Lager: Bait and Switch

A can of lager in cunning disguise.

By Bailey (edited by Boak)

How easy is it to tell one standard lager from another? And how much are we influenced by packaging and ‘brand values’?

After a rocky start, we’ve very much embraced St Austell Korev as our go-to lager. It is straightforward but tasty, and very good value in cans, which is why we didn’t hesitate to recommend it in this listicle for the Independent.

But, enjoying a half in a harbour-side pub, where it cost £4.20 a pint, Boak wondered aloud, “If they just gave me Heineken in this nice glass, would I notice the difference?”

Which gave us an idea. We agreed that, from then on, we would find opportunities to test each other by secretly replacing Korev with big-brand lagers.

Then, last week, fresh relevance was provided by a study which suggested most people served blind couldn’t tell one mainstream lager brand from another.

Last night, I finally seized the opportunity, dangling a can of Korev, but actually filling the poshest glass I could find with Carlsberg Export (can, 5%, ‘Produce of the E.U.’) and serving it up with due ceremony.

Cards on the table: she did not immediately notice the difference. The beer was cold and looked fantastic. It was only as it began to warm up that she started to suspect something was up: “Did you say this was Korev? It tastes weird. It’s much more… bland than usual.”

I really wanted Carlsberg Export to pass the test because it’s dead cheap and easy to find, but the fact is, it simply isn’t a satisfying beer. It’s clean, yes, but it’s also sweet to the point of sickliness. With more hops, or even more hop extract, it might do the job, but, like this, it’s barely even thirst-quenching.

So, round one to Boak, and to Korev.

Now, this wasn’t even remotely scientific and I was probably giving off all kinds of cues (though I avoided sniggering mischievously…) not to mention the fact that she knew this was going to happen at some point. But it was enough to convince us.

I wonder when my turn will come?

16 thoughts on “Lager: Bait and Switch”

    1. *Doffs cap in respect of a fine pun plus a smattering of cricket style applause*

  1. Kudos for spotting it; as someone who failed to identify Special Brew from a blind tasting of craft barley wines, I know what a constant knife-edge this kind of thing can be…

  2. I’m honest enough to admit that I can’t tell the difference between any lagers, apart from maybe Urquell because the Saaz are so prominent. Maybe.

    1. In the full quote I gave the bloke from the Telegraph, I mentioned Urquell as one mainstream lager that is really distinctive. I think I described it as ‘pungent’.

  3. If you really want to get scientific, there’s a fairly easy way of doing a relatively solid double-blind testing with two of you where you both still get to drink, to wit:
    * beers in the kitchen, both of you in the living room
    * one of you goes through to the kitchen, pour the beers, and flips a coin to decide which beer to label “A” and which to label “B”
    * that person comes back, the other person goes through to the kitchen and flips a coin to decide whether or not to switch the labels around.

    You now have two beers labelled A & B, but neither of you is sure which is which until you confer at the end. It’s not perfect, since the first person has seen the beers after pouring them, but it’s easy and pretty effective.

    1. The best test is to pour 3 glasses, 2 the same and 1 different, and see if you can recognise which 2 are the same.

      Most people can’t even manage that.

      Its funny, even though I’m sure I can’t tell the difference I will still pay 20p extra for a Carling over a Carlsberg.

  4. I suppose you could improve it by replacing “relabel” with “pour into two different glasses”.

  5. I think if you’re used to them you should be able to tell, say, Stella from Carlsberg Export side by side, but just given one in isolation you would struggle. Indeed I’d say most people would find it difficult with any kind of beer apart from the most individual and distinctive.

  6. I wish I could sound fancy and say I can, but I can barely ever tell the difference between most beers. But I agree with you on Carlsberg – I find it far too sickly!

  7. It is fun to play those kind of games on the people who are really fanatical about their particular lager brand worship.

    “I cant stand X, give me Y”
    gives X anyway (unseen)
    “Ah, I love Y, way better than that X muck”

    Many mainstream lagers give themselves away in terms of one basic character or another, that aids identification. Usually something along the lines of:
    – anaemic blandness
    – one dimensional hopping (almost chemical)
    – overpowering carbonation
    – I-cant-believe-thats-not-barley adjunct-ness

    Under the right circumstances they can tick the right box (your first glass, hot day, or after a sports session etc.) but subsequent serves become progressively less satisfying.

    Its not just lagers either; In Ireland the Four Stouts test is good at failing diehard Guinness/Murphys/Beamish drinkers (the fourth is O Hara’s) from even identifying their usual tipple (never mind matching all 4 stouts).

    As your test shows though, if there is a significant *quality* difference, it does become apparent. Anyone who has ever enjoyed Thornbridge Bayern before, will know if it got swapped with a 1664.

    As an aside, these stunts are really good at shaking up entrenched anti-craft or anti-try-something-new opinions.

  8. A pal of mine always drinks Tennants in one of the few English outlets I know of. He swears blind that Carling – also sold in the same pub – tastes different (despite Tennants being kegged as Carling when the brewery was owned by Coors) but has never been able to notice the inevitable and regular switches.

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