THE GREAT AMERICAN Pre-Fourth of July microbrewery taste-off this year produced interesting results but no clear-cut winner. The real victory was for this country's expanding group of small breweries -- and a couple of big ones -- that are making wonderful beer. It is not cheap, but then neither is imported beer, and these rival and often surpass imports in quality.

The average bottle cost slightly more than $1 (unfortunately some retailers set prices considerably above that). There were no bad beers out of the 20 tasted, and any of them would make you proud. They were, in order of tasting: Chesbay Gold (Virginia Beach); Newman's Albany Amber (Albany, N.Y.); Anchor Wheat Beer (San Francisco); Erlanger Marzen Bier (Stroh's, from all over); Anchor Steam Beer; Saranac (Utica, N.Y.); Sierra Nevada Summer Festbier (Chico, Calif.); New Amsterdam (Utica); Samuel Adams (Boston); Thousand Oaks Cable Car Classic Lager (San Francisco); Anchor Liberty Ale; Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale; Boulder Extra Pale Ale (Boulder, Colo.); Thousand Oaks Golden Gate Malt Liquor, and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale. There was also a bock beer from Augsburger (Monroe, Wis.), and four porters -- from Yuengling (Pottsville, Pa.), Boulder, Anchor and Sierra Nevada.

The all-American tasting panel was made up of a sampling of palates, male and female, and there was much disagreement. Preference tended toward lighter (no "light" beers, please!) and less malty renditions that might go down better in the hot sun. Consequently, the porters and some phenomenal ales may have been slighted.

Among the first 10 beers tasted, the Sierra Nevada Summer Festbier won by a narrow margin over Albany Amber. The former has a fruity quality that may have given it an edge over hoppier renditions in this flight; the latter had a good nose and some hoppiness, and was light in body. Strong recommendations were also made for New Amsterdam ("The beer to have on a desert island"); Samuel Adams ("Great nose and body"); and Anchor's Steam and Wheat beers ("Good body, hoppy" and "Clean and bright").

Among the five ales, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale took first, and Anchor Liberty Ale second. All were quite good, and Sierra Nevada's Big Foot Ale -- in fact, a malted "barley wine" with a tremendous kick -- belonged in a class by itself. One taster called it "the Arnold Schwarzenegger of beers." I recommend drinking it with a roast or barbecued ribs.

Another subcategory evolved that is best described as "fruity" beers. "Apricot" and "mango" applied to the smell and taste, "lush" to the body. Thousand Oaks' Cable Car and Golden Gate both belonged there, and so did the Sierra Nevada Summer Festbier, in my opinion. My favorite porter, Anchor, was very close in style to the winning Sierra Nevada, with a thick head, good toasted malt flavor and great body. Such rich beer is not everybody's favorite at noon on the Fourth of July, but it's hard to imagine better company on a summer night in the hammock.

Most of these beers can be found at Berose Liquors, Rex Liquors and Wide World of Wines.