Taste Test: The Downside of Labeling?

Where the taste test happens.

For those of us who are curious about what goes into our beer beyond hops, malt and yeast, labels only tell half the story … or is it the full story?

A while ago, I wrote about the use of natural flavoring in beers, explaining what it means and how it benefits brewers. An important outcome of the use and how flavors are labeled, however, may have the impact of setting expectations for a consumer. “Natural flavoring” as opposed to listing a specific taste or flavor, allows some flexibility for a brewery:

Why the term “natural flavoring?” I’d guess it straddles a fine line between impacting a consumers perception of a product and the legality of what is required to tell a customer. If you put a specific flavor front-and-center on the label – perhaps “lemonade” on Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy – there will be no doubt in a customer’s mind what they’ll be tasting. For a summer-specific beer like that, it makes sense.

So what happens when we are presented with specific labeling and the expectations that come along with them? I held a small (unscientific) experiment this weekend to get a better idea.

Instead of a beer with natural flavoring, I used a beer created with natural ingredients – Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan. A nut brown ale, Lazy Magnolia brews each batch with whole roasted pecans and proudly declares as much on each label.

lazy magnolia-souther pecan-brown ale-beer_web

… Which would lead you to expect a rather intense nuttiness, right? The grain bill would certainly allow for it, featuring Maris Otter, caramel malt and wheat. Nothing terribly overpowering, however.

lazy magnolia-souther pecan-brown ale-beer-closeup_web
Closeup of Southern Pecan

However, the aroma and taste didn’t do much to punch up the pecan flavor. The smell presented generic toasted notes and toffee, but the taste rang truer to toasted wheat bread to me. Meanwhile, all I wanted to think of was how it tasted like pecans, but my tongue wouldn’t let me do it.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. Scouring user reviews on Beer Advocate (82 overall) and RateBeer (64 overall), the most common complaint is that people would have preferred more pecan or nut flavor. It’s not that people hated it outright, they just expected more.

As something of a control, I then opened up a bottle of Ithaca Beer’s Nut Brown, which uses neither nuts or natural flavoring – the “nut” flavor is derived from grain only. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it carries the same score of 82 on Beer Advocate and 64 on RateBeer.

ithaca beer-nut brown-beer_web

This time around, the grain bill included a group of darker-kilned malts that impart a flavors closely aligned with roasted, toasted, biscuit and nut: Brown, Victory, Dark Chocolate and Amber. The results?

ithaca beer-nut brown-beer-closeup_web
Closeup of Nut Brown

It smelled like almonds and had an unmistakable roasted character. Its taste was controlled by a nuttiness that bled into chocolate and a deep caramel finish, which made me think of freshly roasted coffee.

Like me, Beer Advocate and RateBeer users thought the same. Their reviews indicated strong associations with hazelnut, chestnut and more.

Which brought me back to the idea of external expectations and what that means.

When we’re told what to expect, or at least provided with information that sets our of expectations, that can impact our perception:

The label is one of the extrinsic components of a product, playing an important role in consumer buying behavior, acting as a means to attract attention and provide information …  some of the characteristics on the label had an impact on consumer response. It may be supposed that these elements can affect each consumer differently depending on his/her personal motivations and values.

All that said, I like both beers just fine. Every beer is going to taste a little different to every person, but setting expectations and what we want when consuming a good like beer may be a bit more universal.

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac


8 thoughts on “Taste Test: The Downside of Labeling?

  1. The problem, as I see it, is that our perception of what ingredients taste like is too often based on our own nostalgia for imitation flavors.

    I can speak first-hand to the challenge of brewing with pecans. They’re expensive, and it takes a lot of pecans to make something taste “like pecans.”

    Trouble is, plenty of, er, craft brewers are willing to purchase a little extract of flavoring to impart that taste. Over years, we’ve grown accustomed to the “taste” of pecan, maple, coconut, and other highly-aromatic, high olfactory ingredients.

    I would argue we’ve lost our association with native taste, and when the beer / product *doesn’t* have that pronounced-albeit-chemically enhanced aroma, we knock it.

    All while the maker is trying to do the right thing: i.e., use the original ingredient.

    The current trend to turn beer into mealtime sensory experiences using extracts is something craft beer geeks should talk about (and question) more than they do. I’m hopeful that, over time, the craft beer community will care about *how* a brewery got a beer to “taste EXACTLY like XYZ,” and whether that process is any different than how Bud makes a berry-lime-a-rita.

