Beer science

Is craft beer not sweet enough for some?


Do mainstream drinkers hate craft beer because it’s not sweet enough?

BACKGROUND: The family went out for dinner a week or so ago at one of those hotels with a kids’ playground. And I have a theory that hotels have either a playground or a good beer list, but not both.

So this place doesn’t buck that trend at all. My wife asked if I wanted a beer and I said “yeah. Surprise me”. She brought it back and asked me to try and guess what it was. I took a sip and found it sweet, like honey. My first guess was the Blue Moon seasonal Summer Honey Wheat. I’d had that and remembered it was quite sweet. Nope.

My next guess was Beez Neez, because that has honey in it too. Nope. Turns out it was Tooheys New, which was a complete surprise. It genuinely tasted sweet enough to be made with honey. Now, as part of an attempt to be less fat, I’ve cut way back on sugar in the last few months, which means I may have an increased sensitivity to sweetness but still, I’d never had that response to the craft beers I drink each weekend.

The next day I did some experimenting with two other mainstream beers – VB and Carlton Draught. The former, while still sweet, wasn’t as honey-like as the New. And the Carlton was less sweet again, but still had more sweetness than I’d have expected.

HYPOTHESIS: That mainstream beer drinkers dislike craft beer because, for the most part, it is more bitter and far less sweet than the big-name beers they’re used to drinking.

REASONING: In recent months, I’d read up a bit on sugar. Seems evolution has made us predisposed to sweet things because of the energy they offer. Back in the caveman days, though, “sweet things” were fruits and not the crap we eat today. Incidentally, bitter was a flavour to be avoided as it was suggestive of poison.

I’d also been reading about how it’s used in a whole lot of foods to make us like them more. Personally, I was shocked to find the “healthy” cereal I’d been eating for ages had 28 grams of sugar in a 100g serve. So I cut that out of the diet straight away. But plenty of people eat these foods not aware of just how much sugar they’re ingesting, nor how it’s altering their palates (which could be part of the reason for the huge increase in in sweet alcopops and ciders).

The sugar works because it hooks us and makes us want more. Also, it makes food without it taste blaah. Anyone who is trying to cut out using sugar in tea or coffee can attest that it can take quite some time to get used to those beverages without the sweetness. When I cut sugar out my tea ages ago, there was a period of a few weeks where I had to force myself to keep drinking it in order to acclimatise to it.

Perhaps something similar happens for beer drinkers when they try a craft beer for the first time. Maybe it’s not that it’s “too full of flavour”, as uber geeks like to say in a superior tone. Maybe the problem is that it actually lacks a particular flavour – the flavour of sugar. I think we can agree that craft beer, generally speaking, is less sweet than mainstream beer. They’re used to that sweetness and, the lack of it can cause something akin to revulsion.

On top of that, remember that craft beer tends to contain more bitterness due to the hops. So maybe there’s a bit of the biological aversion going on as well. But I reckon there’s something to this. I guess the best way to test the hypothesis is to give a non-craft beer drinker a beer that IS sweet – like the Blue Moon seasonal or Beez Neez and see if their reaction is any different.

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