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March 2, 2009

5

7 Beers, 7 Countries: A Review

Drinking in Germany
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jayel Aheram

I’m not a beer drinker. When it comes to my very limited alcohol consumption I’m definitely more of a wine/daiquiri/mixed drink kind of guy. A good bottle of red wine or a jack and coke is more up my alley than pretty much any beer.

However, economic times are tough. We don’t have the income we did a year ago so we’re looking to cut back on our expenses. One of the easiest for us is drinking. Though we love our daiquiris, $20 for two larges (with tip) makes little sense when a six pack of even high-end foreign beer is less than half the price.

So we set out to find a beer that we could enjoy. We had the good fortune to do some overseas traveling in the past year and learned that we liked some foreign beers but the ones we truly enjoyed, such as Duvel beer, were not widely available in the U.S. The goal was to find a beer we could locate easily and enjoy on a whim.

World Market came to our rescue. Their “Make your own six pack” feature let us literally build a six pack of beer from six different countries at an affordable price. So we decided to try and then do a review of it. Here are the results.

The Competitors

There were six beers in the original six pack and we added one at the request of a friend. The beers and their countries are as follow: Beck’s (Germany), Foster’s (Australia), Asahi (Japan), Newcastle Brown Ale (UK), Moosehead (Canada), Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic) and Heineken Dark Lager (Netherlands).

There are three caveats with this list. First, though all of the beers are from the countries listed, not all of the beers are actual imports. Some are brewed in the U.S., Canada or other countries. In some cases import/export laws seem to make getting the import difficult so I had to work with what I had.

Second, there is a mix of beers, lagers and ales in the list. I know that isn’t a perfect apples-to-apples comparison because there are real differences but since they all sit on the same shelf of most stores, they go head to head in this competition.

Finally, this list is based almost completely on availability and whether they were new to us, not recommendations. Only Beck’s is on the list due to a recommendation and it is still the most widely available beer from Germany locally. So it still seemed worthy of inclusion.

As for the competition itself, the rules were simple. We, my wife and I, tried each beer. Whoever took the first sip though had to finish the bottle, no matter how bad. We jotted down some notes and waited a while before trying the next. Every beer had roughly the same refrigeration time and was consumed in roughly the same way.

With that being said, here are our thoughts, in order of how we rated them:

1. Asahi

Asahi was the surprise of the contest for me. Asahi was very smooth and easy to drink, even from the first sip. There was never a hint of bitterness or skunkiness. It was a very easy beer to swallow. I could see myself having one with dinner and continuing to sip on Asahis through the evening. It is a surprisingly strong beer in terms of alcohol content, well over 5%, but you’d never know it by taste.

This is truly a great beer for people that don’t like the taste of most beers or just want something they can sip without any problems.

2. Heineken Dark Lager

Regular Heineken is one of the cruelest jokes in all of beerdom. Crystal and I spent a week in the Netherlands and tried a glass of Heineken on tap. It was easily the best beer experience we had ever had. We came back to the states, thrilled with our discovery, picked up a six pack of bottles and could not believe how terrible it was. My Dutch friends think my optimism was hilarious and openly joke about the garbage they send to the U.S. This, despite the fact it is a truly imported beer.

The dark lager, however, was much better. It was very robust and thick, like a lager should be, but it didn’t have any of the acidic taste that most beers seem to have. The alcohol taste came through a bit more than with Asahi, but it was still a very pleasant experience over all. I could easily see drinking it if I were in the mood for something with a stronger flavor than Asahi and only wanted a few beers in a night.

3. Beck’s

Beck’s says right on the six pack that it is the most popular imported beer from Germany in the U.S. This makes me instantly question U.S. taste in beer. It’s not that Beck’s is bad, but that there are so many great German beers this one seems kind of ho-hum.

The beer isn’t as acidic or as skunky as other beers but didn’t have a lot of flavor either. It really seemed to run a fine line between repulsing me and making making me want more. It was the only beer in the test that we bought a full six pack of (the rest was in the mixed pack) and I was able to finish off the six pack over about a week’s time without suffering or complaining. Still, there are other beers I would much rather drink.

