most popular beers in the United States and control almost 80 percent of the market share, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.7
Naturally, they’ve been watching you, too. These brewing companies see a plethora of options popping up in the Philadelphia market, and they’re getting nervous.8
Big Beer’s grip on the U.S. alcohol market has slipped in recent years, according to a June 2009 report by Gallup. The polling firm found that beer’s popularity has declined since 1992, when Gallup first surveyed Americans’ drinking preferences. Back then, 47 percent of the respondents drank beer most often, while 27 percent drank wine. In 2005, wine topped beer in the Gallup Poll, and beer has since regained only a six-point lead.9
Anheuser is optimistic that the beer industry will continue to “grow steadily—fueled by the growth of key demographic segments.”10 Their coveted targets include baby boomers, blacks and Latinos. But the biggest opportunities lie in the high-volume drinkers—men, the 21 to 27 age set, the blue-collar worker—whose beer consumption is enormous relative to the size of their population.11 I guess that’s good news for MillerCoors, which banks on the same formulaic lagers.12
It seems that the industry leaders don’t want you to pay much attention to flavor. Their clever commercials and devotion to packaging gimmicks suggest that they want you to think you’re all the same—a bunch of bland, sport-obsessed Neanderthals. I think you’ve heard the odes to Philadelphia’s beer selection, and I know you’ve seen your options. I even saw you cheating on Big Beer at the Navy Yard.
IV. The Experiment: Part 1
At the Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival in March, I decided to sacrifice my liver for science. The tools: A handmade pretzel necklace and a two-ounce tasting cup. The primary objective: To sample everything on tap and rank my preferences. The secondary objective: To watch you explore your options. The results: Inconclusive.
So many things can go wrong with an experiment—most of them due to human error. In this case, I miscalculated three crucial variables: duration, volume and rate of consumption.13 I also neglected to factor in the size of my bladder.14
Instead of pacing myself for a marathon, I took off in a sprint. Propelled by Original Sin pear cider,15 I went down the line pounding potent samples. By the time I hit the John Henry Spiker Ale,16 I was bloated and lethargic. From the looks of it, so were you. I chugged some water and joined you in an awkward, painful dance around the port-a-potties. I overheard conversations—grounded, earthly conversations—that made me feel at ease.17 These weren’t the beer snobs I’d expected. These were my kind of people—smart, vulgar, funny.
Finally, it was my turn, and as I stepped into the darkness my cell phone shed light on something that nearly made me piss my pants laughing. In the garish blue light I could see the missing link, a sleek, slimy creature from the deep. Someone had shit not on, not in, but next to the toilet seat. Naturally, I began to wonder about the origins of this foul fossil. Was it the excrement of an aspiring Duchamp? An incontinent sorostitute? A professor of poology? Who knows? It could’ve been anybody, really. But I couldn’t overlook the significance. No matter how discriminating our taste, no matter what sex or religion or race we represent, shit happens to all of us and all of us happen to shit. There is something obscenely comforting about this. Still smiling, I exited the john and said this to the next guy in line: “Hey, man, someone left you a surprise in there.”
Having answered nature’s call, I resolved to pace myself, to atomize the elements of taste and ruminate on them. For the rest of the night, I let each sip linger on my tongue and register with my taste buds. I found myself drifting toward the smells of porters, stouts and ales—toward the dark, the malty, the rich in flavor. You were trying everything in sight. You couldn’t help yourself. There were so many exquisite local beers, worlds more evolved than the stuff you drank in college.
IV. The Experiment: Part Deux
I was just getting acclimated to the taps when you stumped me with your request for something fruity and sour. Instead of surprising you with my best guess, I consulted the guru, Standard Tap’s Ron Johnson, whose knowledge of beer is nuanced and wide-ranging. He gauges your taste and expertly directs you to a suitable replacement.18
It was Cinco De Mayo, and Ron was gracious and patient enough to let me tend bar with him.19 For two hours, I observed your drinking preferences firsthand and didn’t know what to make of them. You asked for something “light with bite.” You asked for something hoppy and delicious. Your taste was all over the place, but more than anything you favored the firkin.20
This Weyerbacher Belgian Ale was more bitter than many ales I’d tried, but made up for it with its strong, smooth goodness. Flavor aside, it seemed that you were drawn to it for a few reasons.
The firkin was a novelty, gleaming above the Kenzinger kegerator tap. There was only so much of it, the free sample preempted any buyer’s remorse and at $5, the price was right. Just as I was starting to make sense of all the complex computations that influence your beer-buying decisions, Ron’s voice derailed my train of thought.
“Do me a favor?” he asked.
For the second time I turned to find him hoisting a tequila shot, smiling. I obliged my mentor and passed the point at which I could still come to valid conclusions. Again, my alcohol consumption had cut the experiment short, but I didn’t care. I was durnk for the first time in weeks and enjoying every second.21
In the haze, I saw your awkward first date unfold. Your companion said Blue Moon was a good beer and you scoffed at him, made him feel like an ignorant rube. You hated the way people twisted their oranges and drowned them in the glass. The garnish is there for a reason, you said.
See? You’re learning.
