In blind taste tests of 23 ales and lagers, Consumer Reports found 13 that were excellent or very good. All are members of the growing category of “craft” beers.
Tasters’ findings include:
The best ales have intense, complex, and balanced flavors. Among them:
Stone is very fragrant, with floral, fruity, and juniper notes from the added hops. Strong, lingering bitterness rounds out the flavors, but might be too much for some people.
Dogfish Head has a great mix of malt and hop notes, with fruity and floral flavors, and is more intense than most.
Samuel Adams has fruity and malty notes, but might also be too bitter for some.
Shock Top, a Best Buy, has big malty flavors of molasses, caramel, and honey with relatively low bitterness and some sweetness.
The best lagers are very tasty but not quite complex or intense enough to be excellent:
Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, and Anchor Steam (a lager/ale hybrid) have nicely balanced malt and hop flavors and lingering bitterness.
Coney Island has molasses and licorice notes.
The 10 beers that didn’t make the top picks are decent but not as balanced, complex, or intense as the others, and some have off flavors — hinting of cheese, soda water, or even paint.
Bottom line. Testers found a range of excellent and very good choices. With intensely flavored, bitter beer, eat bold, fatty foods. (Fat helps to temper a beer’s bitterness.) Lighter beers pair well with a wide range of foods.
The also-rans. Ales rated good, in order of taste: Long Trail, Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, Shiner Wild Hare Pale, Kirkland Signature Pale (Costco), Blue Moon Belgian White, Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen, Magic Hat #9 Not Quite Pale. Lagers rated good, in order of taste: Kirkland Signature German (Costco), Kona Brewing Co. Longboard Island, Shiner Bock.
How did homebrew do?
Consumer Reports asked three staffers to brew Classic American Light beer using Mr. BeerPremium Edition Home Brewing Kit. It includes a plastic keg, bottles, hopped malt extract, sanitizer, and yeast. You add the extract to boiling water, put cold water in the keg, add the malt-water mix, stir, add yeast, close the lid, and store the keg for about two weeks. The process wasn’t bad, but the beer wasn’t good.
Talk the talk
Here are some useful beer terms:
Craft beer. An American craft brewer is “small, independent, and traditional” and produces at most 6 million barrels of beer a year, according to the Brewers Association. The beer is generally made with traditional ingredients such as malted barley, although the brewers may be “innovative,” adding “interesting ingredients . . . for distinctiveness.”
Ale. It’s typically fermented warm, using a strain of yeast that rises to the top of the brew. It ferments faster than lager and is more strongly flavored. Esters, a chemical compound produced during fermentation, lend a slightly fruity and floral taste. IPA stands for India Pale Ale, which long ago was high in hops and alcohol content, to survive a voyage from Britain to India. It still tends to have an intense hop flavor. Hops impart fruity, floral notes and often add bitterness.
Lager. This is another basic type of beer. It’s usually fermented cold, using yeast that sinks to the bottom during fermentation and works slowly. Long, cold fermentation inhibits the production of esters, and lagers have a cleaner, crisper taste than ales.