4. Pilsner Urquell

I really didn’t know what to expect with a Czech beer. It’s not exactly a country that is well-known for its beer and its not a country we had sampled from previously. Pilsner Urquell, however, a beer that beer-lovers seem to really enjoy, getting high reviews on Beer Advocate. For me though, the beer didn’t work nearly as well.

It wasn’t that it was a bad beer, though its initials quite humorously spell PU, it tasted like a much stronger beer than it was and seemed to have a stronger skunk flavor than the above beers and was more difficult to drink. The bottle was difficult to get down and, though it started off being “not too bad” it ended up being quite difficult toward the end. Where most beers on the list became more tolerable toward end of the bottle, this one somehow grew more stale and less drinkable. By the end, it was a real effort to finish the bottle.

5. Moosehead

When it came to Canadian beers, I choose poorly. Moosehead may be “proudly independent” but that’s likely only because no one wants to buy it. This was one of the few countries where I had multiple beers to choose from and it is my greatest regret.

Moosehead was a very skunky beer. It didn’t have much flavor either but somehow managed to pull down a strong aftertaste after every sip. It was a bottle that got somewhat better toward the bottom, but I mostly kept drinking to keep washing the aftertaste out of my mouth. The bottle was not enjoyable at all and the greatest accomplishment of this beer was not making either of us outright gag.

6. Newcastle Brown Ale

In June of last year I went to Newcastle, Uk, the home Newcastle Brown Ale. I spent a week there and never once did I see a local drink this ale. Not once. Myself, the locals and other conference goers stuck to other European bears, Stella Artois being the favorite at the hotel bar.

A quick fact about Newcastle Brown Ale is that the bridge depicted on the can/bottle is a bridge over the River Tyne in the city itself. What is less known, but became apparent after drinking the bottle, is that the ale tastes exactly like the bridge itself.

Newcastle Ale was a very dark, heavy and think beer with a very strong skunk flavor and a very bold, albeit disgusting, beer taste to it. It may be a fine ale for people that REALLY love beer, but for those that never developed a taste for it and just want a casual drink, it is anything but. For those that love beer, this is a fifth degree difficulty drink, for those that don’t love beer, it’s the fifth circle of Hell.

7. Foster’s

A friend of mine once quipped that Foster’s is Australian for Kangaroo Pee. If that’s the case, then I feel bad for the kanagroos as I have to wonder what horrible items they’ve been eating to make their pee taste that bad.

It isn’t just that Foster’s is bad. It’s the kind of bad that you compare unsuccessfully to other horrible events in your life. For example, I could see myself saying “Gee, having pancreatitis sucks, but it’s not nearly as bad as that bottle of Foster’s I was forced to drink thinks to a stupid idea for a column on my personal blog.”

Foster’s is like an acid wash going down your throat. It is overloaded with skunk flavor mixed with a bitter taste and an aftertaste that makes you want to wash your mouth out with rusty nails. Worse still, it’s a beer that gets worse with every sip down.

My hope is that Foster’s is a bit like Heineken, really good in Australia but disgusting in the U.S. Either that or, once again, the poor U.S. taste in beer has shown through and there are better beers to be found in the land down under. I would hate to think that this is the best the Aussies have to offer us.

This beer actually made me miss trying American beer.

Bottom Line

I’m in a real pickle right now. I like Asahi and, to a lesser degree, the Heineken Dark Lager, but neither are exactly beers that I would want to make my default. They’re both great special occasion beers, drinks that fit certain occasions.

We’ve continued the search for the time being with some mixed success. We’re going off of friend and family suggestions while also just taking a few stabs in the dark.

We’ll keep the hunt going and, in the meantime, I’ll probably enjoy an occasional bottle of Asahi…

  • http://www.eatingleeds.co.uk Alex

    Fosters is most definitely NOT the best beer Australia has to offer and I think you'd be hard pressed to find Australians who actually drink it. It's also mostly made under licence abroad. As the most important thing with beer is the water once the beer is made under licence then you're basically not drinking the beer (if that makes sense). There are plenty of well made Australian beers, such as Coopers, Little Creatures, James Boags and James Squires. However, judging from World Market's incredibly limited selection of Australian wine shown on the website, you might have to shop somewhere else to track down these beers.

