What's best macro beer in America? 3 craft brewers taste test 16

Wednesday, 12 July 2017, 10:50:25 AM. We engaged some of the savviest taste buds in Chicago to try the nation's top selling beers. Which came out on top?

There's a question people like to ask craft brewers: "What's your favorite mainstream beer?"

It's a fun and instructive question for the people who spend their days crafting gorgeously fruity IPAs and weighty stouts.

But it's not so easy to answer.

"Every time I get the question I say, 'Eh, they're all the same. I can't tell them apart,'" said Matt Gallagher, co-owner of Half Acre Beer Co. "But when you put them side by side, you can tell there are some major differences."

We were three beers into our tasting of the nation's most popular beers when Gallagher was struck with the realization. And that was the goal.

The biggest-selling beers are mostly a sprawling canvas of sameness. They're light. They're bland. Even more than beer, they're brands. Ad campaigns. Sponsorships. Marketing.

But they are beers, too, and they are the most popular beers in the nation. And that led to a question: Which ones are actually good?

The only way to find out was to crack open a bunch of bottles and cans with some of the savviest taste buds in Chicago: Gallagher, who has helped grow Half Acre into one of Chicago's most beloved breweries; Revolution Brewing brewmaster Jim Cibak, who previously worked for Goose Island Beer Co. and Firestone Walker Brewing; and Brian Pawola, co-founder and brewmaster of Pollyanna Brewing, in suburban Lemont.

On a Tuesday afternoon, I loaded a cooler with 16 major domestic beers and 22 pounds of ice (the Chicago Tribune paid for the beer used in the tasting) and headed to Revolution's Kedzie Avenue taproom for a tasting that lasted nearly two hours. Our judges sipped four beers at a time from 6-ounce glasses.

I told Gallagher, Cibak and Pawola that there would be no tricks or curveballs — these were among the best-selling beers in the land — but that the tasting would be done blind. They would only learn what was what when we finished. (For your reading pleasure, however, we will reveal the beers as we go along.)

They showed no fear.

"Nothing sorts things out better than a blind tasting," Cibak said. "The second you see a logo, you immediately have something in mind."

We sat at a long table just before the taproom opened, beneath a gargantuan American flag, opposite a wall of bourbon barrels aging Revolution beer.

I had hashed out a 5-point scale:

5: Sure! I'd be happy to drink this after work and keep it in my fridge at home.

4: Not bad. Works fine for a ballgame or a barbecue.

3: Meh. Not egregious, but macro beer's flaws are starting to show.

2: Bad. This is why I got into craft beer.

1: Abysmal. Someone hand me an IPA, quick! I need this taste out of my mouth!

Before we began, Cibak disputed the scale.

"I don't think we're going to need those last two," he said.

His point: the big brewers are experts at their — ahem — craft. You may not care for the beer, but it is usually faultlessly well made. We'd see. And we began.

'Nice and crisp and thirst quenching'

In a bid not to confuse their palates, we began with lighter beers. Brewers are bred to check a beer's clarity, and they initially did so. But they quickly dropped the practice.

"I don't think we're going to face anything but super-clear beer here," Cibak said.

They sipped beer No. 1, and immediately ran headlong into the problem with many macro beers.

"Sweet corn and grain," Pawola said after the first sip.

It didn't bother Pawola so much, but Cibak and Gallagher weren't fans, especially compared with some of the flavors they'd soon taste.

"Definitely a sweet aroma," Gallagher said. "A little too sweet for me."

"It's not dry enough to me," Cibak said. "It has a little more mouthfeel than you would expect."

Everyone agreed that mouthfeel should not be too prominent on these beers, especially when crossed with notes of sweet grain. American light lagers are best when lean and crisp. They engage and refresh the palate. And then they're gone. This beer didn't do that well. It was Coors Light.

Beer No. 2 was "a little more neutral" Gallagher said.

It wasn't clear if that was a compliment. But as they sipped, it became one.

"This reminds me of the classic American macro lager," Pawola said. It was less sweet than the first, he said, and he liked that about it.

"This definitely is crisp," Gallagher said.

"I would definitely destroy some of these if I was coming out of the desert," Cibak said. "It's nice and crisp and thirst quenching."

"This one is tasting good," Gallagher said as he took a third or fourth sip.

It was a unanimous thumbs up for Miller Lite.

Cibak said he didn't "get a whole lot out of" beer No. 3.

"I don't know if this is a low-cal beer or what, but it doesn't have very much going on," he said.

Pawola agreed.

"It doesn't have flaws," Cibak said. "It's super-clean. It's just very, very light."

Gallagher picked up the second beer again to compare.

"There's a slight toastiness in the second beer compared to this," he said.

