By Marc Bona / The Plain Dealer
Rick Armon and I had wanted to take a look at what we deemed “budget beers” for quite some time. “Budget” being a euphemism for “cheap,” of course.
If budget beer were in school, it would be a “C.” Sure, craft beers are the star students, and they get all the As and the good-looking girls, but you have to have some balance. And that’s where budget beers come in.
Beer lovers in Northeast Ohio are fortunate to have a variety of great offerings of craft beers. Draw a line from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Philadelphia, and look at all the breweries in that area. Great quality, with distribution in Northeast Ohio. And right in the middle of that line is Cleveland and Akron, home to several award-winning brewers.
Also see: Read the full budget beer survey
But sometimes you just want a sippable beer that’s not too complex. Or expensive. Especially in the summer.
So we jumped in. We alternated tastings, doing several of them blind. (My esteemed partner in this experiment – I say esteemed because he has written a book on beer -- actually nailed one of the blind tests -- Little Kings Cream Ale.)
Here are some of the more interesting things we learned in our tastings:
Blech factor: I really thought at least several of the beers would be undrinkable. I was surprised at how many were more than passable.
Representing the 739: Of the 31 beers we tried, 11 have an identical post-office box address – P.O. Box 739 in Milwaukee. Yet they come from various brewers. It’s an intriguing amalgamation at the same address. Here’s a list of the 739 beers from our list and their brewers:
(An added beer we tasted but did not include on the list, Country Club Malt Liquor, is made by Pearl Brewing Co., also at The 739.)
The Natty Light factor: We stated off with Natural Light. A colleague tells me Columbus is littered with Natural Light cans, which tells me that Ohio State students may not have much money, but they can at least be a bit discerning in their beer buying.
American-made: All are made in the United States. Even Black Label, which sports a big maple leaf and the word CANADA on its label.
Best deal: “Best” is subjective. If it means per-ounce value, then Pong Lite is it, at roughly 33 cents per can. Yes, it’s marketed for those “competing” in Beer Pong.
A disqualification: One beer we tried drew drastically opposite opinions. I poured it into two tasting glasses, and we each sipped. “This is good,” I said. “It’s like a craft beer. It has flavor and some body.” Rick looked at me: “It’s off. Something is wrong. I’m getting butterscotch.” (Butterscotch is a flavor in beer that shouldn’t be there in certain styles.) When I revealed the can – Hudepohl, a longtime Cincinnati beer that is finding its way to Northeast Ohio shelves — Rick had the answer. “You got the amber!” he said, politely leaving off an adjective critical of my beer-buying skills. He was right. I had bought the amber lager version. We did not include it on our list, since it was a different style from the run-of-the-brewery lagers we sampled.
Disagreement: The one we most differed on was Big Flats, Walgreens beer (who knew Walgreens had beer?). I hated; Rick liked. We also disagreed on Burger. Rick doesn’t mind it. I will pass.
Agreement: If we were to rank these 1-31, Icehouse and Steel Reserve would have been the clear bottom two. “I did not enjoy that at all,” Rick grimaced, even days after we tried Icehouse. And most of Steel Reserve went down the drain -- the only one in the tastings that we dumped.
My advice: If you haven’t tried one of these beers in, say, 20 years, try it now. It could be better — or worse. I remember trying Red Dog years ago and hated it (bad dog!). I tried it for this project and was pleasantly surprised (good dog!). Schaefer has remained very drinkable. Unfortunately Ballantine – once one of my favorites – is very drinkable, but a shell of what it once was. Like a ballplayer whose prime years are behind him.
Each week, Bona cracks one (or two) open and offers his comments on the brew. He posts occasional thoughts on beer via Twitter @mbona30. Check out The Plain Dealer’s beer page, facebook.com/Pdbeer.