Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 45
CR ratings: Do you care?

July 11, 2001

Those folks at Consumer Reports have done another beer rating issue, their first since 1996. These things are usually pretty easy to make fun of -- after all, the promo copy we saw reported CR found "The best American beer is Stroh's." And how many of us really care about the difference between Old Milwaukee and Milwaukee's Best?


But in choosing the 54 beers that it ranks, CR is surveying the whole U.S. beer population, not the considerably smaller group of beer drinkers who put taste at a premium. At least we think that is why there were 13 international lagers in their tastings and just six ales (five from America and one from Britain). The point is that the perspective may be a little different from the other end of the bar -- so sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't.

(It also is only fair to note that this was a serious undertaking -- not a man-on-the-street-survey -- with evaluations done by experienced industry consultants. Their tasting notes make good reading -- you'll find some below.)

We certainly don't agree with everything in the report. Although three (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Ale and Pete's Wicked Ale) of the four beers that got a "best buy" rating (along with Stroh's) were craft beers, Consumer Reports chose not taste any true micros. They wrote, "We included beers from microbreweries (producing fewer than 15,000 barrels per year) last time, and their taste proved inconsistent. Microbrews are on the wane, and this time we tested none."

On the wane? Growth has slowed, but we aren't going backwards. Meanwhile, the overall quality of the surviving breweries is higher, and most are figuring out how to put a more consistent product in the marketplace.

They make some valid points that we find hard to disagree with.

- "Buyers of imports are paying a price for the image: Imported beer sells for about $6 to $7 per six-pack vs. as little as $3 for some domestic beer. But if imported-beer drinkers think they're getting a great product, they're often wrong. Half of the regular (full-calorie) imports we tasted scored lower than the worst regular domestic beer, and the two light imports we tasted scored lowest of ten light beers."

- "What's more, the very worst beer often costs the most. The lowest-scoring domestic regular beer, Rolling Rock, costs $4.85 per six-pack, more than any of its competitors. The same is true of the lowest-scoring nonalcoholic beer, St. Pauli ($5.80), and the lowest-scoring light beers, Amstel ($7.05) and Corona ($6.55), which cost twice as much as some better beers."

In many cases, the scores of beers were dragged down because some of the samples were stale or otherwise damaged after leaving the brewery. We've written before about to avoid skunky beer, but these ratings are a reminder that beer is a fragile product. Fresh beer has a real advantage, as those who frequent brewpubs will tell you.

We won't argue that tastes vary -- some people drink Budweiser not because it is cheaper (it often isn't) or because of advertising, but because they've grown to prefer the flavor of Bud. However, the discussion of prices did get us wondering how much those of us who drink beer outside the norm pay for that beer, and how price affects our buying decisions.

That's why, with your help, we hope to put together a beer price index. We'll list the price of numerous national brands (such as Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada) and quality imports in different parts of the country, and also include favorite regional beers (comparing how much drinkers in Michigan pay for Bell's beers compared to those in Maine give for Geary's). We may even check out a few esoteric beers (what's a good price for Cantillon Gueuze Vigneronne?).

You can help get this started. Take a minute and send us a list of 5-10 beers you buy regularly (feel free to include beers you drink on draft at bars and those you buy in stores to consume at home) and the price you pay. List more if you want, and please include where you live.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Want to try a 'bud-sicle'
We already knew that Anheuser-Busch has a most impressive "library" at its headquarters in St. Louis, collecting and testing hops and malt from around the world, and storing past "vintages" of its beer. What Consumer Reports revealed is even more impressive: "Officials ... ushered him (a reporter) into the 'cryogenic' room. In it are 20 stainless-steel drums filled with bubbling liquid nitrogen at minus 320 F. They hold 11,500 bottles and cans of Bud and its relatives, collected from 1981 on. 'We call them Bud-sicles,' said the keeper of frozen beer. When thawed (slowly) and tasted, these samples let the company check current beer against past beer and tweak recipes."

Tasting notes
(From the Consumer Reports tastings)

(The brand is owned by Pabst Brewing)
Complex flavors, including light floral, fruity, dry-hop. Lighter body than most.

(Brewed by Miller Brewing Co.)
A bit darker than most, with fuller body. Short-lived foam. Malted-grain and boiled-hop flavors.

(Australian brand brewed by Molson in Canada)
Substantial, lasting foam. Complex flavors, including boiled-hop, floral, fruity, green-fruit, malted-grain. Fuller body than most, nicely bitter.

(Brewed in Germany)
Very pale. Complex flavors, including floral, green-fruit, boiled-hop. Dry, nicely bitter. Grain flavor had hint of straw.

(Brewed in Chico, Calif.)
Medium amber. Lasting foam, fine bubbles. Dry-hop, floral, fruity flavors, with hints of citrus, apricot, vanilla. Dry, nicely bitter.