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.
Cheap Beer Taste Test 2016
Beer, cheap or not, has a long-standing history of quenching human thirst. Dating back centuries, fermented brews have nourished Pharaohs, inspired Egyptian philosophers, and funded monasteries. Even today, the significance of sharing a drink at celebrations or social gatherings remains. But are frugal hosts doomed to pass around the stuff they consumed in their salad days?
In Cheapism's first beer taste test, in 2013, the sample of 19 beers was limited to brands costing less than $7 for a six-pack. This time we raised both our price point and our expectations. In other words, we included more inexpensive craft brews and moved away from some homogeneous brands that seem better suited for chugging than savoring. With a price cap of $10 for six 12-ounce bottles or cans, we put to the test five mass-produced American-style lagers and four widely distributed craft brews in a variety of styles.
The contenders: Budweiser ($8.50), Miller High Life ($7.50), Modelo Especial ($8), Pabst Blue Ribbon ($7.50), Rolling Rock ($5.50), Full Sail IPA ($7), New Belgium Fat Tire ($10), Samuel Adams Boston Lager ($10), and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($10). Budweiser, Miller High Life, and PBR were sold in 16-ounce cans; the rest in 12-ounce bottles. We chilled the beers to the same temperature for the same amount of time and presented them to a panel of seven self-proclaimed beer drinkers, masking the labels with paper bag wrapping. Panelists evaluated each beer with attention to qualities such as flavor, nose, mouth feel, appearance, and drinkability and noted their favorite and least favorite brews.
The final tallies were somewhat expected and somewhat surprising. Craft beers dominated our tasters' top picks, lending some credence to recent drinking trends. And some brews that tanked in our previous taste test bubbled to the top this time -- and vice versa.
New Belgium Fat Tire, an amber ale, was deemed the most universally palate-pleasing for its "crisp, light mouth feel" and smooth flavor. Although more testers declared the cheaper Full Sail IPA their favorite quaff, it was divisive, turning off some with its "strong taste" and "bitterness that hangs in your mouth." (IPAs tend to be polarizing in general, but they account for more than a quarter of the craft beer market, and expert reviews identified this one as only mildly hoppy.) For consumers who prefer lighter, milder, easy-drinking beer, Modelo Especial and Miller High Life were the top-scoring American-style lagers, despite trailing all four craft beers. Among the least popular brews was Budweiser, which our drinkers deemed "flat" and "watery," and Pabst Blue Ribbon was the biggest loser. Tasters called it "bitter," "generic," and fit for a "college keg party."
PBR fared far better in our earlier taste test, laying claim to best American lager. Anheuser-Busch's Natural Ice ($16.50 for a 30-pack) followed a step behind with "bright" flavor and drinkability. Among the top performers, the closest thing to craft beer was Costco's "handcrafted" Kirkland Signature beers ($19 for a sampler pack of 24 bottles). The IPA won the most fans with its "bitter" but "floral" notes, and the German-style lager turned heads with its "smooth," "sweet" flavor.
This year we tried to get away from "college beer," although not altogether. Inevitably, some breweries were bypassed despite their brands' ubiquity; stalwarts such as Stroh's, Schlitz, Keystone, and Milwaukee's Best were not included in this limited test. We also skipped over light beers, which the first panel found unremarkable and nearly indistinguishable. Kirkland Signature brews were excluded from this year's tasting in favor of brands widely available with no membership fee, but for Costco members, and non-members in select states, the warehouse club's house-brand beers are well worth a try.
While the pricier craft beers in this year's blind tasting scored better than the cheaper lagers, it shouldn't be taken as gospel that a higher price tag equates to a higher ranking -- or a better beer-drinking experience. Value is driven by both cost and personal taste. The cheapest lager may not be a good value for the drinker who demands strong flavor. Conversely, for someone who wants a light beer that goes down quickly, it may not be worth spending extra money on a higher-rated craft brew. We took this into account by comparing cost per ounce and by noting beers that stood out for a disparity in cost versus likability.
Full Sail IPA, which came in second out of the nine brews tested, costs 4 cents an ounce less than the other craft beers, and even less than the American-style lager Modelo Especial (by 1 cent an ounce). In the first competitive round, some of the 13 volunteers voiced a preference for craft brews and particular mainstream beers before tasting commenced. In the end, they were stunned to learn they had rated Costco's Kirkland Signature beers higher than their professed, and pricier, favorites.
