Sunday, February 13, 2011

Budweiser vs. real pilsner

Budweiser sucks.

Or, at least, this was my hypothesis when I brought together thirteen friends and family members for a blind pilsner taste test on January 22, 2011.

The Vibe.

I had been thinking about hosting such an event for a few years now, but kept finding opportunities for postponement.

I discovered in 1991 that beer meant more than BudCoorsHammOly when I first tasted Paulaner Hefeweizen while stationed in Gaeta, Italy, with the U.S. Navy. My friend PJ and I used to frequent a small pub in Gaeta [PJ: help me recall the name! Update Feb. 13 2011: Bar/Cafe Uno, V. Europa. 20, Gaeta]. The proprietor, Mario, was from Bavaria originally but married an Italian woman and was then living in Gaeta. I distinctly remember one day Mario serving up a tall glass of Paulaner with a lemon slice. I took one sip and was thrust instantly into an entirely new world.

Until that moment in Mario's pub, I equated beer with the highly-carbonated, straw-colored, slightly-bitter soda water that I had been drinking legally (in Europe) for about a year and had drunk other-than-legally in high school. The Heineken, Bira Moretti, and similar styles in Turkey, Morocco, Greece, and the other countries I visited weren't appreciably different than the Hamms, Coors, and Olympia that I ~sampled~ in high school.

After Paulaner had changed my worldview forevermore, I had the good fortune of going home to Oregon, where the microbrewery movement was really starting to pick up speed. After serving my country honorably from the age of 17 to 21, in 1994 I finally received my discharge at an age that I could drink legally in my own country. I had volunteered to die for my country and had been drinking legally in other countries, but once I had turned 21 I was finally able to drink legally at home [one of these days, in another post, I'll rant in excruciating detail about this silly dynamic].

For nearly two decades now, I've been an unrepentant Beer Snob, evolving beer connoisseur, and fledgling beer geek. I regularly snub my nose at American Style Pilsners. I consider Budweiser and Bud Light so bad that I won't even drink them if they're free [Seth can attest to this], and I'd gladly go without beer in any form than drink Pabst Blue Ribbon on a consistent basis (in spite of the ridiculous ongoing PBR billboard campaign here in Portland and elsewhere. Note to Pabst: this campaign is LAME).

However, I do possess just enough self-reflective ability to wonder if I'm full of sh*t. Is Budweiser really the worst beer in the known universe? Continue below the fold to find out . . .

The narrative that you've willingly clicked yourself into unfolds as follows:
    1) Hypothesis
    2) Method
    3) Data
    4) Conclusions
    5) Lessons Learned
    6) What Next?
    7) Sources & Raw Data
1) Hypothesis

My hypothesis was that Budweiser is a vapid, bland, beer that does injustice to the venerable "pilsner" appellation; I also extended this judgment to all North American macro-brewed pilsner-style lagers and their imitators throughout the world. Michael Jackson (R.I.P.) shared this opinion as well, and wrote that
    this style has also become the basis for a blandified, cheapened adaptation, the standard golden lager of no particular character that is an international form of beer, sometimes further degraded by being made "light" or "dry." Whether or not they say Pilsner on their labels, and some have the impertinence to do so, that is the remote inspiration of these products (from p. 210 of Jackson's book credited in full below).
With this hypothesis, I wondered if non-beer-experts (like myself) would evaluate Budweiser negatively if this beer was to be compared blindly with a number of other beers in the same basic style. I reasoned that it is one thing to disparage a product if one knows the producer, but if this bias is removed, how might one evaluate the product?

I do understand that the American Brewer's Association considers German, Bohemian, and American Style Pilsner Lagers to be distinct styles. I am also aware that some consider "Pilsner" to be an official appellation, and, therefore, only applicable to the Urquell and Gambrinus breweries. For the purposes of our experiment I did not consider either of these nuances.

2) Method

I led off the evening with an overview of the history of the pilsner style, based on Michael Jackson's Beer Companion (2nd ed.; Philadelphia: Running Press, 1997, pp. 210-216) and Ray Daniels' Designing Great Beers (Boulder, Colo.: Brewers Publications, 1996).

