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Looking for domestic bliss in a bottle

By Keir Graff

JUNE 1, 1999:  Memorial Day, along with July 4th and Labor Day, is a holiday when it is every red-blooded American's right - nay, duty - to consume domestic beer. And Memorial Day is the most important of the three, signaling as it does the onrush of hot pavement and muggy breezes, ballpark-induced sick days and slothful siestas. It is a time to put away foolish beers, mocha stouts and berry weizens, and suck down a macro - its slender cylinder slathered with sweat, its precious goodness rendered so glacially cold you can hardly taste it.

Which brings me to my central conceit. I'm a whiskey drinker first; when I drink beer I like it dark and so thick it drools from the tap. On a hot day, I enjoy watery, domestic beers as much as anyone, but I have a hard time telling the difference between them - I order whatever's cheap. I've always scoffed at those who have a die-hard brand loyalty, believing their preferences to have been formed by ad campaigns.

So, to kick off the summer drinking season, I gave those very people the opportunity to prove me wrong by engaging in a domestic beer taste test. I chose three participants, whose names have been changed: a married couple, who we'll call "Bark" and "Barla"; and my wife, who we'll call "My Wife."

They were given three directives: 1) to guess which popular brand was which; 2) to delineate the finer points of each beverage's taste; and 3) to choose a favorite. I selected a few major brands readily available around the Chicago area: Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller High Life and Old Style. Thankfully, none of the subjects expressed a preference for lite beer. Just to keep the tasters on their toes, I threw in a couple of ringers, Coors and - to really test them - Grolsch. I chilled all beers to a uniform 40 degrees, though not for any scientific reason; that's just how cold our fridge is.

I informed the drinkers what the four primary beers would be, keeping the last two secret. When serving the beer, I poured into opaque plastic cups, each marked with only a letter. To make matters even more precise, each subject's letter denoted a different beer, to eliminate comparative gabbing. We didn't have the luxury of a double-blind test, but as all participants started sober, at least it wasn't a blind-drunk test, either. Between rounds, palates were cleansed with - what else? - pretzels.

Guessing, only Bark had a correct answer, divining that High Life was indeed High Life. More interesting, however, Barla guessed that Bud was MGD, her favorite quaff. Conversely, Bark thought MGD, also his favorite, was Bud. My Wife, who prefers High Life, had inconclusive guessing results.

Barla found Bud "a little bitter," while Bark said, "I think this is Old Style, just by the smell. Not a big fan of this one." Coors was "kind of watery" (Barla) and "smells very strange... has a hint of pine. I like it" (My Wife). Miller High Life grew on Barla after a few sips, while Bark said it was "much more flavorful" than the others. My Wife said, "I really like [High Life]. It's a good, basic beer."

Interestingly, Genuine Draft, the ostensible favorite of Barla and Bark, drew disdainful sniffs. "It's beer," said Barla. "I really don't have anything to say about it." Bark went so far as to call it "a little watery, probably Budweiser." My Wife offered that it was "kind of sweet." Fully Kraeusened Old Style was dubbed "a little bitter" (Barla) and "perfumey, almost floral," by My Wife.

Lastly, the Dutch ringer, Grolsch, was unanimously panned. "I really don't like this one," said Barla. "It tastes like skunky beer." With a shudder, Bark concurred. "[Grolsch] sucks, and a very powerful suck, too, I might add." My Wife recognized it as "the skunky one" and, inhaling deeply, went on: "Ahh, just like the great outdoors. This reminds me of car trips with my parents. Phee-yew."

The most interesting results? Barla chose Bud as her favorite, saying "I could drink this all day, especially at Wrigley"; perhaps she was influenced by the fact that she'd spent the previous day doing just that. Bark laughed at this until, sipping an unmasked MGD later, he realized, "Oh, I made fun of this stuff." My Wife settled on High Life as her favorite, though she'd guessed it was MGD. All three confirmed their patriotism by soundly rejecting Grolsch, the lone European entry.

Bark and Barla were good sports, taking their "new favorites" in stride, and saying they were more likely to experiment when they bought beer in the future. As for myself, I experimented long into the night with the leftovers in the fridge.


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