Beer is a Story

Source: 123RF

What causes us to like certain beers, certain styles? What force guides your hand to one product at the store and not another? We think we are the masters of these choices, but something deeper is at play. In the first of a two-part series, I examine the causes. Read part two here.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Select one of your favorite beers and think about why you like it. If I ask you to tell me the reasons, my guess is that you will talk about the type of beer it is and which flavors you like. Since you’re reading this blog, you might talk about ingredient or even process (Citra hops! Decoction mashing!). If I asked a casual drinker, someone who drinks Michelob Ultra, say, I’d hear different reasons, but probably something along the lines Elizabeth Warren offered: it’s “the club soda of beers.” No matter one’s level of knowledge, our opinions about beer appear to come from the liquid itself.

Because I’d never doubt you, my astute and discerning reader, I might accept your reasons at face value. But the reality is far more complex and interesting: most people select their beers based on impulses more elemental and buried, sub-cognitive motivations that guide their hands to certain six-packs. The truth is, beer isn’t just a neutral beverage we assess objectively, easy as distinguishing black from white. Like money, beer is as much conceptual as it is tangible—more, really—and the real reasons we drink particular beers have to do with a story we don’t even realize we’re telling ourselves. I know you’re certain that your love of your favorite IPA (or pilsner, or whatever) is a kind of objective choice, an almost Platonic ideal of aesthetic appreciation. But actually, the fact that you like that IPA has a lot less to do with the beer itself than it does you, the drinker. 

In the movie that is our individual life, we are the protagonists, and as events unfold we are the pivotal actors. Things happen because we control them. In fact, we are influenced as much as we influence. Is it any surprise that Mexicans favor carnitas while Thais choose Panang curry? That the overwhelming majority of people in Muslim countries choose Islam? Or that Bavarians choose helles while most of the readers of this blog prefer IPA? If preference were all about the beer, you would expect Germans to like IPAs as much as Americans do. But if it’s not strictly about the liquid, what’s going on?

It’s too facile to shrug and just chalk this up to “culture.” Culture contains a complex matrix of emotional and social cues. We are social beings, and our choices both sort us and act as signals to our group. Being a person who drinks beer says something different than being a wine or whiskey drinker. It sorts you by the people you will find and associate with, and the places you will go. It says something about your class, your aesthetic orientation, your social group. There are elements of wealth associated with these decisions, but they are less decisive than they may appear. The uniform of tech strivers is a black tee and a hoodie, while many poorer Americans choose $100 shoes and gold jewelry. Pick-up trucks can cost fifty grand and you can get a Prius for half that. A six-pack of Bud Light pounders goes for eight bucks—just a dollar less than a six-pack of 12-ounce Total Domination. This is not mainly an issue of price.

Oxbow Brewing

This is true even within cultures. In the beer realm, some brands always aim for a luxury presentation. A couple decades ago, Heineken cultivated that image, and more recently Stella Artois, with its “chalice” campaign, did the same. These companies wanted drinkers to actively relate to these cues, and use them to signal their social groups. Stella definitely wants you to think of it as a luxury brand, but they also want the brand to have that social currency so that when you do order a bottle, the signal lands with your social group. The cost difference for a Stella and Bud Light hardly accounts for the former’s “luxury” rep.

Even tastes, which we relate to as purely objective, are acquired; they’re not innate. We have to learn to like flavors like those in coffee and washed-rind cheeses. And once we calibrate our palates to these flavors, we really do like them. But these acquired flavor preferences aren’t matters of hardware—they’re learned. How many times have you run up against a macro drinker’s refusal to engage craft flavors out of obstinance? It’s because the resistance isn’t about flavor, it’s about identity.

Beyond social cues, there’s the question of our memories and experiences. I absolutely love coffee—more than beer, in fact. Part of my affection has to do with the flavor, but it goes well beyond that. I’m not a morning person, so coffee represents clarity and wakefulness to me. It’s a morning beverage, and I associate it with that quiet, still time before the day has started. I was drinking coffee daily in high school, but it was in college that it became a part of my morning ritual. More than thirty years later, I still associate it with that romanticized image of adulthood I had as a 16-year-old drinker. Because I became a coffee drinker in college, there are also resonances of learning and books, late-night diners and warming wisps of steam. I could no more strip coffee back down to its flavor and aroma than I could think of my mom as just a woman. 

Beer is a more social beverage, and many of us attach the feelings and emotions of people to it. This is a much more potent experience in places like Britain and Czechia, where pub-going is so common. People live in pubs, so beer becomes associated with friends and family, Sunday lunches, celebrations and wakes. But even in the US, especially in the craft sphere, we tend to fuse social moments with our experience drinking a beer. There’s an oeuvre of “transcendent beer experiences,” which often include one’s first encounter with good beer. I’ve heard a lot of these, and they almost always include descriptions of the place, circumstance, and crowd along with the taste of that beer. Sometimes the beer is barely mentioned—it’s the lubricant that made the machine turn. As we go through our lives, these moments stack up like cordwood and infuse our experience of beer, inseparable from the way we think of it.

Finally, and importantly, there’s the story of the beer. Recently I was in Maine, and stopped in at Oxbow. It’s an extraordinary little brewery with the feel of a hobbit house, with a cozy, wooden taproom and pine-dappled lawn looking out over a pond. The beer is as rustic as the location, which in the future will be inseparable in my mind from the place it was made. When I pour out the bottle of spontaneously-fermented beer I have, I suspect I will be able to smell those trees. While Oxbow is a particularly acute example, this process works with nearly every brewery to which we have a relationship. Breweries have character and personality, and these definitely contribute to that complex fabric of inputs that cause us to like and dislike certain products.

Don’t think any of this is true? Try another thought experiment. Imagine that beer was only available in supermarkets, was always the same price, and came in white cans with only a number to identify what was inside. For the purposes of this thought experiment, further imagine that you’ll be drinking this beer alone. No one will know what you choose. Do you think the beer people bought under these circumstances would mirror the sales of labeled and branded beer today? Stripped of all social cues, branding, price differences, cultural signifiers, and so on—just the unadorned, unidentified beverage—would all the beers still sell in the same proportion they do now? Would Bud Light (can number 3271) be America’s top-selling beer. Of course not. Because our choice of what to drink is not just about the liquid.

The way we come to drink the beer we do is one of my endless fascinations as a beer writer. Local beer culture exists because of it, and when I travel, my focus is always on this question. There’s another dimension to it, though—one I think of every time I read a Brewbound story about which brands are doing well and which are declining. Why is Stone IPA down while Bell Two Hearted is up? If preferences exist because of something other than beer’s flavor, what accounts for the performance of different products? A big part of this is this element of story, and which breweries are doing it well. In part two, I’ll look at the way breweries help or hinder their products with the stories they tell (overtly or unintentionally).