    1. This is spot on and an angle I should have thought about – so thank you for pointing this out!

      I try not to go overboard in my sensory perception of beers when I experience them for the first time, but I will run over to my spice rack from time-to-time to reacquaint myself with what I’m looking for. Your point is even more pertinent given the variety of palates, tasting abilities and our own beliefs/nostalgia of what flavors should be.

      I had this experience when I made a blueberry wheat homebrew. I used a few pounds of blueberries, but had to tell people the taste is going to be “sweet, like a berry, but not a blueberry.” It was hard for friends to disassociate what they expected it to taste like – either a fresh blueberry or the blueberry flavoring experienced in other foods.

      Really appreciate this insight.

    2. I love this point, and have experienced it myself. A lot of people will have a perception of a flavor based more on an artificial route than a natural one. Subtle blueberries or cherries in a beer are looked down on because they don’t taste like Life Savors or cough syrup. I see this a lot at breweries that serve “flavored” wheat beers. They pour a beer and than add a squeeze of flavoring to it and people rave, when it tastes horribly artificial to me.

      Great post as always!

      1. Thanks, Ed. I feel like this is an important topic to consider as we welcome more people onto the craft beer bandwagon. From the outside, it’s easy to see and hear about all the wonderful flavors you can find with craft, but it’s hard to shake expectations.

        Places like Dogfish and Fullsteam go above and beyond to use *real* products in their beer, often with more care for the product than the cost. It’s very commendable, especially when you want someone to experience a true flavor.

  2. Great post, Bryan.

    I bought a bottle of DuClaw Euforia (Toffee Nut Brown Ale) and had this exact same expectational let down. It was a pretty tasty beer, but I bought it expecting (if not wanting) toffee, nuts, sweet, grainy flavor. Weird how one word can establish an entire spectrum of expectation.

    I think (and hope without writing a whole separate essay on American food culture) that this can be tied to a bigger theme. Americans have done something irreversible to taste by constantly pushing the acceptable boundaries of food. American versions of Asian and Italian are salt and sauce laden monstrosities compared to what their original recipe designers had in mind. I’ve had people look at me straight faced and tell me they don’t think fresh fruit is “sweet enough” mainly because they drink soda all day long.

    Our expectations have been taken to the extreme by all the extreme food we eat. If it doesn’t live up, or achieve a flavor that is probably actually a parody of the flavor it’s supposed to be, it gets labeled a failure.


      But yes, there is most certainly a broader issue at hand. Subtlety is not a particularly valued American virtue, but it provides an odd history of sorts with beer. It wasn’t long ago Keystone was made famous by the “Bitter Beer Face” ads because all hell would break loose if there were other flavors to beer than … “beer.” Even today, the Big Boys of American Lager are very careful to pursue well-articulated descriptions, lest the general public taste anything other than “beer.”

      It’s like when Heineken announced they were going to start using Cascade hops in their beer. It was made to be a selling point, but the “fine print” explained they weren’t actually going to change the taste of the beer at all.

  3. “Nut brown” to me evokes a colour, not a flavour.. like “golden brown”, but I accept your point about nominative determinism. It’s all about the planted seed, and can also be observed at tastings when someone suggests a novel flavour interpretation which quickly becomes unanimous. My brother and I have had fun offering absurd ideas only to have the host and others nodding sagely, “Yes, yes, I can taste the rambutan and play-doh, and the lingering Cheerios…” But if I say something reminds me of vegemite, I’d probably lose an American audience, because there is no common experience. Labels, then, must offer a reasonably generic profile to capture the nostalgia of flavour or aroma of targeted consumers. Out also speaks to a lack of sophistication of the palate or an eloquence to articulate the complexities encountered by the tongue. Strong fruit flavours are instantly identifiable, so we hear “citrus” out “passionfruit” often, but subtle esters are less easy to find words for. So if the label spells it out, in the name or the tasting notes, or marketing spiel, that becomes a point of reference. I once (last year) had a “Cock Ale” which reassuringly (in one sense) went on to explain a whole chicken had been steeped in the brew. I honestly don’t know if it really tasted of chicken, or was merely foul…

    1. ^gets it.

      I can’t help but fully agree with all this. Wonderfully spelled out, for sure. It’s a delicate balance, this art of brewing, and like other arts, there is room for interpretation beyond what the artist intends.

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