Witty Beers. And Bud Light???
I didn’t intend to write this up. After all, it’s The Local Beet, right? And I couldn’t come up with a local angle. Unless you consider a beer brewed in St. Louis to be sufficiently local. Apparently Editor-at-Large Rob Gardner thinks it is.
Here’s the story:
I got off the phone with Budweiser.
I didn’t call the company – he (Bud’s rep) called me. (Stupidly, I forgot to get his name. I’ll call him Budman.)
Maybe a bit more background is in order. I have a fair amount of experience in the advertising business. In that biz, there’s a relatively fine line between actual claims, which require adequate substantiation, and puffery, under which you say almost anything if there’s no solid way to disprove it.
For reasons completely unbeknownst to me, I found myself sucking down a Bud Light Golden Wheat. Budweiser claims the beer has “huge flavor,” and goes on to explain on its website. “That bold flavor comes from citrus and a hint of coriander, brewed with Golden Wheat for a refreshing new taste.” Huh? That’s an apt description of a Belgian-style witbier – a style that dates back to the 11th century or so. Maybe Budweiser has hired a paleontologist to write ad copy. Only a paleontologist could consider something from the 11th century to be “new.” There’s an awful lot of puffery there.
My mischievous side got the best of me. I left a note on the website saying I must have gotten a bad batch, because no matter how hard I looked, there was no huge flavor to be found in this beer. Maybe Budweiser could tell me where to look for it? Other than a slight hint of citrus, the only flavors I could find were best described as “watery” and “insipid.”
A couple of days later, the call from Budweiser came.
Budman was very nice. Budman wanted to be helpful. And I give Budweiser a lot of credit for the concern, and the followup with a personal phone call.
Budman wanted to know if I’d prepared the beer properly before opening it – did I roll the bottle on its side to distribute the yeast, as suggested on the bottle? (I had, although that’s a technique more usually associated with German Hefeweizens, not Belgian-style witbiers.) Did I drink it at the proper temperature? (Yes, I let it warm up for almost an hour after coming out of the refrigerator.) Was the proper glass used? (I drank it from a tulip-shaped glass – better to collect the aromas before drinking.)
Budman said, in his opinion, Bud Light Golden Wheat has just as much flavor as Hoegaarden, the quintessential witbier (which Anheuser-Busch distributes), brewed by Brouwerij van Hoegaarden, in Hoegaarden, Belgium. He asked me to give BLGW another chance.
So I did. I purchased a six-pack of Bud Light Golden Wheat. I also purchased a six-pack of Hoegaarden Original White Ale. Then for additional perspective, I bought two other American versions of witbier – Allagash White (from Portland, Maine) and Blue Moon Belgian White (from Golden, Colorado – hmmmm, any idea what the company behind this beer might be?)
Then I had my FDC (Frequent Drinking Companion) over, to set up a blind tasting for me. I tried them all, side-by-side, along with a version of the style I’d made myself. Admittedly, my palate isn’t specifically beer-trained, like some people I know. But I know what I like. And my FDC has a good palate, too … sometimes I think her palate is almost as sharp as her tongue.
Maybe the fact that the tasting took place in Evanston qualifies as the local angle?
from left, Bud Light Golden Wheat, Allagash White, mine, Hoegaarden, and … well, heck — you can read the labels. I’m not reading them all for you.
So five beers were set before me, randomly ordered A through E. All were served at 42° in identical red wine glasses (not great for chugging, but excellent for discerning the subtleties of beers’ aromas and flavors). All beers were rolled in their bottles, to help distribute the natural yeasts that usually settle to the bottom of the bottles.
For the record, the witbier style is known for its aromas and flavors coming from wheat, Belgian yeasts, bitter orange and coriander, but not much hops presence. It should have a reasonably light color, and a cloudy appearance, in part from the use of unmalted wheat.
Upon starting the tasting, I could see that all were appropriately cloudy, and seemed to have comparable degrees of carbonation. But in the end, there was a remarkable dichotomy – two had faint, muddy flavors, while three were much more interesting and complex — clearly, much better beers.
I wish it had come out differently. I wanted to be surprised. Perhaps find a diamond in the rough. As it was, it came out almost exactly as I would have predicted.
