Malted Madness
By J. Travis Smith
on 3.26.14
Photo by H Phillips

In 2012, Natural Ice sold over 40 million cases in the U.S., making it the 14th best selling beer. For perspective, this means you could give one case to every full-time college freshman in America each weekend for their first 11 weeks of school and still have some left over. This is, incidentally, a pretty accurate representation of how this stuff is drunk.

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Drunk Science

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Water freezes at 32 °F and ethanol freezes at -173.2°F. Therefore, dropping the temperature of beer to sub-freezing temperatures and then filtering out the ice crystals (which contain no alcohol) leaves behind a high-alcohol beer. Beer produced using this process, called fractional freezing, made its first appearance in America in 1993 when Molson Ice hit shelves. Since then, college students have been drinking ice beer (mostly Natural Ice) because of its favorable alcohol-per-dollar ratio.

In attempt to show how high fractional freezing can drive alcohol content, the guys at BrewDog created a 55 percent ABV beer. But once you need to chase a shot of your beer with whiskey, you’ve broken the system.

Of the 25 most popular domestic beers in America, five are high gravity, meaning they have increased alcohol content; three of those five reference “Ice” in their name and the other two reference heavy metals, the point apparently being that manly and/or cold things should be equated to getting you drunk. Bud Light Platinum (a high-grav beer) was the best-selling new beer of 2012. Right behind the cobalt bottle was Bud Light Lime’s Lime-A-Rita concoction. Couple this with the discovery that Bud Light Lime was among the top 20 best-selling beers in the same time frame, and we knew we had to have a “random shit that America likes” division in tournament.

This is the only category that wasn’t seeded by sales volume. To maintain some trace of logic, we seeded the beers so high gravity would face high gravity and flavored would face flavored for as long as possible. We needed two more flavored beverages, so we threw in Woodchuck and Angry Orchard, the two most popular ciders in the U.S.; ciders are gaining serious ground in the American market, and when compared in terms of flavor to some of the beer-like-brews in this bracket, they aren’t really outliers.

First Five Out

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Our first tasting was a play-in game that pitted Straw-Ber-Rita (6b) against Lime-A-Rita (6a) — or in the words of one of our tasters: “hints of Robitussin” against “the shit that created the Ninja Turtles”. Despite the terrible taste of both competitors, the sugar overload of Straw-Ber-Rita had a more generic syrupy taste, which was preferable to the “rotten lime peel” taste of Lime-A-Rita. Over ice with some vodka on a hot day Straw-Ber-Rita might have a place in this world, but in the true first round, when judged for a repeatable drinking experience, it lost to the much milder Bud Light Lime (3) by a landslide.

The relatively dry Angry Orchard Crisp Apple (2) — which is actually sweeter than the brand’s other cider, “Traditional Dry” — lost out to Woodchuck Amber (7) in a close decision. None of us are cider guys, but Woodchuck was noticeably more refreshing. At the top of the bracket, in a face-off between a bottom-of-the-barrel college beer and a light beer branded as “higher-end” and “sophisticated“, Natural Ice (1) actually edged out Bud Light Platinum (8) for the win. In the second unanimous decision of the round, Steel Reserve (4), whose understated elegance is embodied by their website, which is just blown-up photos of their can, was decidedly better than Colt 45 (5).

Two Left

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When Woodchuck Amber (7) met Bud Light Lime (3) in the Sweet Sixteen, all the tasters agreed that, if judged purely on taste, the cider would beat the lime beer, but the heavy sweetness of the cider would make binge drinking a DIY for diabetes. Bud Light Lime tastes like a watered-down Bud Light with a squeeze of lime, and these mild flavors allowed it to blow past Woodchuck in terms of drinkability. On the other side of the bracket, Steel Reserve (4) beat fratty Natty Ice (1) in a race to the bottom of inebriated desperation.

Final Four Berth

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Steel Reserve (4) beat Bud Light Lime (3) because, in the words of our high-gravity taster, “I feel like I can drink more and be happy”, which is all Steel Reserve set out to accomplish. Still, Bud Light Lime turned out to be surprisingly drinkable, with a surprisingly subtle lime flavor, considering the can is a vibrant green. In the end though, the more aggressive, cheaper Steel Reserve beat the citrus light beer for a Final Four berth.

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The three GP writers whose taste buds were considered the least discriminating when it came to beer (this author included) were forced to judge this category. Steel Reserve (4), which is touted as one of the most cost-effective beers for getting drunk, actually won the entire division. If you’ve ever had Steel Reserve, that statement speaks volumes about the taste profile, aromas and mouth feel of the whole division.