None of the participants were expert beer judges. Some of them -- like me -- enjoy beer immensely and have, for themselves, sampled various beers at various times with the intention of learning more about specific styles and style characteristics. The rest of the participants may not have ever taken the time to compile their own notes about specific beers they've had in the past, but they all do enjoy beer. None of the participants, however, indicated that the pilsner style was among their favorites.

Wish You Were Here

All participants were blind to the ten beers I had chosen, but I did tell them that they would be sampling three old-world pilsners, three macro-brewed pilsners, three micro-brewed pilsners, and one "wild card," which would be an additional selection from the previous three categories. I poured the samples in another room and brought the tray of samples to the participants.

I provided small (~6-oz) glasses for each participant, and had participants write their names on tape that I had affixed to the outside of each glass. I asked that participants rinse their glasses with water when they had finished the sample, and place their glasses back on the tray. I then brought the tray into a separate room where I poured ~1-2 ounces of beer into each glass. I kept the beers on ice in a cooler, so that they would be at more-or-less the proper lager serving temperature (low 30s F).

Me, servin' it up!

I provided each participant with a 33 Beers tasting journal so that people could get as in-depth as they wanted to in describing and tracking for themselves each beer. Regardless of what they chose to record in their personal journals, I asked that each participant rate the beer from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest positive and 1 being the lowest negative. I also asked for a few words, positive or negative, to characterize each beer. Participants recorded this information on a sheet from one of those large 20"x 23" easel pads on which I had created the appropriate rows and columns.

The Scoring Chart.

Also, I asked people to bring food that was broadly in the Central and Eastern European theme. This included cured meats, fermented cabbage, cheeses, breads, etc.

Food.

I did not rate the beers myself during this event. I had originally thought that I would be able to take my own notes for each beer, but I realized early on that the process of providing the samples took all of my time. I did taste ~2 ounces of each beer as I served the participants, and developed my own general impressions, but I was not able to take my own notes. I will do so at a later time and produce a post about this experience (stay tuned!).

Authentic action photo.
 A special thank-you to Belmont Station, particularly Brendan. Except for the three six-packs of macro-brew swill that I purchased from another retailer, I bought all of these beers at Portland's own amazing beer store, Belmont Station. Brendan at Belmont was extremely helpful to me in identifying three quality microbrew pilsners for us to sample. My children will thank Belmont Station for helping make me a better & more knowledgeable person, but they may curse me for spending some part of their college tuition at the store.




3) Data

How did the participants rate the beers?!?!?!

Here is the scoring board with each beer lined-up in order served, l to r.

In descending order of preference, our 13 participants rated the 10 beers as listed below. A beers' rating in this list reflects the normalized scale, while the number in parenthesis represents the raw scale. Directly below each listing is a brief note about why I chose the beer, and below this is a selection of terms that participants used to describe the beer.

You can find the full data set and complete list of descriptive terms in the Sources section below.

A special thank-you to Chad for running the calculations to normalize the scores. As he describes below, most of the rankings do not change based upon this normalization, but at least we're able to factor-in some of the subjectivity of people's relative scoring to provide numbers that may be a bit more informative.

1 (1). Karlovacko Pilsner, Karlovac, Croatia
    Rating: 1.564 (6.46/10)
    Served from 22oz bottles. This beer was the "wild card" I mentioned above. Karlovac, Croatia, is not at the center of the heart of the Bohemian region in which the pilsner style developed, but it's not too far away. I chose this beer in recognition of one of the participants, who was born and raised in Croatia.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: nice body green sour; good flavor; light, interesting; good, needs malt; fruity - apple?; a little sweet; pleasant; [smiley face]; smooth; right amount of taste + linger

2 (2). Oskar Blues Mama's Little Yella Pils, Longmont, Colorado
    Rating: 1.343 (5.62/10)
    Served from 12-ounce lined aluminum cans. I purchased this micro-brewed beer on the advice of Belmont Station staff. When this canned beer was recommended to me, my brows furrowed, but I was assured that the contents inside were of high quality.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: bold flavor; bland; ok; complex

