Among the 377 brewery booths promoting beers during last week’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver was one with a big question mark. Near the festival stage consumers found a booth serving but a single beer each session and leaving it to consumers to determine what was in their tasting cup.
“The point was to get consumers thinking about the characteristics of the basic beer styles and to see how well they know those styles,” said Ray Daniels, Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the Brewers Association.
After receiving a sample of mystery beer, consumers were ask to determine which of six basic beer styles the mystery beer fell into. The style groups included Pilsner, pale ale and India pale ale, amber ale or lager, porter and stout, wheat beer, and Belgian-style ales. By completing a form with their opinion on the beer’s style, they also entered a drawing for tickets to the 2006 Great American Beer Festival.
Nearly 1,400 consumers participated in the mystery beer program during the four sessions of the festival. On average, they correctly identified the style being poured 70% of the time – but there were wide variations in success based on the style of beer being poured.
“India Pale Ale (IPA) and Porter got the highest percentage of correct answers,” said Daniels, “while the wheat beer and Belgian-style ale seem to have been the hardest styles to identify.”
Eight-seven percent of consumers correctly identified the pale ale/IPA style when offered a sample of Avery IPA at the Mystery Beer Booth during the Thursday evening session.
When a porter, Left Hand Brewing Company’s Blackjack Porter, was offered as the mystery beer during the Friday evening session, 83% of those participating correctly put it in the porter/stout category.
When a Belgian-style ale was offered as the mystery beer, the vast majority of consumers (70%) correctly identified the style, but there was clearly more confusion. Fourteen percent of consumers polled during the Saturday afternoon Connoisseurs’ session identified Avery Brewing Company’s Salvation as a pale ale/IPA and another 9% thought it was a wheat beer.
Finally, when Left Hand Brewing Company’s Haystack Wheat – a classic Bavarian-style hefeweizen – was served as the mystery beer during the Saturday night session of the festival, only 41% correctly identified it as a wheat beer. In this case, more consumers (43%) identified the beer as being a Belgian-style ale.
“This exercise gives us a good indication of where consumers have solid knowledge and where they need some more education,” said Daniels. “Clearly a Bavarian-style hefeweizen is not readily identifiable to the majority of beer consumers and they aren’t entirely clear on Belgian-style ales either.
“Offering a Bavarian-style wheat beer with its yeast-derived banana and clove aromas and flavors may have created a bigger challenge than intended, Daniels said. “I think that more breweries offer the American-style wheat beer and that may be more familiar to most beer drinkers,” he said. “Also, since Belgian-style wheat beers typically display spicy flavors, some consumers may have believed it was a Belgian-style wheat beer.”
To help those consumers interested in learning more about beer styles, Daniels offered a 15-minute tutored tasting of the six basic beer styles at the start of each of the three evening sessions of the festival. A “cheat sheet” on the six basic styles to help people with their decision.
“Educating consumers about beer is a key part of our mission at the Brewers Association,” said Daniels. “The Great American Beer Festival gives us an excellent opportunity to do that.”