Standard American-Style Lager.Domestically produced American lagers dominate the budget beer market, largely due to their easy drinkability. The lagers in this year's blind tasting came from big-name producers Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser and Rolling Rock), Miller Brewing Co., and Pabst Brewing Co. and also included Modelo Especial, imported from Mexico. Among our panel, the emerging consensus was that these brews were interchangeable. Both beer-tasting sessions produced comments such as, "these all taste the same" and "I can't tell the difference." When asked to focus on the subtleties of each sample, however, the panelists drew some distinctions.
Modelo Especial slightly outranked Miller High Life to become 2016's top-rated lager in terms of taste, although the lead was narrow. One panelist called Miller High Life their favorite of the bunch and no one scored it least favorite, while a different panelist deemed Modelo Especial least favorite and no one chose this brand as a favorite. Add to this a price disparity of 3 cents an ounce (8 cents for Miller High Life compared with 11 cents for Modelo Especial), and Miller High Life begins to look like the better bargain -- depending on taste preferences, of course. Our discerning beer drinkers called Miller High Life "light," "sweet," and "crisp." One taster opined that it was a good choice for a "long round of golf," while another said he'd use it to boil brats. Modelo Especial turned off one panelist with a taste he compared to "cough medicine," but others seemed satisfied with the "clean," "effervescent" feel and flavor of this "basic picnic chug" -- sufficient to merit a recommendation as a "good" cheap beer.
On the opposite end of the drinkability spectrum sat Pabst Blue Ribbon, which failed to impress our 2016 tasting crew despite having scored a "best" in the earlier budget beer taste-off. This time it elicited comments such as "generic," "meh," and "there's nothing there." One disgruntled drinker surmised that "they only ask $1 a cup at this party." Budweiser likewise failed to deliver on taste, according to our enthusiasts. After sipping this popular beer, reactions ranged from "no flavor" to "why bother?" One panelist said, "This wouldn't encourage me to get another round." Rolling Rock languished in the middle of the pack. Tasters exhibited little enthusiasm for this "lawn-mowing beer" with its "empty calories," and agreed it would be best consumed "super cold" on a hot day.
Craft Beer.Consumers shopping for suds on a budget probably don't wander over to the craft beer section of the store too often. There's no getting around the fact that craft beers generally cost more than standard American lager. But for any beer drinker who can't be reconciled to the milder-tasting alternatives, or is keen to rotate affordable craft brews into the fridge, our beer tasting sessions uncovered several decent and cheap options.
Our informal blind tasting included brews from Samuel Adams, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Full Sail. On the whole, our beer tasters preferred the more complex, hoppier flavors of these beers to the lighter taste of the lagers.
New Belgium Fat Tire edged out Full Sail IPA to win the gold overall. Tasters unanimously warmed to Fat Tire's "nutty," "chocolate" notes and savored the "malty nose" and "smooth finish." More panelists deemed Full Sail IPA their favorite for its hints of fruit and "complex," "hoppy and bitter" flavor, but others couldn't stomach the "strong taste," which pulled down the beer's overall rating.
Still, Full Sail IPA impressed us with its comparatively low price -- 10 cents an ounce compared with 14 cents for the other craft beers in the sample. For those who appreciate the hoppy bitterness of an IPA (a taste admittedly not for everyone), Full Sail is a respectable and reasonable buy. The brand markets an award-winning amber ale, as well.
Boston Lager took third place owing to its "mild," "medium flavor" and "extended finish." Some appreciated the aftertaste, calling it "bitter" but "not too bitter," although some others found it too "sour" for their liking. As with Full Sail IPA, this brew garnered more favorite votes than Fat Tire, but its overall score was marred by some negative feedback. The least-praised craft beer we tested, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, found approval with its "bright," "citrusy flavor" but literally ended on a sour note, with a "flat," "vinegar aftertaste."
Light Beer.Excluded from this year's taste test, the light beers sampled in the original session (sold in six-packs of 16-ounce cans) garnered lukewarm appraisals, with descriptors such as "flat," "bland," and "watery." Tasters expressed a tad more enthusiasm for Miller Lite ($8) than Coors Light ($6), Bud Light ($6), and Busch Light ($6.60). Miller Lite trumped the three other low-calorie contenders with a "more sophisticated taste" and "subtle bitterness that is interesting." Bud Light, one of the more popular light American lagers, garnered the fewest "favorite" votes from our first panel.
All the light beers were considered nearly identical in appearance and flavor (or lack thereof). When commenting on taste, more than one panelist dittoed remarks from one beer to the next, and few descriptive notes were unique to any one product. One beer reviewer said the light beers looked like "water with a touch of Tang or Gatorade." The panel concluded that Miller Lite showed the deepest color of the four. And although they picked Miller Lite over the others for having the "boldest taste" of the bunch, it was a bit pricier than the competition, and the differences were barely noticeable.