A hint of caramel, notes of chocolate and a pleasantly toasty aftertaste. When words like these are used to describe the taste of wine, artisanal bread, coffee, cigars or craft beer, consumers learn to use these terms, developing both sensory and linguistic skills. They develop these aesthetic skills through a systematic approach involving individual and collective learning practices. By studying consumers in the booming market of U.S. craft beer, researchers founds insights into how organizations can support consumers’ journey toward connoisseurship and the particular loyalty these consumers develop toward brands.
Since industrialization, both beauty and refinement have been highlighted in many consumer markets, including home decoration, clothing, and fine foods and beverages. Consumers whose habitus resonates with these markets often formulate the goal of developing aesthetic expertise in them; they learn complex systems of taste evaluation to judge their aesthetic experiences. Extant research shows these systems’ effects on many aspects of consumer behavior, from information search and memory to strategies for participating in status games. This study extends consumer research by illuminating how these taste evaluation systems are constituted in consumers, after habitus has instilled generic dispositions in them. The multimethod ethnography studies US middle-class, male craft beer aficionados seeking to become connoisseurs. This work makes two main contributions to consumer research. First, it places the often-neglected world of the senses at the center of taste theorizing. It details three learning practices (benchmarking, autodidactics, and scaffolding) that consumers use to bind together the sensory and discursive dimensions of social practices. Second, it reveals interconsumer cooperation as a key mechanism in building consensus on social practices that involve ambiguous aesthetic experiences. This theorization complements prior research on status competition as a dominant type of sociality in taste-centered consumption domains.