Consumer Reports, in its June issue, says the very best mass-marketed beer in America is . . . Old Milwaukee.
This makes sense -- if the Old Milwaukee had been delivered to the tasters by Learjet, while competitors' brews were placed in blinding sunlight for several years. "In that case, yes, Old Milwaukee would rank at the top," says James Lileks, a Minneapolis writer who ranks beers on his World Wide Web home page.
"This is equivalent to Underwriters Laboratories saying that plunging toasters into the bath water while they're still plugged in constitutes a wise understanding of consumer safety," Lileks says.
"You're kidding!" says a barkeep at the Brickskeller, a Northwest bar that stocks 700 brands of beer.
"Well, taste is subjective," says Brickskeller owner Maurice Coja. Mass-market U.S. beers "are made to be as inoffensive as humanly possible. If you're judging 'em that way, Old Milwaukee makes sense."
The notion that Old Milwaukee -- previously considered cheap, easily available and not the first choice of the employed -- might be one of the best beers in the land raised some eyebrows even at Stroh Brewery Co., which makes this thin swill -- uh, this finely fermented elixir.
"I'm sure there are some skeptics, but once they see this ranking, people may go back and try it again," says Lacey Logan, spokesman for the brewery, whose Stroh's brand won second place in the Consumer Reports test.
Now hold on: This is, after all, Consumer Reports, where testing is rigorous and honesty unquestionable. Rana Arons, spokeswoman for the magazine, says 17 panelists, all with academic training in matters of ale, blind-tested 69 kinds of beer, among them 14 mass-market brands. Many of them hold advanced degrees, including several PhDs in fermentation science.
The testers tasted each beer five times, ranking each brew for 30 qualities. Arons says they did not swallow.
"It doesn't matter to us what the results are," Arons says. "We take no advertising. We asked only if it had a good beer taste, if it had all the components of a good beer."
According to the magazine, "The ideal beer would be fresh, full-bodied, clean-tasting and refreshing. Many imported beers tend to be somewhat heavy and bitter. Americans tend to prefer smooth, rather bland brews."
Old Milwaukee, the nation's 10th-best-selling beer, was judged against Miller High Life, Budweiser, Schlitz, Stroh's, Schmidt's, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors and other such mass-market beers. Consumer Reports says Old Milwaukee is -- with the exception of Scotch Buy, the Safeway house brand -- the cheapest beer in the land, averaging $1.69 a six-pack.
(In other categories, the testers chose Samuel Adams Boston Ale as the best craft ale, Brooklyn Brand as best craft lager, Michelob Light as best light beer, Sharp's as best non-alcoholic brew, and Molson Golden as best import.)
Old Milwaukee, advertised as the beer that "tastes as good as its name," doesn't spend much on marketing, Logan says, and thus can be sold for less than the big brands manufactured by Anheuser-Busch and Miller. Skeptics might argue that minimal advertising may be a wise decision because of the raw truth of that slogan, which so effectively calls to mind the decay of a post-industrial city.
Until now, Consumer Reports' top-ranked brand was known mostly as the one to buy when you're having a great, great many more than one. "It tastes like licking a hologram," says Lileks. "The best thing you can say about it is that the cans are easily crushed."
Beer experts scoffed at the Consumer Reports conclusions. "We don't put a lot of stock in taste tests," Benj Steinman of Beer Marketer's Insights told the Associated Press. "They're still just individual people's opinions."
Was this a wise move for the trusted consumer guide? If readers disagree with the beer rankings, could this raise questions about the Consumer Reports mission? Perhaps the magazine should devote itself exclusively to measuring decibel levels on vacuum cleaners and sniffing the exhaust from the latest line of minivans.
"It's important to remember, we don't ever evaluate performance," spokeswoman Arons says. "We don't ask people what they like. This is a scientific evaluation of the components of beer."