    Pretty much the same thing goes for English beers. Newky Brown is not exactly representative of the diverse range of beers available in the UK. Most Stella in the UK (especially on draught) is actually brewed in the UK – so yet again not representative of the 'real' thing (imported Stella tends to be about 5.2%abv, the locally brewed stuff about 5%abv).

    I'm also not sure where you get the idea that the Czechs aren't known for their beers. At one stage (10th century) a law was passed sentencing anyone caught exporting hops (smuggling them out) from Bohemia to the death penalty. Czech hops remain some of the most highly prized and the country is home to some very exciting beers – try Budvar (which might be labelled Budweiser).

    Keep on experimenting as you're bound to find something you like – but I'd really try to stick to imports and not anything mass produced.

    Good luck!

  • http://www.plagiarismtoday.com Jonathan Bailey

    Thanks for the information and suggestions, I've jotted down some notes for the next time we head to the store, which will probably be tomorrow.

    I would love to tell you where the Foster's I got was brewed but I can't. Unlike the other six, I was so disgusted I forgot I was keeping the bottles. I'm glad to hear that it's not the best that Australia has to offer though, sadly, it is the only Aussie beer I can find locally with ease.

    I kind of knew what I was getting into with the Newcastle. I really expected it to be last on the list. When the locals talk trash about their own beer, you know it has to be bad. I did get to sample some other UK beers though I neglected to get or remember names (it was 2 am local time).

    Honestly, I was unaware of the Czech history with beer, that is interesting. When I think of beer countries I leap to Germany, Belgium, etc. Czech Republic never came up, that's fascinating, I learned something.

    We do plan to keep on experimenting though we need to go to the store and see what our next move is…

  • http://www.plagiarismtoday.com Jonathan Bailey

    Thanks for the information and suggestions, I've jotted down some notes for the next time we head to the store, which will probably be tomorrow.

    I would love to tell you where the Foster's I got was brewed but I can't. Unlike the other six, I was so disgusted I forgot I was keeping the bottles. I'm glad to hear that it's not the best that Australia has to offer though, sadly, it is the only Aussie beer I can find locally with ease.

    I kind of knew what I was getting into with the Newcastle. I really expected it to be last on the list. When the locals talk trash about their own beer, you know it has to be bad. I did get to sample some other UK beers though I neglected to get or remember names (it was 2 am local time).

    Honestly, I was unaware of the Czech history with beer, that is interesting. When I think of beer countries I leap to Germany, Belgium, etc. Czech Republic never came up, that's fascinating, I learned something.

    We do plan to keep on experimenting though we need to go to the store and see what our next move is…

  • http://www.plagiarismtoday.com Jonathan Bailey

    Thanks for the information and suggestions, I've jotted down some notes for the next time we head to the store, which will probably be tomorrow.

    I would love to tell you where the Foster's I got was brewed but I can't. Unlike the other six, I was so disgusted I forgot I was keeping the bottles. I'm glad to hear that it's not the best that Australia has to offer though, sadly, it is the only Aussie beer I can find locally with ease.

    I kind of knew what I was getting into with the Newcastle. I really expected it to be last on the list. When the locals talk trash about their own beer, you know it has to be bad. I did get to sample some other UK beers though I neglected to get or remember names (it was 2 am local time).

    Honestly, I was unaware of the Czech history with beer, that is interesting. When I think of beer countries I leap to Germany, Belgium, etc. Czech Republic never came up, that's fascinating, I learned something.

    We do plan to keep on experimenting though we need to go to the store and see what our next move is…

  • Rob Pendlenton

    Interested to read your comments about one of my favourite beers. As a Geordie expat i am obviously partial but as someone who has lived in Canada and SE Asia as well as the UK I have sampled my share of beer and have to say Broon is still one of my favourites. Brown Ale obviously can’t be compared to lagers as it actually tastes of something. Unlike most UK real ales however, it is rare in being best served chilled. In common with other brown ales, it has a lovely nutty malty flavour and lacks the bitterness of ‘bitter’. Don’t be put off by this review. I’m a local and drink it with relish. Americans are particularly fortunate – you are the only people who can get ‘The One & Only’ in draught form. We English can only get it bottles.