Following are summaries of my notes (while reading along, you can guess which notes might correspond to which beers). Again, the beers, in alphabetical order: Allagash White, Blue Moon, Bud Light Golden Wheat, Hoegaarden, and, um, mine:
A – A light amber color, not much head. A slightly caramel, maybe musty aroma, with a slight touch of citrus. The mustiness and muted citrus continued though to the flavors.
B – Similar light amber color, also little head. A faint citrus aroma, although it opened up and became slightly more citrusy as it sat for a few minutes. Flavors were initially sharp, then somewhat rounded. A marginally better beer than A.
C – Color lighter than the first two; somewhere between amber and yellow. Straw? A bit of head retention. Good citrusy, spicy aroma, which followed through in the flavor, full of citrus and accented by a slight pepperiness. Way better than the first two.
D – Slightly lighter in color than C. More head retention than any of the others. A bright yeasty, citrusy aroma, although different from C – maybe more bitter orange? Flavor was very complex, slightly bitter (in a good way), with definite coriander supplementing the citrus. As good as C, but with a different personality.
E – Yellowish, lightest in color of the five. Pretty good head retention. A slightly strange aroma – citrus for sure, but maybe with a staleness about it? Flavor was also complex, maybe with a hint of grapefruit along with the spice.
So, I guessed at what each beer might be. My guesses:
A – I guessed it was Bud Light Golden Wheat. Yeah. The requisite elements of a witbier were there, but they were all muted and muddled. A drinkable beer on its own, but the last of the five I’d want to drink if I had other choices.
B – I guessed it was Blue Moon. Slightly better than A, but not really much going for it.
C – I guessed it was mine. The pepperiness was the clue. I added grains of paradise to my brew, which is an unusual, but not unheard-of, ingredient in witbiers.
D – I guessed it was Allagash White. It was almost a tie between D and E. But the fresher taste of D pushed me to guess Allagash.
E – I guessed it was Hoegaarden. An excellent beer, but the slight staleness in the flavor made me guess it might have endured a ship ride across the Atlantic.
Then came the reveal. Here’s what the beers’ actual identities were:
A=Bud Light Golden Wheat; B=Blue Moon; C=Mine; D=Allagash White; E= Hoegaarden
I had really hoped that I’d miss at least one. That would have been far more credible. But, faithful readers, I must bring you absolute truth. I totally nailed ‘em. Damn, I’m good. FDC pretty much agreed with my evaluations, but she knew which beer was which from the start. She’s good, too.
The results were pretty much in agreement with the ratings on ratebeer.com (based on the percentile of all beers rated):
Bud Light Golden Wheat, 10
Blue Moon, 46
Allagash White, 89
For the record, all beers were purchased at Binny’s in Skokie. Prices were:
Bud Light Golden Wheat, $6.99/six-pack, or $1.16 per bottle
Blue Moon, $8.99/six-pack, or $1.50 per bottle
Allagash White, $8.99/four-pack, or $2.25 per bottle
Hoegaarden, $9.49/six-pack, or $1.58/bottle
All were in either 12 oz. or 1/3 liter bottles.
In retrospect, I probably should have included a local beer or two, like Bell’s Winter White (80 from ratebeer.com) or Goose Island’s Sofie (94 from ratebeer.com). Technically, Sofie is classified as a Saison, not a witbier, but it’s close. Pete Crowley at Rock Bottom in Chicago also makes an excellent witbier from time to time. I’m sure I’m missing other good local wits.
The irony is that the Bud and Coors (Blue Moon) products probably outsell Allagash and Hoegaarden (and Sofie) by many orders of magnitude. But I’ll keep up hope that they’ll serve as gateway beers. Miller Lite drinkers might start to think “Hey, there might be some better beers out there; maybe I’ll try one of these Belgian-style beers.” And that could lead to telling friends “Maybe you should try a real craft-brewed witbier.” One can only dream.
So, I found the huge flavor. It was in the Hoegaarden. It was in the Allagash White. It wasn’t in the Bud Light Golden Wheat, though. Sorry, Budweiser. Will you still send me the Hoegaarden T-shirt you promised me?