Food & Drink

The best cheap beers by a yard

A colleague tells me about a recent, unfortunate beverage decision.

He had just finished some outdoor work around the house, and he wanted a beer to cool down his world. He was too hot to face the challenge of a full-flavored (and pricey) craft beer. He was wary, however, of a domestic macrobrewed lager — such as the Miller Lite in the fridge — because it would be, well, bad.

He chose the macrobrew and rediscovered, two gulps in, that it was as flavorful as sucking the sweat from his shirt. He poured the rest down the drain.

Sad.

So what to do if you want a cheap beer with some flavor?

Some of us face this when looking at $10 four-packs or $8 bombers of craft beer. Such splurges don't always fit tightening budgets, even if the cost per ounce is a better deal than a bottle of nice wine.

We scoured beer shelves for brews as inexpensive as your basic $5 to $7 six-pack — but with the flavor to please at least some of the snooty among us. Here are three that should do so, including one that might be a surprise. All prices are per six-pack before taxes:

Less than $5: Yuengling Traditional Lager

Welcome to your lawn-mowing beer. At $4.99, Yuengling offers most everything you'd want in a lager — bready sweetness, smooth feel, and a crisp and slightly hoppy finish. If you want a little more oomph, Yuengling's Black and Tan is a porter and lager blend with a bit more malt and bitterness. (There are no Yuengling distributors in Kentucky; it is available in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia and seven other, mostly Eastern seaboard, states.)

Less than $6: Stockyard Oatmeal Stout, Goose Island Beer

This $5.49 beer stands up to stouts twice the price. You'll find the same classic attributes of the style — robust coffee and chocolate flavor, pleasant creaminess and bitter finish. Perhaps a bit thinner than some elite stouts, but because of that, Stockyard is more accessible to those who don't want to fight their beers. Stockyard might be the best-valued brew in your local shop. (It is available only at Trader Joe's; the nearest store is in Cincinnati.)

Less than $7: American Ale, Budweiser

Hold on. Am I tasting maltiness in a Budweiser beer? And hops? Yes, yes, I am. You'll notice some nicely muted flavors here — caramel and, perhaps, butterscotch — but you won't find the pronounced metallic twang that makes other Bud brews reviled in craft beer circles. American Ale is a thin but solid brew at a good price.

Honorable mentions

Saranac Pale Ale ($5.99); Trader Joe's Bavarian Hefeweizen ($5.49); Blue Moon Belgian White ($6.99).

Champ of cheap

Is Pabst Blue Ribbon really the best of the cheap American beers?

PBR has made a resurgence of sorts in recent years in hipster circles. Those beer drinkers also note, with regularity, that PBR beat the big boys in a Consumer Reports blind taste test in the 1990s.

Problem is — it didn't happen. Yes, Consumer Reports held a taste test of American lagers in 1996, but Stroh's and Old Milwaukee won the macrobrew domestic category, with PBR finishing in the middle of the pack. But PBR has fared reasonably well in other published taste tests in the past decade.

We decided to hold our own. Six cheap American macrobrews. Six unmarked glasses. Three judges — Charlotte (N.C.) Observer food writer Kathleen Purvis; myself, an Observer reporter; and Catherine Rabb, co- owner of Fenwicks Restaurant in Charlotte and an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University. Rabb also reviews wine for the Observer.

We picked six cheap domestic beers — Schlitz, Milwaukee's Best, Bud Light, Rolling Rock, Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon. We evaluated the beer on flavor, fullness and crispness, but really, one overriding factor: Which would taste best after mowing your lawn?

Getting high marks from the panel was Schlitz, which offered a hint of caramel sweetness and was the hoppiest of the group, and Rolling Rock, which was fuller and more rounded than most. One taster liked the grassy taste of Rolling Rock. Another, however, thought the flavor was flat.

Tasters were largely indifferent to Miller High Life, which got neither high nor particularly low marks. One noted that it had a "beauty parlor" aroma of sulfur.

The bottom feeders? Bud Light, which had no weight, no finish and a tinny taste. Milwaukee's Best also was panned as metallic and thin — reminiscent, said one taster, of the flavor of unchewed aspirin.

That leaves your winner, a unanimous choice: Pabst Blue Ribbon. The tasters noticed a citrus flavor, low acidity and a maltiness more pronounced than its brethren. One noted a pleasant snap of bitterness at the finish.

Were we surprised? A little. And yes, pleasantly so.

You might be, too.

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