Mass-Market Beer Tournament: The Final Four

The winners of their respective divisions — Sam Adams, Guinness, Natural Light and Steel Reserve — match up in the Final Four of the Mass Market Beer Tournament, and we crown a champion.

H. Phillips

Some tournaments are decided before the championship. Take the “Miracle on Ice”. The U.S. ice hockey team met the Soviets during the 1980 Winter Olympics and pulled of the underdog, good vs. evil, us vs. them, please-don’t-drop-the-bomb win that would come to define the 1980 Winter Olympics. ABC, HBO and Walt Disney have all made patriotic films about the game. The only thing is, that wasn’t the game that won the U.S. the gold medal. It wasn’t until two days later that the team beat Finland in the finale of the round robin tournament (and they had to come back in that game as well) to win gold.

In that way, our Mass Market tournament was a lot like those ’80 Olympics. The best match-ups happened before the championship game and afterwards everyone suddenly claimed to have been hockey malt liquor fans all along. The excitement and objectivity of blind tasting couldn’t continue into the Final Four; any beer drinker can distinguish between a malty Guinness and a hoppy Sam Adams, or between a watery Natural Light and an alcoholic Steel Reserve. How can you compare such different beers? On taste? Cost? Drinkability?

We consider these questions, and recap each division, as we draw the Mass Market Beer Tournament — the second edition of our annual Malted Madness series, and hopefully not the last — to a close.

Reflections From Each Division

Domestic Division:


Sam Adams Boston Lager is without a doubt the tastiest, most drinkable of the American favorites. It’s also a craft beer, but, as we have found, these “craft” labels are based on definitions that the Brewers Association makes up. There’s nothing to say a mass market beer can’t be as quality as craft brews, but it usually isn’t the case. Mainly, the term “craft” allows microbreweries to distinguish themselves from big beer labels and justify the price difference. Yea, craft beer tastes better. We’ve had craft beer that was as refreshing as a Gatorade after soccer practice. We’ve also had craft beers that cost over a dollar an ounce. So pick your battle; like most things, you get what you pay for.

Best Overall: Sam Adams Boston Lager
Best on a Budget: Coors Banquet

Imported Division:


If you think beer is a big part of America’s history, consider that some of the beers in this division were being brewed before America was even a country. Guinness won, but our tasters all overtly prefer darker, more “complex” beers. We found that among the lighter beers — Heineken, Corona, Sapporo — advertising and framing built a taste profile based on the beers’ country of origin that our blind tasters couldn’t distinguish. Corona Extra didn’t taste Mexican and Sapporo didn’t taste Japanese.

Best Overall: Guinness Draught
Biggest Surprises: Labatt Blue, Heineken

Special Division:


Beer purists will stray away from this category, but there is a time for everything, and a party for every beer under the heavens.

Best for a Small Bladder: Steel Reserve
Best Cider: Woodchuck Amber
Best Flavored Beer: Stay Inside Bud Light Lime

Light Division:


All of these taste pretty much the same. You might have a favorite, and actually be able to distinguish its flavor from the other light beers on the market, but most likely you’re nostalgic about that first Natural Light case an older brother bought you in high school. We recommend getting whichever beer you want to have 24 empty cans of in your recycling bin. Or whichever is cheapest. Or whichever was last mentioned on the radio.

Finally Four


Special vs. Light:

When Steel Reserve (4) faced Natural Light (4), it was really a question of how aggressive our day was about to get. Natural Light was more drinkable and refreshing, but it was also half the alcohol, half the calories, half the beer. Still, for our money, we’d rather drink two Natty Lights for every one Steel Reserve. Unless it’s been a particularly bad week.

Domestic vs. Imported:

The matchup between Sam Adams (8) and Guinness (5) resulted in a contentious decision. We had a discussion and open vote at the end of the tournament between all the tasters, and the vote came back 4-2 in favor of Sam Adams. These beers are among the most expensive in the tournament, but it’s for a reason. Sam Adams has plenty of flavor, but stays light, simple and drinkable. Guinness, on the other hand, while incredibly smooth for being such a dark beer, has a milkshake-like heaviness that slows you down. All the tasters agreed they could drink three or four of either of these beers, but in the end we decided Guinness is too heavy for a go-to beer.


When Sam Adams met Natural Light in the championship game, it was an easy decision for us, but there are merits to both contenders. Natural Light is cheap and has 4.2 percent ABV and only 95 calories. It does its job and isn’t going to upset anyone in the process. However, Sam Adams took home the title because it’s distinctly better. There isn’t another way to say it: it tastes like a beer, not some watery memory of malt and hops. But it’s also more expensive and less calorie efficient in its inebriating effects. So you just have to ask yourself how much you want to spend and where you want to wake up in the morning.

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