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Best craft beers

Our experts did blind taste tests of 23 ales and lagers

Consumer Reports magazine: August 2013

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All of the beers we tested are members of the growing category of “craft” beers, though that term is somewhat squishy. We found a range of excellent and very good choices, most of which are sold nationally. (And no, our tasters didn’t guzzle all the merchandise.)

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 CR 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. Brooklyn has a bit of fruit flavor.
  • Coney Island has molasses and licorice notes.

The 10 beers that didn’t make our top picks are (in alphabetical order) Blue Moon Belgian White, Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, Kirkland Signature German (Costco), Kirkland Signature Pale (Costco), Kona Brewing Co. Longboard Island, Long Trail, Magic Hat #9 Not Quite Pale, Shiner Bock, Shiner Wild Hare Pale, and Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen.

They're decent but not as balanced, complex, or intense as the others, and some have off-flavors—hinting of cheese, soda water, or even paint. One taster compared the lowest-rated ale, Magic Hat, to a peach tea drink.

If you want to pair beer with food, remember these basics: With intensely flavored, bitter beer, eat bold, fatty foods. (Fat helps to temper a beer’s bitterness.) A steak, ripened cheese, or a flavorful dessert works well. Lighter, simpler beers pair  well with a wide range of foods. Finally keep any beer cold and out of light (even fluorescent light can create a skunky off-flavor).

Talk the talk

Craft beer. According to the Brewers Association, an American craft brewer is "small, independent, and traditional" and produces at most 6 million barrels of beer a year. The beer is generally made with traditional ingredients such as malted barley, although the brewers may be "innovative," adding "interesting ingredients . . . for distinctiveness." Craft beers are supposed to be free from substantial ownership by a non-craft brewer. Some beers that call themselves craft don't actually adhere to that description. Of the more than 2,400 breweries in the U.S., the Brewers Association notes, only several dozen aren't defined as craft brewers.

For the purpose of this report, we included craft beers that market themselves as such as opposed to making selections based solely on barrel production or company ownership percentages.

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 produced during fermentation lend a slightly fruity and floral taste. Hefeweizen is a wheat beer. IPA stands in 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.

How did home brew do?

We asked three staffers to brew Classic American Light beer using Mr. Beer Premium Edition Home Brewing Kit. Prices vary; we paid $40. The kit includes a plastic keg, bottle, hopped malt extract, sanitizer, and yeast. You add the malt 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 in the dark for about two weeks. You then sanitize the bottles, add sugar, fill the bottle with beer mix (yeast consumes the sugar and creates CO2, and therefore fizziness), cap the bottles, and store them for a week or two. The process wasn't bad, but the beer wasn't good. It had a yeasty, cidery character and would have been at the bottom of the Ratings.


Editor's Note: A version of this article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Best Bets in Beers."

   

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