Happy March Madness, everyone! This time of year, we begin to see a plethora of spin-off brackets come out, ranging in theme from restaurants to bands to clothes. The majority of these brackets, however, focus on food and drink.
This year, my friends and I decided to jump on the drink madness train with one of the most common types of brackets: beer. Our bracket consists of 64 unique varieties of beer submitted by our friends and ranked according to the frequency with which they appeared on each friend’s list. There was no rhyme or reason to the pairings or the selection – just a list of all the brews we could think of.
Ten of us gathered at my friend Josh’s house for the first blind beer test. Earlier that day, Josh had gone out to Woodman’s and purchased a plethora of random single beers for the test. His fridge was packed. He served up each pairing to us in two shot glasses – one pink and one blue. We were supposed to taste, then on the count of three hold up the shot glass that held our favorite beer. We would then guess which beer we had just tasted, and Josh would reveal the truth, often to many exclamations of shame or surprise. What ensued was an eye-opening experience about the powers of branding.
“What?! I hate Fat Squirrel!” wailed my lager-loving roommate after she realized she had just voted for the brown ale over Sprecher Amber.
A little bit later, another friend had the opposite experience when she discovered she hadn’t voted for one of her favorite beers of all time.
“I mean, I like Mad Town Nut Brown, but I can’t believe I didn’t vote for Riverwest Stein!” said a mortified Suzanne Liebergen.
Personally, I had the same experience when one beer that was tepid and a little too ripe-smelling was paired up against what I was certain was a domestic like Bud, Miller or Coors Light. “What the heck”? I thought, “I like domestic beers” and I placed my vote.
The verdict came down. When the smoke cleared, the horrific truth was revealed: I had voted for none other than Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss, one of my most hated beers. The loser? Blue Moon – a beer I had thought was one of my favorites. On one hand, this result was comforting because it meant Honey Weiss was no better than bottom-shelf Bud Light. On the other hand, it meant Blue Moon was not at all as good as I thought it was, and maybe those cool, artsy commercials had done more work on me than I’d hoped.
Another tasting issue that kept coming up was the fruity beer controversy. Should we vote for that sweet New Glarus Unplugged Cherry Stout or the apple cider-esque Strongbow? Sure, they are alcoholic and delicious, but they just don’t taste like beer. One taster suggested a solution: Vote for that beer which you’d more prefer to drink an entire pint, not just a little shot glass. Sure, one little sip of Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss is refreshing and wonderful, but for many drinkers the heady berry taste would get to be too much by the 16th ounce.
The only universally hated beer was Wild Blue, a blueberry-infused lager, which tasted like very sharp, carbonated Froot Loops cereal milk. For some, the intense sweetness might be appealing, but I couldn’t even finish my whole shot glass. Plus, the bottle warned of possible blueberry sediment on the bottom. Gross.
We also found that smelling the beers before we tasted them sometimes affected the results. Before one tasting, my roommate made a face and told me to smell my beer. I did, and up wafted the skunk you find in green-bottle beers like Heineken or Peroni. When it came to voting time, those who hadn’t smelled the beer voted for it, and she and I were among the few who voted against the culprit – clear-bottled Newcastle Brown Ale.
At the end, we decided to have a little fun with a blind domestic beer taste test: Bud Light against Coors Light. Both beers were fairly awful, but one beer was a little more acrid than the other and ended up losing. The smooth winner? Coors.
Tonight, we have our second round of tastings, and I have to say I’m nervous. Will I vote down another beer a fancy commercial seduced me into liking, like Blue Moon? Will the power of a blind taste test again obliterate the influence of powerful branding like that of Leinenkugel’s? Will a skunky or weird smell once again betray an okay-tasting beer with a good reputation? Only the beer madness bracket will tell.
Sam Stepp is a senior majoring in journalism. Comments, questions, recipes, suggestions? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.