3 (3). Victory Brewing Prima Pils, Downingtown, Pennsylvania
    Rating: 1.290 (5.46/10)
    Served from 12-ounce brown glass bottles. Another micro-brewed beer I purchased on the advice of Belmont Station staff.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: hoppy citrus; good flavor hoppy; cloudy, herbal; 1-dimensional; local beer - too hoppy; bitter; floral; smooth - too hoppy

4 (4). Urquell Pilsner, Plzeň, Czech
    Rating: 1.116 (4.83/10)
    Served from 12-ounce green glass bottles. I chose this beer because it's one of two pilsners that can unreservedly lay claim to the appellation "Pilsner." Also, this is one of the pilsners that Michael Jackson draws specific attention to in his book.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: creamy hoppiness; more flavor [than PBR]; adequate!; sour; citrusy; fruity; bitter hoppy

5 (5). Czechvar Pilsner, Plzeň, Czech
    Rating: 1.039 (4.25/10)
    Served from 12-ounce green glass bottles. I chose this beer because it's one of two pilsners that can unreservedly lay claim to the appellation "Pilsner." Also, this is one of the pilsners that Michael Jackson draws specific attention to in his book.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: sweet; weaker form of #5 [Victory Brewing Prima Pils]; frat party beer; pancake topping; too sweet; bitter; smooth not hoppy; nothing special

6 (6). LaBatt Blue, Toronto, Ontario
    Rating: .927 (4.04/10)
    Served from 12-ounce brown glass bottles. I chose this beer as one of three representatives of the North American macro-brewed pilsner lager style.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: sweet hoppy medium body; drinkable; bad aftertaste; flavorful; watery hoppy; ?

7 (7). Heater Allen Pils, McMinnville, Oregon
    Rating: .858 (3.63/10)
    Served from 22-ounce brown glass bottles. Another micro-brewed beer I purchased on the advice of Belmont Station staff.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: nice body slightly sour; more flavor than #1 [Pabst Blue Ribbon]; sparkly water that's bitter; bad aftertaste; bitter water; stronger version of #1 [Pabst Blue Ribbon]; sweet but too hoppy; linger

8 (8). Pabst Blue Ribbon, Woodridge, Illinois
    Rating: .733 (3.13/10)
    Served from 12-ounce brown glass bottles. I chose this beer as one of three representatives of the North American macro-brewed pilsner lager style. I was also interested in how people would rate this beer considering the broad appeal that it seems to have among Portland hipsters, and hipsters generally, and because I am annoyed at the current PBR billboard campaign here in Portland, which I find quite annoying.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: flavorless; no body/flavor; lacks everything; easy to drink for non-beer drinkers; light; simple; bland; no flavor; crisp but little flavor

9 (10). Bitburger Pils, Bitburg, Germany
    Rating: .572 (2.50/10)
    Served from 16-ounce lined aluminum cans. I chose this beer because it's one of the pilsners that Michael Jackson draws specific attention to in his book. It's not from the city of Plzeň itself, but, according to Jackson, it's in the top echelon of beers brewed in this style.
    Selected Reviewer Comments: Fruity light body; no flavor initially strange aftertaste; fruit juice!; tastes like pear; fruity; nothing; no taste; piss water?; bleh

10 (9). Budweiser American Lager, St. Louis, Missouri
    Rating: .571 (2.54/10)
    Served from 12-ounce brown glass bottles. I chose this beer as one of three representatives of the North American macro-brewed pilsner lager style. This is the beer that the brewer, Anheuser-Busch, insists is the "King of Beers." Is it?
    Selected Reviewer Comments: smooth slight fruit; no flavor; worst yet!; bland, bland, bland; sweet fruit bland later; watery; fruity

5) Lessons Learned

It's extremely fascinating to me that the participants rated Karlovacko Pilsner the highest -- I did not expect this at all. I did expect microbrewed pilsners to be at the top of the list, which was the case with the Oskar Blues (#2) and Victory Brewing (#3) pilsners. Two of the most "true" pilsners, Urquell and Czechvar, rounded out the top 5. I was surprised that Bitburger was rated so low, but I think this might have to do with whatever was lost in translation with this beer (then again, why the higher ranking for Karlovacko, Urquell, and Czechvar, all of which traveled about as far?).

