Best Cheap Beer
Over the past several years, scores of new varieties of beer have flooded the shelves, with the marketplace becoming both wider and more specialized. Craft beers are competing head-to-head with the traditional standbys and altering the perception of what constitutes an acceptable price; $15 for a six-pack is now fairly commonplace. The question is, must an avid beer drinker keen on a fresh, full taste really shell out that kind of cash? Cheapism has consulted online ratings and reviews and conducted two comparative samplings in a continuing quest to identify the best cheap suds, whether old-school American-style lagers or their craftier contemporaries. This year, our panelists tasted nine popular beers in a blind test to help guide consumers to high-quality brews at budget prices.
Our Top Pick
New Belgium Fat Tire Review
When consumers think of cheap beer, upmarket craft selections are probably not what come to mind. Affordable craft brews typically run $3 to $4 more for a six-pack than standard American lagers. New Belgium Fat Tire isn't the cheapest libation on the shelf, but our 2016 blind taste test of this and three other craft beers and five American-style lagers determined that it's a pretty darned good value for those who crave the complex flavor profile that craft beers tend to provide.
Full Sail IPA Review
Of the four craft beers and five American-style lagers we served a panel of volunteers in a blind taste test, Full Sail IPA earned the No. 2 spot on the list of best budget brews. It is also the cheapest of the craft beers sampled. We shelled out the same amount for a six-pack of Full Sail ($6.99) as we did for a six-pack of Budweiser ($6.99 on sale; regular price $8.49). There was a cost-per-ounce difference, however, given that Budweiser came in 16-ounce cans, making it about 7 cents an ounce on sale (9 cents an ounce at regular price). Full Sail is packaged in the more standard 12-ounce bottle size, for a cost of just under 10 cents an ounce.
Modelo Especial Review
A lager imported from Mexico, Modelo Especial found favor with our 2016 review panel. They preferred it over the four American-produced lagers we sampled in a blind taste-off but ranked it behind the four craft beers tested. Lager fans called it "light" and "clean," and appreciated the "bubbly" consistency. One among the seven in the tasting group said the "first sip hits with a strong taste" that some described as "skunky." Others declared that flavor to be "sour." Panelists, unaware what brands they were tasting, wondered aloud if this was Heineken or a "Mexican beer," but opined that Heineken and Corona were better. This brew's ABV is 4.5 percent.
Miller High Life Review
In a beer taste test hosted by Cheapism a few years ago, 13 participants took a marked dislike to Miller High Life. They described the lager variously as "soapy" and "flat," as well as "unpleasant and frothy." With a different group of drinkers in 2016, opinions were more favorable; the general consensus on the flavor was "sweet" and "crisp." The most recent review panel, consisting of seven beer enthusiasts, preferred the Miller beer to the three other American-produced lagers they tried, moving Miller High Life into a category of beers we can recommend rather than relegating it to the bottom of the barrel, where it landed in the first competitive tasting round.
Pabst Blue Ribbon Review
Pabst Blue Ribbon is an American lager that continues to surprise us. The first time Cheapism conducted a taste test that included 19 inexpensive beers, PBR took top billing against eight other inexpensive lagers. It corralled drinkers' admiration with a "mild," "drinkable" flavor and "good balance." That group of 13 called PBR "a little hoppy" and took exception to the somewhat "flat aftertaste." One panelist announced it was the "first drinkable" beer she had tasted that evening.
When asked to assess Budweiser's flavor, Cheapism's 2016 review panel protested, saying there wasn't any. These seven tasters chose descriptors such as "flat," "watery," and "low alcohol" to characterize the taste despite the fact that Budweiser is a beer with an ABV of 5 percent. One snarky panelist remarked, "This is the keg the morning after the party." Another, who seemed to prefer mainstream lagers to craft brews, said it "didn't taste like beer." In fact, Budweiser, one of the first American lagers, was liked less than four other mass-produced lagers and four craft brews our tasting group sampled. It bested only one: Pabst Blue Ribbon. In a blind tasting we organized a few years ago, Budweiser fared better, falling in the mid-range of the nine brands in its class that 13 volunteers rated.
We wondered, would online Budweiser reviews paint a different picture? In a word, no. At RateBeer, an aggregate of nearly 4,000 consumer reviews yielded a weighted average score (assessing aroma, taste, palate, and appearance) of only 1.45 out of 5. Posts reveal that many drinkers find the beer unremarkable and light on taste. More than 1,500 reviews at BeerAdvocate assign Budweiser a dismal ranking of 58 out of 100, calling it "awful." Many lament that it's watery, as did our 2016 tasting panel, while others remark on what they perceive as a grassy taste and excessive carbonation level.
Pricewise, this is a mid-range beer. We grabbed a six-pack of 16-ounce cans for $6.99 with a supermarket club card, although the pack would have set us back $8.49 at regular price.
Budweiser was first brewed commercially in 1876 and remains a popular Anheuser-Busch offering to this day. The brewing process features a blend of barley, malts, and rice, in addition to aroma hops. Over the years this lager bandied about the nickname "King of Beers," but our Budweiser review found that the crown has tarnished. All in all, Budweiser seems more a pauper's beer than the American nobility it lays claim to.