A new study from the American Association of Wine Economists explores the world of beer rather than wine, and the findings indicate that you could be buying a favorite brand of brew for no good reason whatsoever. While the experiments conducted were limited, the results show that when labels are removed from beer bottles, drinkers can't tell different brands apart—sometimes even when one of those brands is the taster's go-to drink of choice.
In the paper, the researchers first point to a classic 1964 study, in which a few hundred volunteer beer testers (probably wasn't too hard to find folks willing to participate) were sent five different kinds of popular lager brands, each with noticeable taste differences according to the experts. But people who rated their preferred beer brands higher when the labels were on bottles "showed virtually no preferences for certain beers over others" when the labels were removed during tastings:
In the blind tasting condition, no beer was judged by its regular drinkers to be significantly better than the other samples. In fact, regular drinkers of two of the five beers scored other beers significantly higher than the brand that they stated was their favorite.
The new study takes a different, simpler path to judging the quality of beer drinkers' taste buds. Researchers didn't even bother with ratings data. Instead, the experiments consisted of blind taste tests with three European lagers—Czechvar (Czech Republic), Heineken (Netherlands), and Stella Artois (Belgium)—in order simply to find out if beer drinkers could tell them apart. The experiments involved a series of "triangle tests," in which drinkers were given a trio of beers to taste, two of which were the same beer. Tasters were asked to name the "singleton" of the bunch, and generally speaking, they could not do so with any reliable degree of accuracy:
In two of three tastings, participants are no better than random at telling the lagers apart, and in the third tasting, they are only marginally better than random.
What these results tell researchers, then, is that beer drinkers who stick with a certain brand label may be buying the beer for just that reason—the label. As opposed to the taste and quality, which are the reasons that consumers would probably give for why they are brand loyalists.
As the researchers put it in the new study, "marketing and packaging cues may be generating brand loyalty and experiential differences between brands." In other words, we buy not for taste but because of the beer's image and reputation that's been developed via advertising, logos, and other marketing efforts. Similar conclusions have been reached in studies about wine; one, for instance, found that wine drinkers will pay more for bottles with hard-to-pronounce names—because apparently we assume that a fancy name is a sign of better quality. We also buy beer, wine, and a wide range of other products due to force of habit, of course.
Drinkers who are loyal to a particular beer brand may hate to hear this—heck, so are consumers who are loyal to almost any product brand—but the research indicates we are heavily influenced by factors other than those we really should care about, such as quality and superior taste.
All that said, we must point out the study's shortcomings. The beer tastings were very limited in scope. It's not like tasters were asked to compare Bud Light and a hoppy craft IPA, and then failed to tell the difference. And just because some volunteers couldn't differentiate between beers doesn't mean that you, with your superior palate, would be just as clueless. You may very well buy your favorite beer brand because, to quote an old beer ad, it "tastes great."
Just to be sure, though, it might be time to take the labels off and do some blind taste testing. Could make for a fun Saturday night.