Taste Test: The 8 Most Popular Full-Calorie Beers in the USA
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Truth be told, our office has a mixed bunch of beer drinkers. During our Friday happy hours, the IPAs are always the first to disappear from their growlers, but during karaoke night, inexpensive, lightly-flavored beers are the pitcher of choice. We like to think that we can appreciate a good, full-flavored IPA or porter, but we don't thumb our noses at shotgunning a few refreshing macro-lagers when sliders and tater tots are on the menu.
We're also an office with fierce brand loyalties. Some swear by Miller High Life. Others stick with Yuengling. Personally, you can try to pry the ice cold PBR out of my cold, dead fingers, but you probably wouldn't succeed.
We decided that it was time to do a true blind taste test of the most popular full-calorie beers in the United States, in order to see if our loyalties are well-founded, or if, as some contend, these beers really all just taste the same.
For this taste test, we limited our brand selection to the most popular regular full calorie beers*. No light beers were included. Ice lagers, which undergo partial freezing and straining in order to increase their alcohol content, and light beers were also not eligible in this line up. This eliminated Natural Ice, Icehouse (brewed by Miller), and Bud Ice. Flavored beers like Bud Lime and the like were also disqualified. The final list ended up being a surprisingly diverse list, at least in terms of provenance, with a few imports and several American breweries represented.
*according to the Dayton Business Journal, we couldn't find 2013 data.
Here's what we tasted, listed in order from most cases sold in the U.S. to least:
- Brand 1 Budweiser
- Brand 2 Corona Extra
- Brand 3 Busch
- Brand 4 Heineken
- Brand 5 Miller High Life
- Brand 6 Modelo Especial
- Brand 7 Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR)
- Brand 8 Yuengling Traditional Lager
Make all the cracks you want, but there are reasons that lighter-flavored beers are the most popular in the country: these lagers are designed to be super-easy to drink, a refreshing, mildly bubbly way to wash down a plate of nachos or buffalo wings while getting a mild buzz on at the same time. They're not meant to punch you in the face with flavor, but at the same time, they should not have any off or skunky flavors. Unlike more full-flavored beers, which taste best between ice cold and room temperature, depending on the style, these easy-drinking lagers are designed to be at their best when very, very cold.
As one taster put it, "you should want to shotgun one of these, right?"
For the first round of testing, we followed our standard testing protocol. All the beers were poured into numbered pitchers* and tasters were asked to taste the beers and mark down their scores and comments on tasting sheets (no talking or communication between tasters was allowed). Tasters were unaware of what beers were in what pitcher, however, they could see the color of the beer as they were drinking. Tasters were asked to evaluate beers on their overall preference, as well as how full-flavored they were.
*One beer was included in twice in the lineup in order to ascertain whether or not tasters' standards were steady across the board. They were: both samples were scored within a percentage point of each other.
Turns out that color was linked very strongly to flavor intensity rankings, with the darkest beer also marked as the most flavorful. For the most part, this tracked universally. But when it came to judging overall preference, tasters were more split. The highest ranked beer was also the darkest and the one deemed most flavorful, while the second favorite overall was picked as the least flavorful.
This made me wonder how much of an influence the perception of flavor based on the appearance of the beer was affecting tasting results. I was reminded of Calvin Trillin's article for the New Yorker in which he talks about how the color of a wine can affect even a professional taster's perception of it, to the point that the exact same white wine, when colored with a red dye, was misidentified as a red wine. I've done similar experiments with eggs and have found that most people's perception of the flavor of an egg is intimately linked with its color: add a few drops of orange food coloring to your scrambled egg, and suddenly they taste much richer and eggier.
Could the relative lightness or darkness of the color of a beer also be affecting the way we perceive its lightness or fullness of flavor?
