You may have heard a few months ago that Walmart had quietly started selling its own beer. If you didn’t hear that, you’re hearing it now: Walmart has entered the “craft” beer market with four private label beers contract brewed by Trouble Brewing: Red Flag Amber, Cat’s Away IPA, After Party Pale Ale, and ‘Round Midnight Belgian White. A twelve can variety pack of all four beers retails for about $12.00.
After reading about Walmart’s “distinctive label” beer, which is what they prefer to call it, I knew I had to try it, even if it meant braving the Walmart Supercenter near my job. I had checked Walmart right after I read the story and didn’t see any Trouble Brewing twelve packs. Actually, I saw very little beer because most of their beer shelves were completely empty. I couldn’t tell if they just hadn’t restocked in awhile or if they were clearing their shelves for another reason. Regardless, my trip to Walmart was for naught that time. Ironically, I was on my way to a Cicerone event. On a Wednesday night a couple weeks ago, I had to duck into Walmart on my way to my homebrew club’s Pint Night (I always seem to be going to or from beer-related things) and decided to check again. Success! I spotted the twelve-pack – the Pack of Trouble – on the top shelf.
As far as the branding goes, it looks like a room full of L7 weenies discussed what design elements looked “cool” yet completely inoffensive. It’s not terrible by any means, but if the Trouble Brewing cans were lined up with other beer cans, they would probably blend in to the point of being unnoticeable. Not terribly imaginative, but when you're Walmart’s private label beer, you don’t need to be. In fairness, this branding is probably the most eye-catching in the beer coolers at Walmart, which are replete with macro brands and other crafty brands. Trouble Brewing won’t be competing with NoDa Brewing’s cool retro branding or Sugar Creek Brewing’s elegant gold hot air balloon logo anytime soon.
So how did it taste? Well, like beer, which is a good start. That’s about as far as the flavor party goes.
I started with the ‘Round Midnight Belgian White, which has an ABV of 5.4%. The first thing I asked myself was if someone sat the beer down in front of me, would I be able to discern that it was a Belgian white from its appearance. A Belgian white (also called a witbier) should be very pale straw to very light gold in color and have a dense, fluffy white head. It should also be hazy due to the yeast or starch haze. ‘Round Midnight was gold, had a fluffy white head, and was somewhat hazy, although not quite as hazy as I would pedantically expect from a witbier. It had a faint spiciness in the aroma, which can be a characteristic of the style, but there wasn’t much else to the aroma. It had a low bready malt flavor as well as a low citrus flavor from the coriander, but was not as flavorful as one would expect from a Belgian white, which should be complex and crisp. It had medium-high carbonation, which made it a little under carbonated for the style. The overall impression I wrote was “carbonated beer flavor.”
Next up was the Red Flag Amber with an ABV of 4.5%. Red Flag is an apt name for this beer. Woof. On a positive note, it was brilliantly clear. On a negative note, pretty much everything else. It poured a dark gold, which seemed a little light in color for an amber, which should be amber (duh) to copper. However, the difference between my dark gold and someone else’s amber may just be semantics. This amber beer has honey added, although it may be more correct to say this honey has amber beer added. The honey was apparent in the aroma and even more apparent in the flavor. The Red Flag Amber is SO SWEET – to the point of being cloying. It did have a pleasant water cracker maltiness underneath all that honey and medium bitterness from the hops. It had a thick, sweet after taste. I cannot put into words how incredibly sweet this beer is from the honey. I’m thinking it was maybe backsweetened, which is too bad because I think it would be a pretty decent amber ale if only it didn’t have so much honey added.
After Party Pale Ale, which has an ABV of 5.3%, was next. Again, it had brilliant clarity and poured a dark gold. There wasn’t much hoppy aroma, but what was there was somewhat floral and soapy. Despite the absence of hop aroma (which should be moderate to strong in a pale ale), it was a bitter bomb. Not a hop bomb, which I don’t mind every once in awhile, but a bitter bomb. It was not balanced in the slightest and really just tasted like bitter beer water.
Lastly, I tried the Cat’s Away IPA, which has an ABV of 5.8%. Like the amber and the pale ale, it was brilliantly clear. Also like the amber and the pale ale, that is the highest praise I can give this IPA. It had a low hoppy aroma and an even lower hoppy flavor, although it was also very bitter. In my notes, I wrote “meh” for overall impression.
I also detected some alcohol burn in all four beers that seemed unusual for lower ABV beers. It tasted like the alcohol and the beer never mixed together. I pictured it like oil and vinegar – the alcohol and beer were both present but somehow didn’t get mixed up.
My overall impression for the beers was that they were fine beers. Not the best beer I’ve ever had, but here’s the deal: I’m not the customer for this beer. For most people reading this, I’m betting you aren’t either. Sometimes we, as craft beer drinkers, forget that not every new beer that gets produced is made with us in mind. With that thought in my head, I can give Walmart’s private label beer a kinder review.
For starters, it’s a twelve pack of “craft” beer for about $12.00. To the consumer who spends $15.99 on an eighteen pack of Bud Light, spending $12.00 on a twelve pack of beer is probably going to be far more palatable than spending $12.00 on a four pack of local craft beer. To me, all four of the beer styles were bland, toned-down versions of the styles I usually drink and tasted like somewhat flavored beer water. To the person who is used to drinking macro beer, the beers are more flavorful than what he or she typically drinks but not so flavorful that they shock the palate and immediately send the person running back to macro beer. These beers are a stepping stone to craft beer. Once a macro beer drinker has had the less flavorful Walmart beer, the far more flavorful local beer isn’t going to be as much of a sensory overload. While it’s fun to roll our eyes over the idea of Walmart introducing its own private label beer, I think this foray should be viewed in a positive way because it’s providing a gateway for macro drinkers to dip their toes into craft beer rather than throwing them in the deep end.
Will I buy Walmart’s Trouble Brewing Pack of Trouble again? Probably not, although I may get it just to throw some of the beers into a blind tasting to see how they rank next to true craft beers. If you’re curious about how they taste, go buy a Pack of Trouble. At roughly $1 a beer, you’re not going to break the bank trying them for novelty’s sake.
Interested in exactly who Trouble Brewing is? Check out my blog post on contract brewing.