Over the past twenty years or so, after a long period of Anheuser-Busch hegemony, Americans have come to realize that beer doesn’t have to be a flat, watery substance enjoyable only when it’s severely refrigerated and consumed in mass quantities. Bars, restaurants, and specialty stores have come to a realization recently, too: They can use this trend to sucker the pretentious into buying pricey Budweiser taste-alikes (ahem, Stella Artois) and ancient-recipe-raspberry-gingerbread-ale-hand-casked-by-Norwegian-midgets novelties. To help sort through the adult-beverage glut, we brought in David Pollack (a formidable connoisseur who works at Williamsburg beer den Spuyten Duyvil) to guide an eleven-person panel of untrained but enthusiastic drinking aficionados through a tasting of 21 beers in five categories.
Best of the Bodega
What to grab on your way to the house party.
What kind of B should be BYO’d? Ideally, one that demonstrates the bearer’s sophisticated palate while appealing to guests of all tastes and genders. Assuming that readers have already drawn their own conclusions regarding such standard choices as Sam Adams and Brooklyn Lager, we sampled four somewhat non-mainstream candidates in this category. Sierra Nevada Brown Ale ($8.99/6-pack) got a mostly positive response: a few testers described it (accurately, according to our moderator) as a drier version of pub staple Newcastle. The popular Belgian brew Hoegaarden ($10.99/6-pack) did not go over well: Even one of the female tasters called it “sissy.” Jever ($8.99/6-pack) pilsner, a highbrow German variation on the recipe used for most American lagers, failed the Wide Audience Test: Praised by some (men) for its earthy hoppiness, others (women) compared it to eating straw. The people’s choice was Blue Point Toasted Lager ($8.99/6-pack), also a favorite of our moderator—not too light, not too dark, with a pleasant hint of caramelized sugar.
The Low End
Not horrible, just interchangeable. And they’re all probably 25 cents somewhere.
In a blind test, none of the panelists could distinguish between hipster staple Pabst Blue Ribbon (“would maybe taste okay really cold”), Milwaukee staple Schlitz (“all fizz, no taste”), or alleged “champagne of beers” Miller High Life. The ostensibly higher-class Pennsylvania brew Yuengling didn’t fare any better (“don’t be fooled by the color”). Schlitz was the nominal winner, but, as Pollack observed, any number of similar options could do just as well in the right circumstances (those circumstances being “when they’re really cold, you’re drinking to drink a lot, and you only have $3”).
How to prepare your fridge for the delivery man.
Even though the number of Asian-food establishments in New York is likely to continue rising until the apocalypse, the number of non-Asian beers served by most of those establishments has stayed constant at zero. With thin lagers like Kirin dominating menus, those seeking drinks with sufficient zest to take on Asian cuisine are advised to look elsewhere for spicy, citrusy, nutty brews. (Beer-pairing rule of thumb: Match up similar flavors.) In our tasting, a delicate, floral Japanese white ale called Hitachino Nest ($5/bottle) garnered high praise (“smells like leaves in the fall”), but was thought to be too light and “girlie” to battle extreme Thai or Chinese spices; Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale ($3.99/bottle) just garnered mockery (“tastes like a leather shoe”). Although Germany’s Schneider Weisse ($3.25/bottle) was positively received, with some noting that its smokiness might pair well with Indian food, the clear winner of the category was Saison Dupont ($9.99/bottle), a Belgian summer brew: Panelists decided its wide variety of prominent flavors—descriptions included both “peppery” and “tart”—gave it the combination of strength and “versatility” needed to serve as an all-purpose Asian-takeout sidekick.
It’s Not All Swill
Challenging the supremacy of the bottle.
American beer got its lowest-common-denominator taste, Pollack theorizes, thanks to Prohibition. The only breweries large and rich enough to survive a decade of downtime (and then the Depression, and then World War II) were those that had already been churning out cheap product for the masses. Over the decades, travelers’ tales of exotic, dark European styles rekindled an interest in strong flavors. Said European beers were eventually imported via bottles; arguably, however, canned beer stays fresher since it’s not exposed to light and doesn’t taste any worse unless you actually drink directly from the can (polymer lining keeps aluminum away from the liquid). In fact, our overall tasting champ came from the high-end can category: the sharp and fruity Dale’s Pale Ale ($8.99/6-pack) was the rare beer of powerful flavor to also earn praise for drinkability, provoking not a single complaint of heaviness or bitterness. Sly Fox ($7.99/6-pack), a pilsner, inspired a collective “eh.” Butternuts Heinnieweisse ($6.95/6-pack) had a funny name.
Is the world ready for piping-hot beer?
Our last flight consisted of special seasonal beers, sweet Belgian styles, and some straight-out weirdness. Achel ($4.99/bottle), a heavy Trappist-style beer brewed by monks (à la Chimay), was praised as “sweet and delicious.” Stoudt’s Oktoberfest ($9.99/6-pack), a dark-but-drinkable brew from Pennsylvania, was also popular: Wrote one tester, “It tastes like homecoming.” The three entrants with the most intense tastes—self-explanatory, American-produced Rogue Chocolate Stout (“looks like road tar,” $6.99/bottle), smoky German beer Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (“smells like beef jerky,” $4.95/bottle), and highly alcoholic Belgian-style British import J.W. Lees Harvest (“tastes like cough syrup,” $8.75/bottle)—were not well received. The panel did demonstrate open-mindedness, however, in selecting as category favorite a Swiss creation called La Dragonne ($6.99/bottle), which is heated to 167 degrees before serving. Its heartwarming clove and cinnamon flavors drew positive comparisons to mulled wine, hot apple cider, and “classy eggnog.”
Note: All beers except La Dragonne and the “low end” entrants available at Bierkraft in Park Slope (191 Fifth Ave.; 718-230-7600); low-end entrants available everywhere else on earth; La Dragonne available at Bierkraft starting in November. Pollack advises buying extremely rare beers from specialty stores, not we-stock-500-brands bodegas: As he puts it, “They know there’s a market for this, so they buy everything they can. But they don’t hand-sell the weird little items, so you might buy a beer there that’s been sitting on the shelf for three years.”