It's a well-studied type of cognitive bias known as anchoring: we tend to place too much importance on the first piece of information we perceive. It's why infomercials for tabletop rotisseries quote the high prices of imaginary competitors before quoting their own ("would you pay $500 for this? How about $400?"), and it's why once we've seen the dark red color of a wine, we'll think the wine tastes heavier and more tannic, even if it's not. It's also the reason blind and double-blind tests exist. [cue sinister laugh]
The Blind Truth
I put our tasters through a new test. I selected four beers from the previous round, representing the high, upper middle, lower middle, and low ground of flavor intensity ratings in the previous round. Tasters were again asked to rank the beers according to fullness of flavor and overall preference, but with a key difference: this time, tasters were completely blindfolded and handed cups of beer to smell and sip.
Guess what? When tasted with eyes covered, the previous rankings of fullness of flavor went completely out the window, with results jumping all over the place. Beers that were deemed the most full-flavored (and darkest) first time around were now in the middle of the pack with all the rest.
But interestingly enough, this change in perception of fullness of flavor did not affect tasters' overall preferences. Those who liked a particular beer the first time around, tended to like the same beer, even if they thought it tasted lighter with the blindfold on. Turns out that for this style of easy-drinking lager, it doesn't really matter how much flavor a given beer has, only whether or not the flavor that's there is agreeable. Apparently our beer choices are not just [ahem] blind luck.
There were no beers in this lineup that weren't enjoyed by at least a few tasters (and of course, there were some tasters who prefer more full-flavored beers and didn't enjoy any of them). The spread in terms of average scoring was pretty small—our least favorite beer scored only 1.7 out of 10 points lower than our favorite: if you've got a longtime favorite or a regional loyalty, stick with it.
Here are the beers that did rise to the top as the most universally drinkable.
America's oldest operating brewery (established in 1829) was also our favorite in the lineup. Tasters noted its "malty aftertaste," "distinct sweetness," and "heady" and "toasty" aroma. Some likened it to a "higher IBU beer," and noted that it "may not pass the shotgun test perfectly," but that regardless of the extra flavor, it was still "light enough to drink in succession."
Pabst Blue Ribbon
PBR sales have been on a roller coaster for the last few decades. In the late 70s, it was one of the top selling beers in the country, but just 25 years later, PBR had only 10% of its peak sales. These days, the beer is selling strong again, and despite the company's aversion to aligning their brand one way or another, PBR is the de facto beer of choice for urban hipsters.*
It was deemed the least flavorful beer in our lineup (which yes, means it tasted the most like water). Commenters agreed that it's "super easy to drink," and noted that it has an almost "citrus-y" quality to it. This is a beer designed to be shotgunned or guzzled after a hard, hot day's work.
*PBR became my favorite light-flavored beer when we used to slam them on the line after a long dinner service back in 2002. There's still nothing more refreshing to me. Does saying this make me a hipster? I guess it does.
America's top-selling imported beer was also our favorite import. We didn't taste our Coronas with lime, but even so, some tasters noted its "lime aroma" and "citrus qualities." It also had a distinctly "alcoholic" and "funkier" scent than some other beers, and we presume the lime wedge goes a long way in enhancing its flavor.
Budweiser, the self-proclaimed King of Beers, is one of the United States' best selling beers. Though tasters noted that it was very "crisp" and "light" in flavor, they also commented on a distinct "sweet finish" that distinguished it in our lineup. Many folks "liked the sweetness," while others felt it to be a little cloying. "Simple" and "easy to drink" were the most common sentiments.
What about that last nagging questions? Do these beers really taste different? Will a loyal Bud drinker know if his can has been swapped out for a Heineken or a PBR? Well, our experience with tasting the beers blindfolded indicates that yes: people can tell the difference, at least so long as they are sober, concentrating, and know they are being tested (some tasters were even able to name the four beers in the second round of testing). Whether or not this is the case when you've got a buzz going and you're hanging out with friends is a question still up for debate. I task all of you who are having a beer tonight to start gathering data for me. I expect a full report back.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.