This was the moment that Gallagher noted that America's big beers did have subtle differences. Already, it was clear how tricky it must be to formulate and execute these beers; they need to be clean and refreshing and have character — but not too much character. Miller Lite succeeded. This one didn't.

"I prefer No. 2 for its yeast character and the dryness of it," Cibak said. "This is just very light to me on flavor and aromatics. I'm sure that's what they're shooting for. But if we brewed a German Pilsner and this is what it tasted like, I'd probably jump in front of the Kedzie bus."

Ouch. Sorry, Bud Light.

Beer No. 4 had a surprising degree of aromatics. Especially for a light beer.

"I don't know if I'm crazy or if I've been kicked in the head, but I almost feel like I get slight banana character out of this fourth one," Cibak said. "Some kind of ester (or yeast) character. Definitely makes it more interesting."

They all agreed. Words flew around the table like "clean" and "crisp," with repeated nods to the unlikely yeast character.

"I've never noticed any yeast or ester character in any of these beers before," Pawola said. "It's cool to pick that up."

They were unanimous: It wasn't as good as the second beer (Miller Lite), but superior to the third (Bud Light).

Macro beer has largely taken it on the chin from consumers in recent years, but this one was the success story and one of the fastest growers in our entire lineup: low-calorie Michelob Ultra, introduced in 2002 for baby boomers, but which resonated as an "active lifestyle" beer.

Beer No. 5 also stood out for its aroma.

"The aromatics on this one are amped up," Cibak said.

They were all optimistic. Then they tasted.

"The flavor doesn't hold true to the aroma," Pawola said.

"I was expecting a little bit more after smelling it," Cibak said.

"Super-neutral," Gallagher said. "It's hard to pick anything out of it."

Neutral was actually not a complaint in this context. In these beers, it was generally a plus.

"It's not sweet," Gallagher said. "The biggest thing I dislike is sweetness in these beers. I'll take neutral over sweet."

"Agreed," Cibak said.

When they talk of sweet, it's not a sugary sweetness — it's more of a corn-forward or grainy sweetness. A vaguely cloying sweetness you may barely recognize.

In this case, Busch Light avoided that. But it was still just middle-of-the-pack.

On to beer No. 6, which immediately generated quizzical looks.

"Is that a toastiness in here?" Pawola said. "Some hop character?"

"Almost like wood," Gallagher said.

"Beechwood aging?" Pawola asked.

Everyone laughed.

"Yeah, that was the first thing that popped into my head," Gallagher said. "Something's different in here."

Pawola liked it. Gallagher said it was "a little too strange for me."

"I can't describe what I'm tasting," he said.

Cibak thought it might have some DMS, a sulfur compound generally viewed as an off flavor imparting vegetal or creamed corn character. But sometimes it's a desired wrinkle.

Whether that's the case for Miller High Life is unknown. But our panel wasn't impressed.

Beer No. 7 was "super light," Cibak said.

"Light, but in a good way," Pawola said.

Everyone agreed that the beer was extraordinarily light but also fairly clean with some interesting depth and character.

"I like 7," Gallagher said. "It tastes like malt sweetness rather than just adjunct sweetness."

It was Keystone Light.

It was the midway point. Everyone got up and stretched their legs, and I poured four more samples. Things were about to get good.

'I could consume this whole can in one fell swoop'

Beer No. 8 didn't do much for anyone. It was the classic fizzy pale yellow American beer. Another middle of the pack beer. Busch, like Busch Light, was forgettable without being too offensive.

Then came beer No. 9. It was our game changer.

Pawola: "It has a lot more going on than No. 8. This one's good."

Gallagher: "I like it a lot. It's maybe the most robust one we've had yet, but with nothing bad about it. Some of the other ones had bigger flavors, but they weren't enjoyable flavors. This is bigger without being sweet."

Cibak: "If I was thirsty, I could consume this whole can in one fell swoop."

It was a revelation.

It was Hamm's. (See sidebar: .)

The panel also liked beer No. 10. It was a bit lighter than No. 9, and showed less character. But it was clean and, everyone agreed, dry.

"It's still very good," Pawola said.

"No. 10 is the first time, maybe, I've gotten a bit of hops in the aroma," Gallagher said. "I like it a lot. Dry. Crisp."

Good news, hipsters who go to rock clubs: it was Pabst Blue Ribbon!

No. 11 also generated solid reviews — another one best described as clean and dry even if it didn't have much character. It was perfect for a golf course or a baseball game and, perhaps not coincidentally, is a baseball icon of Chicago: Old Style.

We'd uncovered three good ones in a row. Macro beer was really starting to seem OK.

"All these beers are super-balanced," Cibak said. "Nothing is overly malty or overly bitter. For what they are, they're perfectly made. This is exactly what they're shooting for. Whether we like it or not."

