Beer Bias

I sometimes wonder what beer would mean to me if I didn’t have the means to interact on social media, or research breweries and their beers online.  I also wonder how the story might be so different for some breweries, if it weren’t for the immediacy of the information superhighway.

The alternative I’m suggesting wouldn’t be a hermit’s existence, confined to sharing tasting notes with the lampshade – more that impressions would be formed over time, and opinions orchestrated across a pub table.

Marketing a beer used to be separate from the many faces of conjecture, but in many cases they are now fused.  Is the voice you’re hearing a commissioned one? Is it independent of bias? Cynicism and doubt are rife.  

In the mele to get the scoop – display a trophy beer (not that Trophy) – or simply use the beer we’re drinking to interact, we can rush into mistakenly comparing like for unlike, falling foul of chinese whispers, forming allegiances and friendships that inform our buying habits, and quite often forgetting what it is all about.  A drink.

A recent episode of BBC 2’s Horizon: ‘How You Really Make Decisions’, explored – among other things – behavioural economics.  Specifically, how human beings have a propensity to believe that our decision process is influenced through rational thinking.  Whereas some research has shown that, in fact, many decisions are based on intuition, or decisions that fit with what we have done in the past.  This is just one form of bias, of which there are hundreds more. You get the idea.

My point?  Here is a beery example.  I go to a bar and order a beer, I don’t recognise the brewery / I recognise the brewery as a new one / the beer looks different to the one I was thinking of / I remember that someone I know doesn’t think much of this brewery / I recall that this brewery was rated in the top 5 of Britain’s best breweries etc… Logic would tell me to judge the beer on its merits, but instead thanks to the endless white noise (as described in the multiple choices above) my intuition has already finished the drink and is half way home.  The part of my mind which takes over is intuitive, fast and automatic:

This fast way of thinking is incredibly powerful, but totally hidden. It is so powerful, it is actually responsible for most of the things that you say, do, think and believe

And yet you have no idea this is happening. This system is your hidden auto-pilot, and it has a mind of its own. It is sometimes known as the stranger within” – (full article here from the BBC)

This is where we make mistakes.  This is where bias takes over and makes our decisions for us.  Or do I just believe that because I watched the program? read the article? tried to write about it?

Some would say that a brewery shouldn’t market beers, until they are ready to be marketed; but there are some businesses that can’t afford the luxury of an uncomprimising development process.  These breweries live and die by the click of a mouse, the tap of a screen.  They live and die by a beer that a customer drank a few weeks/years ago – that one that was brilliant/terrible, that beer that was from another brewery completely, but might have had a similarly vulgar pump clip.  Or the one that Barry told you was “epic/craft/historically accurate”.

I also wonder if some people who are interested in beer – beyond the point of it just being a refreshment – could have immunity to some of the background noise.  They make slow, rational and deliberate decisions, and may take weeks or months to share their opinions and judgements. But as before, there is always bias.  They know what they like, and they like what they know.  Others will opt for the Storage Hunter approach, in the belief that if you throw enough money at something you’ll win in the end….and they will win, because they tell themselves they won.

The mind boggles.  I think I need a beer, don’t I?

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4 thoughts on “Beer Bias

  1. This is an excellent post and I’ve seen it in action in judging in the UK a lot – it’s frightening how bias can creep in so quickly.
    The words I cannot abide hearing when judging are: “Oh this is definitely…” because it does exactly what you point out above.
    There are also factions that will band together because they know the beer and think it’s a world classic, where people like myself are saying: “I don’t care that you think it’s XXXX beer, it smells and tastes of horseshit.”
    Followed quickly by: “And stop telling me what beer you think it is!”.
    I say that because I reckon there are about five beers in the world that you cannot mistake for anything else, but even then I’ve been proven wrong on that – I thought there was nothing like Deus out there, then I judged what I later found out was Eisenbahn Lust…
    My other concern about bias at the majority of beer judging over here, and I’ve stopped judging on certain circuits because I hear this, is people saying: “Well it’s not blonde/brown/black so I won’t like it.”
    It’s an insult to the brewers who enter their beers.
    The very best competitions work on a double blind basis and with strict rules, like the GABF and WBC. No mobiles, no distractions, odourless soap in the bathrooms, double-blind system for tasting and a level playing field.
    Anyone who ever says “oh, I think this is…” is very quickly silenced and I’ve seen people removed from panels for poor etiquette.
    People say we’re years behind the US in terms of brewing, we’re definitely light years behind in terms of judging.

    • “Well it’s not blonde/brown/black so I won’t like it.”.. I was once like this! It wasn’t until I discovered I had been happily enjoying what were officially described as Dark Beers that I decided to widen my horizons and try beers I had formally been resistant to. Now wheat beers are on the menu, stouts (never liked stout thanks to Guinness), and porters. I will one day try white beers but I’m still building up to that day!

  2. Excellent blog post.
    I’ve only really been consciously interested in ‘craft’ beer since I started homebrewing last July. But now when I go to the local, or even not so local, I’m becoming more consciously aware of the decisions I’m taking when I order a pint.
    An example from last Friday… I arrive at the bar to see that there is a collaboration brew on the pumps between two of the favourite breweries (who incidently have very little marketing presence outside of small in-house websites on a not very impressive scale). I immediately order a pint of it, regardless of first discovering the style, the ABV, or the price. As it turned out the beer was a bit of an expensive dud, and was 7.4% (good job I wasn’t driving)! Lesson learnt for next time.
    But did I miss a cracker of the pint elsewhere on the pumps because of my bias?
    There’s so much marketing that seeps into your mind already that to be aware of all of it is a very difficult task indeed.

  3. Excellent post. I saw part of the same BBC programme. I was amazed, as I’m from a retail background, that we as the human animal, make what we think are logical rational decisions but are so very easily swayed by minor influences. All the time and effort, research and dedication that goes into creating a masterpiece beer can be undone by a poor or misplaced pump clip, or a badly printed bottle label.
    We are visual beasts, more so the males, but we decide if we like a beer by the taste, having chosen it primarily from the look of the marketing.
    How many people are put off trying good ales because their only experience of certain genres have been via well advertised but poor quality mass produced pints? (Don’t follow the bear!)
    It’s clear as in all fields of sales that the player with the deepest pockets gets the lions share, and if they produce a bad beer, the industry is judged by that alone.

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