Being a craft beer person, it’s not often I drink beers that fall into the rather euphemistically named American Light Lager, American Lager, and International Pale Lager categories, such as Bud Light, Budweiser, and Heineken. I’m not above buying a gallon of Budweiser at a sporting event or drinking a Miller Lite at a cookout if that’s all that’s available. However, those instances are (thankfully) few and far between. I’m very far removed from my days of choosing to buy a six-pack of Bud Light (although in my defense, there were few choices available when I turned 21).
Because it had been so long since I had had any American or International Lagers, I decided to do a blind taste test to see which ones I preferred and which ones were as gross as I assumed them to be. The six beers I picked for the taste test were Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Sapporo, and Heineken, all in 24 ounce cans. I decided on the 24 ounce cans rather than a six-pack so we could knock them out in one shot and didn’t end up with a lot of bottles in our beer fridge for our guests to ask about each time they looked in there.
One hallmark of American and International Lagers is that they are highly carbonated, light-bodied, and are designed to be nearly flavorless to neutral in flavor and best consumed very cold, that is they are brewed to appeal to largest amount of people by lacking in complexity or flavor. Some are also known as adjunct lagers because they contain flaked rice or corn. Briefly, using flaked corn or rice lightens the flavor of the six-row barley used in most adjunct lagers. Adjunct lagers can contain up to 40% of adjuncts such as corn or rice.
This taste test was going to be as close to a blind taste test as we could get. In case you haven’t read Part 3 of my Becoming a Certified Cicerone series, the way we do a double-blind(ish) tasting is for one person to pour the beers into pint glasses, make a note of which beer went into which pint glass, and then put the beer bottles or cans away, so the other person - who isn’t in the room - does not know which beers went into which pint glasses. Then the other person pours the beers from the pint glasses into tasting glasses and makes a note of the beer that came from each pint glass went into each tasting glass. At the end of the tasting, we match up the tasting glasses to the pint glasses to figure out which beer was in which tasting glass.
For this taste test, I poured each of the six beers into individual pint glasses and then, just to see what would happen, I poured a little bit of each beer into one pint glass to make a “surprise” beer. Maybe it would taste really good if they were all mixed together?
The actual taste test wasn’t terribly exciting, as you might imagine a taste test of pale lagers to be. There were subtle differences to most of them – one had a pleasant, perfumey Noble hops sort of aroma to it and one had a bit of fruity esters in the aroma. In some I could detect the aroma and taste from the corn. Some had a slightly bitter finish. Because beers like these are intended to be drank very cold, the last beer in the line-up had warmed up enough to taste like butyric acid (i.e. vomit) by the time I got to it.
One tip I have learned from doing many tastings is to go back through each of the samples once you taste all of them because you can usually pick up different characteristics of the beers a second time around. Doing so with this tasting meant that one of the beers I had really liked the first time tasted heavily oxidized by the time it had warmed up a bit, like cardboard and lipstick. On a side note, I actually don’t usually mind oxidation in beers. I don’t want to spend real money on a beer and find out that it’s oxidized, but I don’t mind the cardboard, lipstick, old library book aroma and taste sometimes. I also like the smell of old banks and tire stores, so there you go.
One beer stood out among all of them as being by far the best. It was the one with a slight fruity ester aroma and was comparably more flavorful than the others, with a fuller body and slightly grape-like flavor. It was more complex and had a nice, bitter-balanced finish. Another one wasn’t quite as good, but still ranked second for both of us. To me, it had a slight mineral aroma and a clean, balanced finish you should expect from a lager. The rest of the samples were downhill from there and trying to rank them was like trying to rank different glasses of water. The vomit one was definitely last, but the other three were all about the same, although I ranked the oxidized beer third. Once we had our rankings, it was time for the big unveiling.
And the winner is…
Heineken - with the caveat that it was in a can, so I wasn’t distracted by the skunkiness (read more about what causes skunkiness in my blog post about Corona v. Corona Familiar).
Second place? Miller Lite, with its slight mineral aroma and balanced finish.
Third place because I don’t mind oxidation sometimes: Sapporo.
The sample into which I poured all the beers scored fourth for me. Again, the first three beers stood out to me as did the one I ranked last, so the middle three beers were really interchangeable. It is interesting to note that mixing all six beers together did not really make a difference in taste – I wrote “no real aroma, tastes like bitter water and butter” in my notes.
Fifth and sixth place went to Budweiser and Bud Light, respectively.
The (dis)honor for last place went to Coors Light. To be fair, it was also the beer I sampled last and thus it had warmed up considerably. When I tasted it cold, it was better.
After we concluded the tasting, we looked up the ingredients for each beer, which made our choices make a lot of sense. Heineken has an all-grain recipe and contains no adjuncts, which explains the fuller body and more complex taste. Miller Lite uses flaked corn, while Budweiser, Bud Light, and Sapporo use flaked rice. Coors Light uses the largest amount of corn and rice out of the beers I sampled. I guess one lesson I learned from the taste test is that I prefer beers that contain flaked corn as an adjunct rather than flaked rice, which is helpful to know when I’m faced with only American adjunct lagers to drink.
If you’re like me and it’s been awhile since you had an American or International lager, I recommend grabbing a few different ones sometime and trying them out to see the differences between beers brewed with corn and rice. At around $2.00 for a 24 ounce can, you can get several for the cost of a six-pack of craft beer. If nothing else, doing a taste test will make you appreciate craft beer that much more.