They Brew it, I sell it, You Drink it... and so do I..

Monday, 23 January 2012

Beer Psychology

Does your brain allow you to even taste a beer the way it should?

The story of beer, our brains and our preconceived notions of flavour in the realms of psychology and drinking has always really interested me. It's something that I've written about in the past, as have others, but it keeps cropping up in my travels. It's something that has cropped up again because we've recently received a new beer at the shop, but has already sold out.

The beer came from Brooklyn Brewery, and cost £25 per bottle. Granted the bottle was 75cl, finished with elegance and a cork cage closure, and was very strong, but it was still £25 per bottle.
    Say you stumped up the 25 squid for the bottle and took it home to open that night. When it comes time to open the beer, how much of what you paid for it actually comes into play when you taste the beer? Regardless of the taste do you try convince yourself it's a great beer? Even if the beer tastes awful do you tell yourself - "This beer cost £25! It must be good." How many of you would even think that before you even opened the bottle? Yes the beer could be good, it could just as easily be bad, or even not to your tastes but does your mind cover those factors up and play tricks with you to protect yourself from the fact you may have just wasted £25? Could you go so far as to even say your mind makes up a flavour for the beer? Possibly not... but how many times have you been drinking with someone, they tell you what a beer tastes like, and that's all you can taste for the rest of your drink...

You could try your own little experiment yourself. Give someone exactly the same beer in two different glasses blind. Tell them the first one cost £2 and the second one cost £10, I think it may be quite interesting to see what happens.

It can work in the opposite direction as well. If you have a preconceived notion (or thought) that a brewery or a beer is bad, would you ever truly enjoy anything from that brewery or that beer again? True, tastes can change and evolve, but our ingrained feelings can be stubborn as a mule. On the same hand, if everyone else told you that a beer tasted awful, how much of that would influence (or you would let influence) your finial verdict on the beer? Would you believe what everyone else tells you and bow into the peer pressure, or would you convince yourself that everyone else's opinion was your own and agree that the beer was bad?

In such a sense orientated and opinionated world do we ever have our own opinions at all, or do we just like to tell ourselves our opinions are our own? That being said, I'm enjoying asking questions tonight, it's what I do. I feel I'll ask a couple more.

No two beers are truly the same. (or are they?) If you tell yourself you're not a fan of lagers, is that because you've tried them all, or is that because you've convinced yourself that all lagers are bad?

I'm pretty sure a label can put thoughts into someone's head before they even try a beer. Let's say you have 'Beer Geek A' (BGA). Now BGA loves every beer he's ever had from Thornbridge, and actively seeks out their beers to try all he can. Thornbridge makes a new beer. How many of you will assume that before BGA even buys the beer, he'll assume it's awesome, and will tell everyone he knows it's awesome? I know I've been guilty of such things from time to time. If you have a brewery you love, can they ever make a bad beer in your eyes? And even if they do, do you still tell (and actually convince) yourself it's great?

What about review sites like RateBeer. Does the opinion of the 'mass beer geek' outweigh the thought process of the one?

How much can provenance come into play in these matters? After all, if you get told that a beer is much better from the source (over and over again) you'll believe it right? Even if most brewers will go to enormous lengths to make sure your beer reaches you in the same condition that it left the brewery, it's better from the tap surely... well, actually, there could be a little fact behind this.

A few other influencers which could have factual evidence behind, but people put forward as opinion, are as follows;

1. Bottle Size - People think beer from a bigger bottle tastes better, especially when it comes to bottle conditioned beers. There could be truth behind this, but truth people can't understand so they just take it as opinion.

2. Bottle Colour - I know quite a few people (respectable and not so much) who think green and clear glass is not the way to store beer, and immediately think a beer will be 'skunked' before even opening a green or clear bottle - without even giving it a chance! I have my own thoughts and feelings on the subject, and have carried out my own experiments, but at the end of the day, have no real scientific reasoning so my opinions are just that.

3. Glass shape - This is probably the point we can take the most fact about. It's true that the shape of your beer glass can influence the way you taste, smell and experience your beer. But if someone offers you a beer in the wrong glass, that's going to be in your head when it comes to tasting right?

Maybe when it comes right down to it, if you really want to truly experience a beer for exactly what it is, we need to do it blind, in a dark room with no-one else around.

But do we have to?

