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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Treat or Trick? Drinkers punked by brewers?

My report last month on Mixture Design Brews Up New Beer Cocktail—Black & Blue Moon generated many favorable comments from formulators wanting to apply the methodology for their product development. For what it’s worth from a very limited tasting panel, a blend of Sam Adams Black Lager and Blue Moon white (wheat) beer came out significantly better than either brew alone.

Budweiser, the least expensive beer, did not fare as well in this blending experiment. Thus when I brought up my study at a gathering of industrial statisticians last week, the one from Anheuser-Busch (Bud's brewer) expressed little enthusiasm. She suggested I try their Jack’s Pumpkin Spice Ale. I found this seasonal ale in the selection of beers at a bonfire last night and gave it a try. From the reviews I’ve read, it looks distinctive when poured into a glass, but straight out of the bottle it tasted no different than any other beer. Several other party-goers tried it, but none could discern anything special.

In their landmark article “Influence of Beer Brand Identification on Taste Perception (Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 1, No. 3, Aug., 1964, pp. 36-39), Ralph I. Allison and Kenneth P. Uhl demonstrated that “beer drinkers cannot distinguish among major brands of unlabeled beer.” The experimental subjects rated their favorite brands significantly higher than other beers. But when they tasted and rated the same beers without labels ("nude"), the differences were not significant. As noted in my article on mixture design (link above), my taste test on beers a few decades later came up with the same result –perception dominated reality. Based on his comment about the recent merger of Miller and Coors, former Beer Writer of the Year Don Russell, better known as Joe Sixpack, evidently would agree with this premise that branding influences perceived taste:

“In beer-enthusiast circles, there’s a lot laughing going on, because, if I’m not mistaken, the name of the company is going to be MillerCoors. Beer enthusiasts refer to these types of beers as BudMillerCoors — just one word. They’re two thirds of the way there now. People who really love beer really do not distinguish them at all.”

So the challenge continues for beer lovers to remain skeptical about advertising claims by the big beer brewers. Put them to the test by asking a buddy to serve you nude, that is, without the label. Only then can you judge your taste preference objectively. Otherwise you don't know Jack. (I must try 'his' Pumpkin Spice Ale again in a fairer test!)


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