If we look a bit closer at the normalized numbers, we see that no beer ran away with the rankings -- no beer was extremely high or extremely low, relative to the next-in-line. Karlovacko was a full tenth of a point higher than #2 Oskar Blues, and as we go down in rankings each beer seems to be more-or-less a full tenth of a point above the beer below, until we get to the very close normalized scores of Bitburger (#9, .572) and Budweiser (#10, .571). Comparing #1 with #10, however, there is quite a wide range apparent: Karlovacko was rated 1.564 (6.46/10), while Budweiser was rated .571 (2.54/10).

The most satisfying thing that I learned through this experience is that I'm not the only person who considers Budweiser to be an extremely bad beer. Granted, this wasn't a thoroughly scientific experiment, and my sample size may not meet the significance criteria, but I'm confident that the methods I used are something more than anecdotal (even if they apply only to residents of Portland). So, yes, Budweiser sucks, and I'm not the only person who thinks this way, and Anheuser-Busch's "King of Beers" campaign is a load of crap.

Regarding my method, some of the weaknesses I observed include:
    ** I should have indicated to participants that they ought to consider "5" to be middle-of-the-road, and calibrate their scores appropriately. Since many (if not all) participants indicated that they did not really like pilsners to begin with, I think the scores are skewed a bit lower than they may have been if I had stressed to them that they should think of a "5" rating as something drinkable but not spectacular, and a "1" rating as something they couldn't get past their noses.
    ** Some participants would have preferred to have a sample of a beer that could have served as a "type" indicator, so that they could have calibrated their taste buds and evaluations on this one beer. I understand this desire, but I disagree. For one thing, I wanted this tasting to involve people who were not expert beer judges -- I wanted participants to react with their honest evaluations of what they liked or did not with a given beer. Second, the only true type for this beer would be one of the Pilsners brewed in Plzeň, and, unfortunately, that freshness and nuance of flavor does not translate from Czech to the U.S.A.; so, even if I had them try Urquell and said "all other beers must be judged according to this one," it would have been a diminutive version of The Real Thing that they were trying, which would have skewed the experiment accordingly.
    ** In accordance with the above, another weakness of this experiment is that I was not able to get truly representative samples of Urquell, Czechvar, Bitburger, or Karlovacko. The versions I used lost one thing or another in the long transport from their place of origin, and this is largely unavoidable. Therefore, even though I included "old world" examples of this style, the true essence of the style was not represented accurately. In spite of all this, the participants still determined that Budweiser sucks.
    ** If I had run this experiment with certified beer judges, the results likely would have been different. My experiment can readily be critiqued because none among us was even close to being a certified judge who would know deeply the full depth and breadth of the pilsner style. However, at the same time, the purpose of this experiment was to solicit the input of non-specialists.
6) What Next?

Most, if not all, participants at this event wanted to have regularly-recurring beer tasting events, based on different styles. This sounds like a great idea to me! I took a rough poll and decided upon having a hefeweizen blind tasting some time in the June/July time frame. Bavarian hefeweizen is one of my favorite styles, and American hefeweizen is one of my least favorite styles, so this tasting provides me a great opportunity to showcase what I like and dislike about these nomenclaturally-similar but fundamentally different styles.

I asked participants if trying 10 beers was too much, and almost without exception I was told that 10 was a great sample size. At first they thought that 10 would be too much, but once we go into the tasting process, many participants said that a sample size of 10 was a great way to get a deeper understanding of the range and fundamentals of the style.

I welcome any and all additional suggestions in the comment thread. Want to be invited to the next tasting? Let me know this as well in the comments.

