Malted Madness
By J. Travis Smith
on 3.27.14
Photo by H Phillips

Hidden away under a stack of manilla envelopes in the GP offices there exists an unpublished taste test between bottled water brands. The report wasn’t killed after one company threatened to sue, though that would make for a great story. In reality, the results were simply uninteresting. Sadly, this water blind testing had more definitive results than our tournament’s light beer division.

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Yes, this was a shameful division. These are the among the most popular beers in America, with devoted drinkers, yet we found it impossible to tell a Bud Light from a Busch Light, or from anything else, for that matter. Actually, we tried to repeat the bracket with new tasters and came away with entirely different results. Our final conclusion was not that our tasters were inept, but that — as we had secretly feared all along — you’ll find the same variation of flavors in the light beer aisle as you will the water section.

Skinny Drinks
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Budweiser Select 55 is advertised as the “lightest beer in the world” at 55 calories per bottle, which may be so — but at only 2.4 percent ABV, you aren’t really drinking much of anything. Bud Light, by comparison, is 110 calories and 4.2 percent ABV. So if you want one serving of alcohol, you can choose 110 calories in a 12 ounce can, or the same number of calories diluted to 24 ounces. You’re really just deciding how many trips to the bathroom you want to take.

Cutting your caloric intake when you drink isn’t a matter of just switching to vodka or white wine or whiskey. Once you start looking to maximize alcohol per calorie, you’ll hit a wall around 100 calories per serving. One 1.5-ounce shot of a typical hard alcohol contains around the same amount of calories as a typical light beer. Of the nine light beers we tested, Michelob Ultra and Natural Light, at 4.2 percent ABV and 95 calories a piece, brought the most alcohol bang per calorie. But we are literally talking about a single calorie difference.

In America, four of the five best selling beers are lights. This division represents almost half of all the beer we drink, but this is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1984, light beer captured only 20 percent of the American beer market. The dramatic shift of preference, not to mention the only way consumers can differentiate these products (at least from our findings), is due to advertising.

In reality, packaging and price might actually be the most pertinent factors on which to base your drinking preference. If you like the new throwback Miller Lite cans, that sounds like a good enough reason to buy it. If the Coors Light can seems to fit your hand particularly well, your fingers are literally providing more brand differentiation than your taste buds can offer. Why do you think faster pour technology and cold activated cans are developed? How else is a 100-calorie lager going to stand out?

This division doesn’t merit a true play-by-play, though we will add some notes to explain how we tried to taste our way throughout this division. Only two results remained consistent through our two versions of the round: Corona Light (8a) beat Heineken Light (8b) in the play–in game (and then immediately lost to Bud Light) and Keystone Light (6) lost first round to Miller Lite (3). Other than that, most of our decisions were made by drinking one, drinking the other, getting frustrated, cleansing the palette, repeating the tasting and then shrugging and arbitrarily pointing toward a cup. Were we suckers for expecting anything different?

First Tasting

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Our bodies went numb when we heard the tasting results and realized our names would be on an article that had Natural Light edging out Michelob Ultra to take the best light beer title. The sad part is we were pretty confident about our final vote. “Well yes, I can taste that this Bud Light is infinitely drinkable, but I’m more of a Miller man myself”, went the inner monologue. Well shit.

To explain ourselves, consider the aforementioned water tournament. The ultimate goal of water is to taste like nothing, making judging relatively easy. There is some standard of comparison. Conversely, two light beers can both be bad, but in different ways. In the end, our tasters were deciding which beer was “less bad tasting” from their myriad of subtle flavorings. A common answer note from our tasters was, “If you told me they were different beers, I guess I’d believe you.”

Second, Drunker Tasting

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The second tasting was done after the tournament was completed. The lightly intoxicated of the bunch who had not participated in the first tasting wanted to see if Michelob Ultra (7) and Natural Light (4) could repeat their performances. Nope. They both lost first round. Actually, the tasters managed to pick the more popular beer every time except for two occasions. Bud Light (1) beat Miller Lite (3) in the Elite Eight to complete what, commercially speaking, was a pretty predictable bracket.

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