V. Ask the Experts
Although I’d tainted both my experiments, I wasn’t ready to give up on the study. I wasn’t ready to give up on you. I knew Philly was teeming with beer expertise, and I believed I could get to the core of your drinking habits by asking the experts.22 They seemed to have as many questions as I.23 But, nonetheless, here are my conclusions, infused with their valuable insight.
Your taste is complicated, but it can be divided into two basic categories: chemical and conceptual. Both are in play when you pay for a drink. They’ve been in play since at least your ancestors’ hunter-gatherer days.
Your ancestors used to be deathly afraid of hops, of anything bitter for that matter. “Our basic biology tells us not to like bitter,” says Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Philly-based Monell Chemical Senses Center, who studies how children learn taste and smell. In olden days, bitter meant poison.
Over time, your ancestors learned to differentiate the deadly from the delicious, and bitterness was integrated into the cuisine. They also figured out that some fermented bitter grains could bring them closer to God—or alcohol poisoning.
Flash forward to you. When you’re looking for a flavorful beer, you often go with India Pale or Belgian ales. “I know in Philly the hoppier the better,” says Devil’s Den co-owner Erin Wallace. But your palate changes with the season. In the summer, you might be inclined to sip a Hefeweizen or something else that’s crisp, citrusy and light. In the winter, you might opt for the warmth of a spiced ale or a rich, creamy porter. But, as Mennella points out, “beer is not just a taste. It’s an irritant and there are a lot of aromas—all combine to give one sensory experience.”
Some of those experiences are more expensive than others. As Bell Beverage proprietor Frank Bell has found, “people always want to try something before they spend $30 to $35 on a case.”
There are so many more considerations. There’s popularity. There’s occasion and supply. There’s calories and convenience. Above all, there’s familiarity.
You know only what you’re exposed to, and from an early age your mental environment has been saturated with Bud, Miller and Coors ads. “For most of our lives it’s been hammered home to us that beer is about refreshment,” says Don Russell, a beer columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News . The message, Russell says, is that cheap and refreshing “does the trick.” Adds Dock Street Brewery founder Rosemarie Certo: “Why Corona? Why Heineken? I think it’s advertising at the end of the day.”
You learned to like what your parents liked because it was all you’d ever tasted. You learned to like what your friends liked because you wanted to fit in. You’re intimidated by beers with exotic names. “People like what is familiar to them and sometimes they’re really scared to try something new,” says beer blogger Carolyn Smagalski.
But there’s no need to be scared. There’s hope for you. A universe of taste awaits within five miles of your place.24 Your mentor is a barstool away.
1. I guess I could say the same for my anti-abstinence campaign.
2. In case you do give a shit: Margaret Mead, Alexis de Tocqueville, David Foster Wallace.
3. Thick description, actually.
4. Unless you count cough medicine or accidentally ingested mouthwash.
5. My father celebrated his 25th year of sobriety in March. He helped run the bar for almost 20. Amazing.
6. For the record, a housemate’s brother thought this was a great graduation present.
7. The first stat is based on 2008 data. The second is based on 2008 and 2009 and includes exports.
8. Case in point: As I wrote this paragraph, I heard the virtues of the “new” Miller Lite Vortex bottle on Radio 104.5.
9. Gallup interviewed 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older, by phone. The margin of sampling error was ±3 percentage points. It should be noted, though, that only 677 of the respondents said they drank alcohol. For them, the sampling error was ±4 percentage points.
10. Google “Beer Shopper Fundamentals” and “Anheuser-Busch” for a rousing PowerPoint presentation.
11. Blue-collar workers, for example, make up 20 percent of the beer-drinking population when broken down by occupation, but they consume 24 percent of the beer. The difference for men and the 21-27 age set was 8 and 7 percent respectively.
12. “These brewers have indeed perfected producing weak, flavorless beer at an efficient price,” notes Nate Gefvert, a homebrewer who won the 2009 Philly Beer Geek competition. “They are designed to be approachable, average and thin … and so anyone who knows beer by their vapid definition can quaff either one without difficulty.”
13. In laymen’s terms: I drank too much, too fast, and I was ready to pass out after an hour.
14. Roughly equivalent to a Chicken McNugget.
15. Nectar so good that it would tempt anyone to leave the Garden of Eden.
16. Delicious bourbon taste.
17. Conversations about obnoxious roommates and dwindling paychecks, about love and hate and everything between.
18. Hope you dug the Belgian Ale.
19. I lied to you about being a trainee. I’m sorry.
20. A gas-powered keg that I sprayed myself in the face with … twice.
21. That’s not a typo. Durnk is one standard deviation below drunk. You sometimes call this being buzzed.
22. Among others: Don Russell, a.k.a. Joe Sixpack of the Philadelphia Daily News; Carolyn “the Beer Fox” Smagalski of Bella Online; Jason Harris of Keystone Homebrew; Erin Wallace, co-owner of Devil’s Den and the Old Eagle Tavern; Brendan Hartranft, co-owner of Memphis Taproom, Local 44 and Resurrection Ale House; Nate Gefvert, the reigning Philly Beer Geek competition champion; Julie Mennella and Marci Pelchat, who study taste and smell at the Monell Center; Frank Bell, owner of Bell Beverage; and Dock Street Brewery founder Rosemarie Certo.
23. “For me, a fundamental mystery is why we like the things we do,” Mennella told me.
24. Guaranteed or I will eat my own hat.
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