7) Sources & Raw Data

Here is the Excel spreadsheet on which we have stored and manipulated the data:

Pilsner Tasting Data, Jan. 22, 2011

Regarding the process that Chad used to normalize the raw data that I collected on the night of the event, here's what he has to say:
    [I took] every participant's average score, and divided their beer ratings by that average. This isn't all that sophisticated, but I think it will lead to a more accurate ranking. Someone who really likes hates [Chad corrected this Feb. 14 2011] pilsner might rate the best pilsner a 5 or 6, while someone who really loves it could give it a 10. Mixing these different implicit ranking ranges might lead to inaccurate results. The normalization should make sure there's an even playing field for comparing the scores. Karlovack remains the winner, followed by Little Yella Pils and Prima Pils. No change from the original ranking. On the low end, Budweiser and Bitburger switch places (ever so slightly), making Bud the official loser. On the whole, things don't change too much, but I think the method makes sense.
Taster's comments to accompany the Excel spreadsheet above:

Beer, listed in the order served
    Reviewer Comments
------------------------------------------------------------------------
1. Pabst
    flavorless; no body/flavor; lacks everything; easy to drink for non-beer drinkers; light; simple; bland; no flavor; crisp but little flavor
2. Urquell
    creamy hoppiness; more flavor; adequate!; sour; citrusy; fruity; bitter; bitter hoppy
3. Heater Allen
    nice body slightly sour; more flavor than #1; sparkly water that's bitter; bad aftertaste; bitter water; stronger version of #1; sweet but too hoppy; linger
4. Karlovacko
    nice body green sour; good flavor; light, interesting; good, needs malt; fruity - apple?; a little sweet; pleasant; [smiley face]; smooth; right amount of taste + linger
5. Victory
    hoppy citrus; good flavor hoppy; cloudy, herbal; 1-dimensional; local beer - too hoppy; bitter; floral; smooth - too hoppy; slightly bitter
6. Czechvar
    sweet; weaker form of #5; frat party beer; pancake topping; too sweet; bitter; smooth not hoppy; nothing special
7. Budweiser
    smooth slight fruit; no flavor; worst yet!; bland, bland, bland; sweet fruit bland later; watery; fruity
8. LaBatt
    sweet hoppy medium body; drinkable; bad aftertaste; flavorful; watery hoppy; ?
9. Bitburger
    Fruity light body; no flavor initially strange aftertaste; fruit juice!; no flavor; tastes like pear; fruity; nothing; no taste; piss water?; bleh
10. Oskar Blues
    bold flavor; okay; bland; ok; ok; complex

-

19 comments:

  1. This is great! If you need an extra taster for you next experiment, my July is wide open!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very cool! I would love to have been a part of that. I agree that Bud, Coors, Miller and the like SUCK! I've been a beer snob for quite a while now and I've begun moving into the wine snob arena as well - no boxed wine for me! Wish I could be there for the July tasting, but I don't think I'll be getting out of CO this summer.

    ReplyDelete
  3. James, wish I was there man! The pub in Gaeta was the "Bar/Cafe Uno" and is still there. Here is the address info: Cafe Uno; Di Redivo Mario, V. Europa. 20 , 04024 Gaeta; Tel +39(0771)462285.

    BTW, I still talk to Mario every now and again. He's good and still serving it up to the current generation.

    Long live good beer!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent, PJ -- I knew I could rely on you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, guys im from Gaeta and yes Mario is still serving the best beer in town! cheers :D

      Delete
    2. Glad to hear it -- three cheers to Mario and to lovely Gaeta!!!!

      Delete
  5. I worked in a Microbrewery for 3 years and they required us to be educated on the beer making process in order to serve it. We made lagers and pilsner is a lager. Budweiser is a pilsner.
    Our pilsner was a refreshing summer beer with a crisp hoppiness.. It was served in very tall glasses which required several minutes to pour as it created quite a head- which was like a merengue by the time it was served. Our braumeister was from Bravaria with a masters degree in beer making. and, according to him Budweiser was a well made pilsner.
    You may prefer darker types like ambers, hefeveisen or bock, or an ale like IiPA.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous.

    Sounds like you had a fun job! I'm a bit envious; I've made my own beer, read a lot about beer, and have taken brewery tours, etc., but one thing I haven't done is have a job in the industry where I would be able to learn production brewing techniques hands-on.

    I definitely prefer beers with stronger flavors, such as IPAs, barley wines, bocks & dopplebocks, Belgian ales, etc. As I wrote in a follow-up post to this post ("My take on Budweiser vs. real pilsner"), this pilsner tasting experiment enabled me to gain a new-found respect for the pilsner style, so I do have a more positive view of the style now -- and happily so!

