Consumer Reports Rates Mainstream Beers

consumer-reports
At the end of December, Consumer Reports sent out a press release regarding a beer tasting they’d conducted by an unnamed panel of “experts.” Curious as I was, especially as similar tastings have gone somewhat badly in the past, I held off any judgment until the full report became available, which happened January 3 (though it will be in the February print edition). Here’s the salient parts of the press release, Coors Outscores Bud in Consumer Reports’ Taste Tests of Beer:

Looking to enjoy the last weeks of football season with the perfect brew? Coors regular topped Consumer Reports’ recent taste test of beers, blowing away nine brews including Budweiser and Bud Light. Name Tag and Big Flats — store brands from Trader Joe’s and Walgreens respectively — beat out top-sellers Corona Extra and Budweiser. The full report and Ratings of beer is featured in the February issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

To determine the best brews, the experts at Consumer Reports conducted blind taste tests of ten lagers — eight top-selling regular and light beers plus two store brands. Although none of the beers were scored a touchdown, Coors, which scored Very Good but not quite high enough to be rated excellent, came close, standing out for balanced flavors with citrus notes and no off-tastes. In addition to earning the highest marks in Consumer Reports’ tests, Coors, available for $6.45 for a six-pack, was deemed a CR Best Buy along with runners-up Name Tag (Trader Joe’s), Big Flats (Walgreens), and Miller High Life.

When it comes to choosing a beer, taste may be the most important factor to consider, but Consumer Reports tests found that consumers should also keep the following in mind:

  • Regular vs. light. Light beer has 20 to 50 less calories per serving due to lower carbs and slightly less alcohol, but no tested light scored high enough to be very good. Miller Lite, which had more flavor and is a little fruiter than most, was best of the bunch; Corona Light, a bitter brew with traces of tinny and sulfury off-notes was the worst.
  • Price vs. taste. Corona Light costs far more than the higher-rated Miller Lite; and Corona Extra costs about twice as much as three better beers – Name Tag, Big Flats and Miller High Life.
  • Cans vs. bottles. Consumer Reports tasted beer from cans which do a better job than bottles in keeping light, beer’s nemesis, from getting inside. Light can react with beer within weeks or even days to create compounds similar to those a skunk uses to defend itself.

The complete beer Ratings are available in the February issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org starting January 3.

So now they’re out, let’s look a little closer.

On the Plus Side:

  • They used cans for their tasting because they “do a better job than bottles in keeping light, beer’s nemesis, from getting inside.”
  • They included private label, contract beers.

To be fair, I had to stretch to find something positive. While there are advantages to cans, a fresh beer in a bottle or can that’s been well-maintained and cared for should be indistinguishable, and since (one hopes) they poured the beer into a glass first it should really make no difference. And then, of course, limiting the tasting to beer in cans arbitrarily leaves out a lot of good beer, though they left out more than enough on their own.

CR-beer-ratings-feb-2012

On the Minus Side:

  • Only 10 Beers (6 regular, 4 low-calorie)? Really, that’s not very representative of the market. Just sticking to the big guys, there’s no MGD or PBR. There’s no Yuengling. And at this point, to ignore the national craft brewers like Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium seems like a big disservice to their readers. Yes, BMC represent the majority of beer sold, but they’re no longer the only game in town. By ignoring other beers, Consumer Reports is in a sense helping to maintain the status quo. In their world, it’s as if the decline of big brands and the rise of craft beer is not even happening.
  • As I said before, this kind of tasting does not help their readers. I don’t know the exact demographics of Consumer Reports subscribers, but it seems fair to say they’re not the sort of people who buy whatever’s cheapest or whatever’s on sale. They care about what they’re buying. They want the best value or the best quality products. Otherwise, why bother reading a publication that’s supposedly dedicated to those principles. So by ignoring quality and choosing beers to rate based purely on popularity, they’re not telling their readers about quality beers that may be more expensive, but given how much more flavorful they are might be the better value. Of anyone, Consumer Reports should know that price is not the primary factor in determining value.
  • Sorry to keep beating a dead horse, but also by not going beyond the three most popular domestic brands and one import, Consumer Reports missed an opportunity to tell their audience looking for guidance why cheaper isn’t always better. That buying full-flavored beers means drinking less, but enjoying it more. Instead, they fell back on what they’ve always done; dumbed it down and went for numbers over intangibles, price over value, the big over the smaller. Pathetic.
  • I don’t know who their so-called “experts” included, but calling Big Flats “very good” in my mind calls into question their credentials or experience. Because Big Flats, when we tried it at one of my Philopotes Society meetings, was all but undrinkable. And not just by me, but by the entire assembled group, who included experienced judges and brewers that I’ve conducted tastings with for years. Swill, to be kind. And my experience with the others makes me wonder by what standards they were judging the beers. At what temperature were they served? Did they discuss the beers and come to a consensus or merely assign them scores and let the numbers speak for themselves. In order to have your results taken seriously, I think at the very least the methodology used has to be disclosed so the rankings can be placed in that context. There’s no key that explains the difference between a “very good” beer and merely a “good” one, or what the others ratings might be, such as below “good” or above “very good.” I could never in good conscience call Corona a “good” beer. And Budweiser may be a well-made beer, but it lacks that key ingredient I look for in my beer: flavor.
  • Indeed, all of the beers on the list are very lightly flavored beers. Most judges, even experienced ones, would have a hard time distinguishing them blind. I realize that sometimes you have to judge such beers, but I think it would be difficult to rate Coors, Name Tag, Big Flats and Miller High Life as being essentially the same, all “very good.” That seems like a stretch. And at any rate, why bother rating beers that are so much alike and whose sales have more to do with advertising and brand loyalty than taste? Is any loyal Bud fan going to be swayed by this tasting and suddenly switch to Coors? Beer just isn’t like a new refrigerator or toaster.
  • I concur that there are no “very good” or above light beers, but I’d have a hard time calling any of these “good,” either. But that’s perhaps a personal preference. I find all low-calorie light beers an abomination, a slap in the face to good beer everywhere. They have no business even existing, let alone being best-sellers. They’re a triumph of advertising and marketing over good sense and taste.

So it seems to me that Consumer Reports, a well-respected publication, really booted this one and did very little, if anything, to educate their readers and give them some truly useful information about what beers to try. From their choices of which beers to rate and the way in which they rated them, there’s very little here to change anyone’s mind about which beer to choose, or indeed how to choose a good beer in the first place.

Comments

  1. Nicole Erny says

    This is inspiring me… to cancel my consumer reports subscription and seriously reconsider using them as a source for ANY consumer data in the future. If they couldn’t do it well, they should not have approached the subject.

  2. says

    You hit the nail on the head. I have been subscribed to Consumer Reports for many years and I have all but given up on their food and beverage coverage. I understand that it can be hard to find nationally available “craft” products in the same way that you can find Toyota Camrys or water filters but they don’t seem to even try when it comes to beer or wine.

    And I won’t go into the actual reviews of the beers because whoever found notes of “citrus” made me lose it.

  3. Ed Chainey says

    We let our subscription to CU expire after being loyal readers for almost 5 decades, and Jay’s posting tells me I needn’t be concerned about having made a rash decision.

    Clearly CU has no clue how to review beer in the 21st Century. They appear stuck in the 60s, I think.

    But what is most obviously galling is what a low opinion CU demonstrates that it has about beer. Why bother doing a review at all if they only look at 10 brands? And omitting PBR and MGD proves they haven’t got a good grasp of the variety of beer available, much less the plethora of styles, either.

    Given the thousands of GREAT American and Imported beers available today, and their inexpensiveness, one should think Consumers Reports would have a beer review in every issue! And if they did a review of ten beers every month – given the vast array of choices we actually have in America – they need not even repeat any given brand and flavor for ten years!

    Look at how many different cars CU reviews in each and every issue, not even counting their car issue! What a waste of opportunity and service to their readers.

    CU could do Christmas beers in December, Winter Warmers in February, Bock biers in May, Summer Ales in July and Oktoberfest biers in, well October. Get the picture? Sure you do. they don’t.

    My guess is they’ll do a swimsuit issue before CU ever does a comprehensive and informative review of beer!

  4. beerman49 says

    CU should give up totally on food & beverages & stick to what they do best – researching/testing & reporting on hard goods, financial services, & laws that affect consumers.

    Trader Joe’s out here sells 2 (contract-brewed in Monroe WI) varieties under the “Simpler Times” label – pilsner (5.2 ABV) & lager (6% ABV) for $2.99/6. The lager isn’t bad – much more taste & bigger buzz than your typical “lawnmower” brew. Pils is OK, but it ain’t Trumer or PU. However, a desperate beer geek short on cash & in need of a 6-er would be hard-pressed to find a better buzz for the buck than the lager.

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