No, of course we don't, that would take all the fun out of the experience. Better to drink, socialise, and have our drink of choice with the people we love - and make up our own opinions about said beverage.

... or try to at least.


  1. We had a dry hopped Jaipur on a while ago, knowing it was Jaipur, but tasting different, I didn't like it, it just tasted wrong. Yet when it was poured for me without knowing what it was, my opinion was totally different, and I enjoyed it as a good beer in its own right. A small example, but I think you're right, your mind and your expectations play a significant part in what you taste.

  2. Probably not very scientific but:

  3. It's a very interesting subject Ghostie. And also applicable to everything else in life... if someone tells you "this song is fucking amazing!" you will have that preconception in your head. Maybe the same goes for people subconsciously justifying paying over the odds for posh restaurant food. That's how these celebrity chefs are making so much money, they're all psychologists... ;)

  4. I did want to like the DeuS 'Brut des Flandres' but at £14 I wouldn't buy it again. Pretty sure the price didn't encourage me to like it, or maybe it subconsciously stopped me liking it to save my bank-balance!

  5. Toby - that's exactly the sort of thing that makes me ask these kind of questions. I probably won't come to any conclusion but it's still a great subject to talk about.

    Logic - It's a fantastic video, I would recommend that others like to it!

    Corkhill - Your post about Thwaites was interesting. It got me thinking if you'd have been as surprised at how good it was if it had been brewed by someone else. For eg: less impressed if it had been brewed by someone like Mikkeller

  6. Well written Ghosty, I think Ben is right when he draws the comparison to anything else we consume. Like music and food, fashion is another good example of this. Do people always really like the clothes they spend £££'s on? or have they been influenced in some way? they may be aware of this influence, or it may be subconsious. It's a beauty of a discussion. Individual tastes count for everything and yet nothing. Aggghh my head!!!

  7. I'll admit to a fair amount of opinion based taste. but generally i enjoy most beers More because of it, so its no bad thing. Generally im not put off. Its the reason we rely on brands and certian producers at all.

    the other option is a chaos of even handed experimentation, with no bias or personal guide/prefference.

  8. Gareth - You didn't like Deus? Everyone must not have told you how awesome it was... ;)

    Broadford - I'm generally a scruff bag most of the time when it comes to clothes, but it is rather interesting to see how my mood changes when I put on my nice suit for posh occasions.

    Endjinn - I agree that branding and brand loyalty is half the fun, and in most cases it enhances the experience, but it can also do the opposite in some people's opinion. I'm not calling for a removal of branding, but it's interesting to see social experiments that can be done without it, See Brother Logic's Video link for a great example.

    1. Next time I buy an expensive beer I'll make sure to get a rabble to rouse it for me, make sure I get my money's worth.;)

  9. Price and the role it plays in preconception of quality is long-established in psychology when it comes to wine; this is a good overview.

    Price, scarcity, rarity all ramp up drinkers' expectations. As reviews of Westvleteren on ratebeer go to show.

    I'm currently taking part in a beer tasting trial at a university. Detecting flavour and aroma thresholds and recording them in a relative manner in this controlled environment is one of the hardest jobs I've done. It's fun, but it's not 'drinking beer' fun.

    Expectation, tradition, reputation, marketing, bias, price, availability and a whole host of variables play as much - if not more - of a role in determining a beer's flavour as do the ingredients and the brewing process.

  10. Simon - It's an interesting article, but once again, the results of the experiment aren't that surprising if you think about it.

    Scarcity and Rarity are another two big factors which come into play when just coming to purchase a beer over another which I didn't think to touch on.

  11. I try to avoid price and scarcity as factors when i review a beer, but i will mention value for money (e.g., NogneO beers. Price is perhaps more of an indicator of whether I would buy a beer in the first place, but if I want it enough I'll buy it anyway

  12. You're right on all counts; taste is one thing - anticipation, perceived 'enjoyment' and the feeling of value are all set by the marketing, bottle, environment, context and price of the beer.

  13. Same as wine for years people would always assume that more expensive fizz was better than supermarket fizz yet blindtests awarded the supermarket over the branded.

    Beer market is now getting to this price bracket, where sooner or later blind tests will come in.

    Should be interesting to be honest, as most (not all I admit)breweries don't rest on their laurels and continue to try to improve their product unlike some of the vineyards.