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Cheap Beers Taste Test

Beer, cheap or not, has a long-standing history of quenching human thirst. Dating back centuries, fermented brews have nourished Pharaohs, inspired Egyptian philosophers, and funded monasteries.

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Even today, the significance of sharing a drink at celebrations or social gatherings remains. But are frugal hosts doomed to pass around the stuff we consumed in our salad days? Happily, the answer is "no."

We rustled up a crowd of 13 self-proclaimed beer drinkers and put 19 nationally distributed and domestically produced brews to the test. While most of the taste-off sample was made up of cheap beers costing less than 8 cents an ounce, we threw in a few pricier brands to see how the budget offerings stacked up. We divided the chosen brews into three categories -- light (as in calories, not alcohol content), standard American lager, and craft beer -- in a quest for the best cheap beer in each.

Our informal panel of testers sampled each product, noting its taste and appearance, and called out particular favorites. To preserve the palate, we started with light beers, then progressed through the American lagers, and ended on the stronger flavors of the craft brews.

Review continues below

In the light beer category, Miller Lite (8 cents/ounce) was the beer of choice. This cheap beer trumped three other low-calorie contenders for having a "more sophisticated taste" and "subtle bitterness that is interesting." When it came to standard American lagers, Pabst Blue Ribbon (5 cents/ounce) took the honors as best beer for being "mild" and "drinkable." Natural Ice (4.6 cents/ounce), an Anheuser-Busch brand, followed just a step behind with its "bright" and "fruity" taste. Costco's Kirkland Signature IPA (6.6 cents/ounce) won the most converts in our craft beer category for its "bitter" but "floral" notes. Kirkland Signature German-Style Lager (6.6 cents/ounce) made a second-best beer showing, turning heads with its "smooth," "sweet" flavor.

Two cheap beers, both American lagers, earned the dubious distinction of the weakest showing among the entire sample. Miller High Life (5 cents/ounce) was dismissed as "boring" and "pee-like" while Rolling Rock (7 cents/ounce) drew comments such as "awful" and "stale."

The final tallies were surprising. At the start of the evening, without knowing which beers were being tested, some volunteer tasters voiced a preference for craft brews such as Fat Tire and Sam Adams, and for brand names like Bud and Coors. In the end, they were stunned to learn they had rated budget-priced Kirkland Signature craft beers higher than their professed favorites. They were even more shocked to hear that they had expressed unequivocal dislike for Fat Tire, a mid-priced craft brew that commands a bevy of fans out in the world. Tasters were again taken aback to see that Pabst Blue Ribbon, and especially Natural Ice, had surpassed the seven other American lager samples. While a few stated they sometimes bought PBR, none were in the habit of buying Natural Ice or had even considered doing so, but had picked both as their favorites in the blind test.

Review continues below

The cheap beers in our sample primarily came from the big-name producers Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and Pabst, and included the Budweiser, Natural Ice, Busch, Rolling Rock, Miller, Milwaukee's Best, Icehouse, and Pabst Blue Ribbon brands. The informal tasting also included higher-priced samples from two smaller producers, Samuel Adams and New Belgium (of Fat Tire fame), and cheap beer from Costco's private label line (Kirkland Signature). We presented the panel with four light beers, nine American lagers, and six craft brews in all.

We shopped for the sample products and conducted the taste-off in a suburb of a large metropolitan area on the West Coast. We found some beers in six-packs and others in cases; some cans contained 16 ounces of brew while others (cans and bottles) held just 12. The prices we recorded may differ in your locale and may vary by retail outlet, as well. And, as with many products, the more you buy at once, the cheaper the price will be.

Beer Brands We Tested
Brand Price Quantity Oz. Per Can Price Per Oz.
Light Beers
Coors Light $5.99 6-pack 16 $0.06
Bud Light $5.99 6-pack 16 $0.06
Busch Light $6.59 6-pack 16 $0.07
Miller Lite $7.99 6-pack 16 $0.08
American Lagers
Budweiser $5.49 6-pack 12 $0.08
Coors $5.49 6-pack 12 $0.08
Milwaukee's Best $16.99 30-pack 12 $0.05
Icehouse $16.99 30-pack 12 $0.05
Busch $17.99 30-pack 12 $0.05
Pabst Blue Ribbon $4.79 6-pack 16 $0.05
Natural Ice $16.49 30-pack 12 $0.05
Rolling Rock $4.99 6-pack 12 $0.07
Miller High Life $13.99 24-pack 12 $0.05
Craft Beers
Samuel Adams Boston Lager $6.49 6-pack 12 $0.09
New Belgium Fat Tire $6.49 6-pack 12 $0.09
Kirkland Signature German-Style Lager $18.99 24-pack 12 $0.07
Kirkland Signature Amber Ale $18.99 24-pack 12 $0.07
Kirkland Signature Pale Ale $18.99 24-pack 12 $0.07

by Gina Briles (Google+ Profile)

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Filed in: Dining, Food, Holidays,

Best Cheap Beers

Miller Lite
Gold Medal

Miller Lite

Best Light Beer. Miller Lite won support over other light beers in our sample for a flavor that revealed more hops and wheat. But like the others, it was deemed watery and somewhat flat.

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Pabst Blue Ribbon
Gold Medal

Pabst Blue Ribbon

Best American Lager. To nearly everyone's surprise, PBR took top billing when compared to the other American lagers in our hands-on beer review. Tasters liked the mild and balanced flavor, which didn't leave an undesirable aftertaste.

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Kirkland Signature IPA
Gold Medal

Kirkland Signature IPA

Best Craft Beer. Costco's Kirkland Signature IPA beat out brand-name competition to take first place in the craft beer category. Confirmed IPA drinkers liked the bitter-sweet balance but others judged it bitter and heavy on the hops.

Read Full Review and Compare Prices »

Good Cheap Beers

Natural Ice
Gold Medal

Natural Ice

Good American Lager. A very close second to our best cheap lager pick, Natural Ice earned kudos from our panel for its crisp, bright, and fruity flavors.

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Kirkland Signature German-Style Lager
Gold Medal

Kirkland Signature German-Style Lager

Good Craft Beer. Another Costco house-brand, this handcrafted brew scored with our panelists for a taste described as rich, smooth, and mildly fruity.

Read Full Review and Compare Prices »

Don't Bother

Miller High Life

Another American lager, Miller High Life fell flat with nearly all of our testers. In fact, "flat" was a common critique, as was absence of flavor.

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Rolling Rock

Among the 19 beers we quaffed, this American lager stood out as the least appealing. Panelists were put off by an odd aftertaste that was described as woody, like eraser shavings, and other funky qualifiers.

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