    I do agree with your assertion that Budweiser is a well-made pilsner -- at least in the sense that it is consistent over time and space: A Budweiser in Portland tastes the same as a Budweiser in Texas, for example. However, as I describe in the post I linked to above, when compared to Urquell, Czechvar, Karlovacko, and some microbrewed pilsners, Budweiser comes across to me as a weak, watery, bland, and boring beer with an awkward sweet finish.

    It really does come down to personal tastes, so I'm not asserting that my view is anything but subjective, but at the same time I feel strongly that there are many, many, pilsner beers out there that are much, much, better than Budweiser. I also feel strongly that if it wasn't for Anheuser-Busch's constant marketing campaigns that use manipulative and distracting advertising techniques (i.e., those ridiculous geckos) to convince people to drink their beer, it wouldn't have nearly the market share that it does.

    So, in summary, a technically well-made beer might make the product consistent, but being consistently bland and boring shouldn't be seen as a positive trait, in my view.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hmm. It had not even occurred to me the Braumeister was possibly remarking about production value, not flavor-- but you may be correct. Ultimately, Taste is a personal choice and lots of folks choose Budweiser, --I am with you on not appreciating Budweiser, but i really don't like hops so a more flavorful Pilsner is actually worse to my tastebuds. Tastes like a pill........sner. I like beers with other dominant flavors, thick and dark, but even hefeveisen, all smooth like cereal is tasty.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ultimately, Taste is a personal choice and lots of folks choose Budweiser --> For sure!

    I'm so thankful that there is a vast and growing universe of exceptional and diverse beers and beer styles out there for those of us not beholden to unsupported and unsupportable claims of the monarchical superiority of any given beer.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Why in all that is good with beer would you include Budweiser in a "pilsner" tasting event? Budweiser is a "LAGER" !!!

    just J

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anonymous May 23 2011: Precisely for this reason (quoted from above): "However, I do possess just enough self-reflective ability to wonder if I'm full of sh*t. Is Budweiser really the worst beer in the known universe?"

    ReplyDelete
  11. Ain't technology grand? I'm searching the interwebz for the address for Bar Uno in anticipation of a business trip back to Gaeta, and I stumble upon a a beer blog written by fellow ex-Obrancher James Hillegas! Hope you are doing well, James. I talk to Zip and Greg Holmes fairly often; will say hey to them for you if you like.

    Ed Peter

    ReplyDelete
  12. Holy cow...Cheese!!! Hello man! Glad to see things are going well for you. Had always wondered how you did after you left Italy. Now that you are a beer snob, need to have you come out and give your snob review of the brews my brother does for his local Pub here in Bremerton.. :)

    David Norman

    P.S. Hello Herc!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Dave & Ed, Holy Shit! Thanks for finding my blog and for posting. What a small world!

    I've been a busy monkey of late -- new job & more I could bore you with -- so I wasn't able to reply sooner.

    Yeah, it was great that PJ could refresh my memory on that . . . things get a bit foggy as I age, but I'm sure you two don't have the same issue.

    Hey, feel free to drop me an email directly at jvhillegas at g mail dot c o m, or look me up on Facebook.

    Dave, I'm certainly a beer snob! Do you live just up the road in Bremerton!!?? Small world!

    Drop lines!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I poured Old Milwaukee into a glass and then Budweiser into another glass and let some true Bud drinkers tell me which one was the best.
    EVERY time the Bud drinkers picked the Old Milwaukee!!!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hehehe, that's funny!

    That was precisely one of my intentions with this test -- to see how people would rate things in a blind situation. As the findings show, Bud rates very low.

    My interpretation of this is if it wasn't for Bud's stupid & incessant advertising, they wouldn't have the market share that they have. A corollary to that, of course, is that a significant chunk of Americans are stupid enough to fall for stupid & incessant advertising. Makes me sad about the prospect for democracy.

    ReplyDelete
  16. How would Warsteiner a german beer stack up ?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Beers are paintings. Bud is a white canvas. I think.

    ReplyDelete