The top 10 most popular domestic beers (including light beer) sold in America are brewed by only two companies: AB InBev and MillerCoors. If you look at the top 25, that number rises to five. Except for Sam Adams Boston Lager and Blue Moon (the only non-lager), this entire division is brewed with corn or rice products — along with barley, hops and yeast — in order to lighten the flavor while maintaining alcohol content and carbonation. In fact, Anheuser-Busch (the AB in AB InBev) is the largest purchaser of rice in the U.S. All this is to say — and the light lager category will drive this point home — these beers taste really similar.
Despite this, highly respected beer competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup have an “American-Style Lager or Light Lager” category at their awards ceremony. Which American lager took home gold at the annual Great American Beer Fest? Budweiser Select in 2013 and Pabst Blue Ribbon in 2012. At the prestigious World Beer Cup, held every two years? Coors Light.
The results of this division (found at the bottom of the page) were determined by three of the Gear Patrol staff (we split up the divisions to prevent taste bud fatigue, also known as getting drunk). As a reminder, the tasters made their decision based on the question: “Which beer would you want to order two or three more of?” So when you see that Blue Moon got swept by Coors Banquet, calm down. We understand that the cloudy, wheat beer is tremendously popular (its sales volume increased 13.5 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone), and in a one-off tasting it may have won, but we’d rather buy a keg of Coors Banquet than a keg of Blue Moon and have to cut up all those oranges.
How We Drink
Cans: Half of all beer consumed in America comes in a can. While you may associate them with cheap beer, aluminum cans are beer’s best protection against sunlight and oxygen, which are the two most common factors in turning a good beer bad (through skunking and oxidation), according to Ron Kloth, a certified cicerone and owner of Papago Brewing Co. This has led some craft brewers to start canning their beers, which are meant to be poured into glasses.
Bottle: Over a third of the suds we drink are purchased in a bottle. After some extensive pry-off versus twist-off research, we have come to a few conclusions. (1) Pry-offs are associated with craft or premium beers (due to the relative cheapness of capping with pry-offs, micro-brewers start there first). (2) The pry-off capping process affords the opportunity to use stiffer cap lining material, which better seals the bottle against oxygen and prevents an oxidized taste (this was the reasoning behind Sierra Nevada’s change from twist-off caps to pry-offs in 2007). 3) Bigger companies, your Budweisers and Miller Lites and so forth, prefer the twist, saying there is no appreciable difference in quality (and Kloth agrees) and that opening by hand allows for a more convenient drinking experience. For mass-market brewers, everything boils down to removing barriers between you and inebriation.
Draught: About 10 percent of beer comes straight from a keg, whether at a bar or a party. Though the least popular of the three main ways we drink, pouring any beer straight into a glass is the best way to drink it. Pouring releases the pent-up carbonation, reducing the CO2 “bite”, and creates the beer’s head, which should ideally be about two fingers thick. This helps you smell the beer, which has a lot to do with how you its perceive taste. But if you’re drinking a Busch Light, who the hell cares?
First Four Out
Whether a sign of dissent in the ranks of our tasters or a legitimately competitive field of beers, every first round match-up managed to have one dissenting voter (three tasters decided each round). This includes the tasting between Budweiser (1) and Sam Adams (8). After we revealed the votes at the end of the tournament, the caster of the Budweiser ballot explained, while adjusting his glasses with a certain je ne sais quoi, “The warming weather had affected me with that choice.”
To the surprise of our tasters, PBR (5) took down Yuengling (4), the oldest craft brewery in the country. But a Brooklyn resident sporting flannel and a week-old beard was one of the tasters, so maybe that had something to do with it. In the other half of the bracket, Blue Moon (6) beat Miller High Life (3) and Coors (7) beat Busch (3).
[A Note on Sam Adams and Yuengling: As we stated in the introduction, technically these two are craft beers, but by producing about 2.5 million barrels (approximately 5 million kegs) annually, they drank their way into the tournament. They are the two largest American-owned breweries, so you could call them the most “mass market” of the craft beers.]
An underdog in sales, but definitely not taste, there was no questioning Sam Adams’ dominance in the second round. To quote taster Chris Wright, when Sam Adams’s (8) hoppiness met PBR’s (5) wateriness it was the “easiest [decision] of the bunch”.
Coors Banquet (7) trounced the ultra popular “crafty” Blue Moon (6) in a result directly related to the witbier’s adjunct flavors. During the brewing process, Blue Moon Brewing Co. adds orange peel and coriander to the wort, the latter of which is commonly used as a cooking spice and gives Blue Moon that lingering flavor in the back of the throat. The picturesque orange slice hugging the glass’s rim in Blue Moon advertisements will offset some of the spicy bite, but between the unfiltered wheat flavor, the harshness of the coriander and the “fake hoppiness”, everyone quickly agreed they’d prefer a Coors for sustained drinking.
The Final Four Berth
After two rounds of wading through golden tastelessness, Sam Adams Boston Lager (8) “was just so noticeably better” than Coors Banquet (7). With a full hop flavor balanced by caramel crystal malts (not a toned down hop flavor balanced with lightening agents), better carbonation and a longer finish, Sam Adams was flavorable enough to beat the others but not so overpowering that the tasters wouldn’t knock back a few more.
Tune in tomorrow as we go abroad to find the best of the Imported Division.