And just like that, we stumbled onto No. 12. It was a mess.

"It's twangy," Pawola said. "It's my least favorite so far."

"I dipped into the 2s for this one," Gallagher said, scribbling a 2.5 on his paper.

Sharp. Boozy. Ester-y.

Cibak was the most forgiving but acknowledged he might have been entering maco beer sensory overload.

"If it was really cold at a ballgame, it might be OK," he said. "But I wouldn't go out and buy it."

Ladies and gentlemen: Icehouse, a MillerCoors product that might be most popular for its robust 6.9 percent alcohol.

No one was much of a fan of No. 13, either. It was too sweet and lacked the crispness and balance of the best beers we had tried.

It was Natural Ice: essentially the Anheuser-Busch version of Icehouse.

No. 14 confused the panel. No one liked it, but it was also the first example of a beer that might have been less than technically perfect. It was papery, possibly from oxidation — the exact kind of quality control that the big brewers usually have nailed.

"I wasn't expecting to come across that," Gallagher said. "But it can happen."

Everyone thought that No. 14 showed a bit more hop character, and Cibak wondered if that was the problem — maybe those hops had oxidized. (I thought it just tasted like a bad version of a craft beer.)

It was Schlitz.

Almost done.

On to No. 15.

"Very smooth," Gallagher said.

"Smooth and neutral," Cibak said. Then he added that he wasn't a big fan of the yeast character.

Gallagher said it was a bit too sweet.

If you noticed that we haven't reached the king of beers, you're right. Budweiser was No. 15, and old faithful was proving to belong to the middle of the pack.

Finally, our last beer.

Everyone agreed that it seemed familiar.

"Macro through and through," Gallagher said.

Fairly malt-forward and well-balanced, Cibak said.

"Classic," Pawola said.

They wondered if it was High Life. Maybe Budweiser? It was Coors Banquet.

For the final round, we tasted the top four again: No. 2 (Miller Lite), No. 7 (Keystone Light), No. 9 (Hamm's) and No. 10 (PBR). We drank them in that order.

"Still liking it," Cibak said of Miller Lite.

"Very light, very crisp," Gallagher said.

"A good light beer," Pawola said.

Keystone Light was swiftly rejected. In the final four, it's aroma was just a bit more robust than what the panel wanted from 4.2 alcohol.

"The thing with macro brews is when they're really cold, I pretty much like most of them," Cibak said. "But as they warm up … "

"You need those Rockies to turn blue," Gallagher said, referencing the iconic Coors Light ad campaign in praise of ice cold beer.

Everyone still liked Nos. 9 and 10, but the enthusiasm was all directed at No. 9.

"The aroma on No. 9 is the best out of all of them," Gallagher said.

"Very clean malt aroma," Cibak said.

"I give it my top overall," Gallagher said.

"I'd pick No. 9 because there's a little bit more to it," Pawola said. "Clean on the finish. Balanced."

"Agreed," Cibak said.

It was then that they got the big reveal: Hamm's.

Here's the funny thing: Hamm's wasn't initially even going to be in the tasting. I only added it because I couldn't find Natural Light, despite checking six stores. As a backup, I grabbed Hamm's due to its Midwest roots "from the land of sky-blue water" (up in Minnesota) and the fact that it was one of MillerCoors' fastest-growing brands (albeit still quite small).

Then Cibak ran back into Revolution's brewery and grabbed some IPA canned a couple of hours earlier. He had predicted that we wouldn't score anything as low as a 1 on my 5-point scale ("Someone hand me an IPA, quick! I need this taste out of my mouth!"). But everyone sighed happy sighs as we downed those IPAs straight from the can.

How the beers fared

Hamm's (Miller Coors) 4.5

Miller Lite (Miller Coors) 4.3

Pabst Blue Ribbon (Pabst Brewing) 4.3

Keystone Light (Miller Coors) 4

Old Style (Pabst Brewing) 4

Coors Banquet (Miller Coors) 3.7

Coors Light (Miller Coors) 3.7

Busch Light (Anheuser-Busch) 3.5

Michelob Ultra (Anheuser-Busch) 3.5

Miller High Life (Miller Coors) 3.5

Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch) 3.3

Busch (Anheuser-Busch) 3.2

Bud Light (Anheuser-Busch) 3

Natural Ice (Anheuser-Busch) 3

Schlitz (Pabst Brewing) 3

Icehouse (Miller Coors) 2.7

Scores are averages of panel rankings on a 5-point scale. Beers tasted are the top sellers in the U.S., except for Hamm's.

Twitter @joshbnoel

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Article What's best macro beer in America? 3 craft brewers taste test 16 compiled by www.chicagotribune.com