Why we drink what we drink

It may not be for the reasons what you think. North American writer Stephen Beaumont looks at the psychology behind our choices,and what that means for brewers

Scientific studies have shown that over 78% of the people who read this will do so with a beer in their hand. (Okay, I just made that up, but please bear with me anyway.) That being the case, I would like you now to look at that ale or lager and ask yourself the following question: “Why did I decide to drink this one particular beer?”

Likely as not, the first reason that now pops into your head is that it tastes good. Further musing might yield the notion that it suits the occasion, refreshing if refreshment is what’s needed or satisfying and soothing if you’re at the very end of a long day, or if you’re holding the magazine with one hand and eating with the other, maybe because it pairs splendidly with what’s on the menu.

Dig a little deeper, though, and I’m betting there may be an additional motive at work. Possibly more than one.

Before I get to those other factors, however, I’ll ask you first to travel with me back through time, all the way to the bad old days of beer in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the full range of draught found in many pubs was lager and keg bitter – which, to be fair, was one selection more than we had over in North America at the time. It was an era when style ruled completely over substance and flavour was, in most instances of beer selection, barely a factor.

Breweries of the time, or at least their advertising agencies, appealed to beer drinkers on an almost purely emotional level, hyping the lifestyles benefit of this beer over that, or using nostalgia, heart-warming scenes of family life or humour to attract us to their brand. Beer choice was not about taste, but all about feeling.

When CAMRA appeared on the scene, things of course changed. The Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, as the organization was first known, appealed to emotion in a different way, adding a political element to their siren call for the preservation of a form of dispense that was at risk of disappearing, and by extension the salvation of Britain’s traditional styles of beer. Drinking cask-conditioned ale became not only a way of connecting with the Empire’s gloried brewing history, it was, as a Briton, your solemn duty. Beer drinking had now been politicised.

Fast-forward now to the present day, and back to that beer in front of you. Is it from a small, local brewery? Do you know the brewer personally? Would you like it as much if it were from Anheuser-Busch InBev – or whatever the ABI and SABMiller merged colossus is dubbed by the time this goes to print – or Carlsberg or Molson Coors? Can you say, without raising the glass again to your lips, what it tastes like? Is it any good?   

Truth is that these questions are becoming much more complicated in this day and age, so no worries if the answers don’t exactly trip off the tongue. Whether you call it traditional or artisanal or craft, this new era of beer has given rise to an entirely new way of looking at the beer we drink, but still one which has its roots in the past.

Today’s beer choice has at least three facets to it, the most elemental of which being taste. There are people, although I suspect not a majority, who will drink a beer because of its taste and its taste alone, regardless of who makes it or where it comes from or what ingredients it may contain. It’s a laudable approach if you’re able to separate the drinking experience from all other factors – and the way I try to approach every beer I taste professionally – but not something I think the average beer drinker pursues.

Point two is perhaps the strongest, emotion. This is likely what influences the majority of beer drinkers, whether traditionalists or craft adherents or ‘lagerboys,’ when something about the beer appeals on a fundamental level, be it because it’s the brand dad used to drink, or specifically because it isn’t that brand, because is brewed down the street or maybe it’s simply the beer that strikes the right fraternal or patriotic chord.

The final point would be politics. A small minority of beer drinkers are aware of this factor, but a majority are affected by it in some fashion, I suspect. On the craft side, it becomes a matter of the little David squaring off against the overwhelmingly better equipped Goliath, and is why Camden fans reacted negatively to the brewery’s recent sale – and by extension why the US has seen movements to boycott the brands of almost every brewery that has fallen to the highest bidder. On the CAMRA side there is still the preservation of Britain angle, while even industrial beers can inspire pseudo-political leaning, as with the ale that’s still brewed in your hometown or the one which supports the national side in football or rugby.

In the end, most of us probably make our selections based on some combination of the three factors, just as we do with pretty much any consumer good, although in the case of beer this tends to be writ very large. It is also why any exhortations for people to calm down in the wake of brewery X being sold to megabrewery Y are for the most part in vain, since having built their businesses equally upon all three axes of beer choice, or even more heavily on the emotional and political, it’s more than a bit of a stretch for the owners of X to turn around and declare quite suddenly that taste is really all that matters.

/ beaumontdrinks.com