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Taste-testing organic beer

This suds for you: Taste-testing organic beer:
By Ted Alvarez

Stay glassy: What fancy beer tasting parties look like (not ours). (Photo by Cambridge Brewing Co.)
Beer — It’s what’s for dinner.
No, seriously: It sounds like a party T-shirt for bleary-eyed frat boys, but by now we all know Mesopotamians created beer at the
dawn of civilization to help stretch their cereal crops, and perhaps to help get them smashed while watching the game. The point is, beer is closer to food than practically any other liquid, and we should treat it as such and ingest only the best. Thankfully, the craft brewers driving the malted beverage industry get this, and the ingredient quality and variety of domestic beers is arguably higher than it’s been in a century.
Photo by Cambridge Brewing Co.But while organic beer sales are on the rise overall, they remain a minuscule portion of the market. (Blame hops and barley: Organic versions of these key ingredients are often in short supply and expensive.) Colorado’s New Belgium just announced plans to phase out their Mothership Wit, one of the more high-profile organic beers on the market, because of declining sales. Most specialty stores carry only a handful of organic brews, and a fact-finding mission to a Seattle’s Bottleworks bore this out. This is no fluorescent-lit liquor mart stacked with cubes of Natty Light, mind you. It’s more like a wood-trimmed, darkened library of beer, complete with hushed acolytes poring (pouring) over sacred chilled texts. Even here, an otherwise knowledgeable sales associate admitted no one had ever asked specifically for organic beers before. Nevertheless, he deemed the idea “cool” and helped me scour the archives looking for telltale green stickers on frosty bottles.
In the end, I came away with eight organic brews — comparable results to those of past Grist Beer High Priest (GBHP) Tom Philpott, who valiantly braved the malted seas on three separate occasions. Where Philpott convened a panel of experts with refined palates in genteel “temples of flavor,” I chose to taste-test beer as it is typically consumed: among bitter coworkers, straining to bear each other’s company at the end of a long day. (I kid, but come on — it was a Tuesday.)
Herewith, the results of Grist’s first staff organic beer blind taste test, completely scientific and recorded in the office kitchen. In ascending order of preference:
Samuel Smith Organic Lager

Samuel Smith Brewery, Yorkshire, England

Price: $3.99/18.6 oz.

Rating: 5.2
This old veteran of Grist organic beer tastings took a drubbing this time, and mediocrity seemed to be its chief sin. “I forgot it as soon as I started drinking it,” said one nonplussed staffer, while others proclaimed it “nondescript,” “unremarkable,” and “undistinguished.” One taster praised its malty aroma and subtle fruit, but overall response echoed one staffer’s most damning remark: “zzzzzzzzzz.”

Pinkus Mueller Munster Alt

Brauerei Pinkus Mueller, Munster, Germany

Price: $3.99/16.9 oz.

Rating: 5.4
A long German pedigree (the brewery opened in 1866) couldn’t save Pinkus’s Munster Alt from this kiss of death: “Tastes domestic. Yuck.” “Yeah, like PBR,” concurred another taster. Others compared it to “lite beer,” said it tasted like “rubber,” and noted it “smells funny.” A few liked its smooth character and clean, crisp finish, but Pinkus’s Munster Alt earned few committed fans.

Georg Schneider Edel-Weisse

Weisses Bräuhaus G. Schneider & Sohn, Kelheim, Germany

Price: $4.99/16.9 oz.

Rating: 6.1
Tasters were split to extremes on this weisse beer, with haters comparing it to a “menthol cigarette” and lovers comparing it to a “menthol cigarette.” A few drinkers swooned over the strong clove flavor, aroma, and finish; others admired this character while conceding they “couldn’t finish a whole beer.” Grassy “herb” notes drove some to call out its “minty weirdness — a.k.a. it’s complex,” while others praised the beer’s “hoptastic” moments and said “it’s got a beautiful, Belgian-yeast thing going on … it’s spicy and quite tasty.” Ultimately, tasters distanced themselves from the Schneider when it made one tester’s “face go totally angry-viking.” To sum up: “Interesting at first, then it got kinda weird.”

Pinkus Mueller Hefe-Weizen

Brauerei Pinkus Mueller, Munster, Germany

Price: $3.99/16.9 oz.

Rating: 6.2
Pinkus redeemed itself with their hefe-weizen, a “crisp and refreshing” summer beer that brought “little apple notes” and “lemony goodness” to a dreary Seattle day. A fruity nose, light head, and tangy aftertaste kept tasters lingering over the glass, while another scorer gave it the dubious praise of having a “hint of [Miller] High Life.” Caveat: Our most seasoned tester called it “thin and a tad sour,” and one confused tester said it “tastes like someone’s concept of beer and also not like beer at all.”

Pinkus Mueller Jubilate

Brauerei Pinkus Mueller, Munster, Germany

Price: $3.99/16.9 oz.

Rating: 6.7
Pinkus continued face-saving with Jubilate, a dunkel lager flush with “warm, buttery” notes of bourbon and caramel. Tasters praised the burnt amber color and appreciated the creamy head and mildly bitter bite at the finish. One tester enthusiastically hailed it as one of the best beers he’d ever had, while another offered a semi-schizo “pretty good! not the best!” Jubilate’s appeal could be limited, as one tester noted, “[It's] good, but not an everyday beer.”

Organic IPA

Eel River Brewing, Fortuna, Calif.

Price: $1.66/12 oz.

Rating: 7.0
An organic take on English IPAs, multiple testers reacted positively to “dill pickle” flavors. “I can taste Cascade hops — we’re definitely on this side of the Atlantic,” noted one taster correctly. “It’s my kind of beer!” Hop fiends stayed happy, noting they would “happily drink this with a burger,” but hop-haters found it too bitter, too hoppy, and too watery. One tester excused herself from evaluation, saying simply, “me drunk.”

Organic Pale Ale

Butte Creek Brewing, Ukiah, Calif.

Price: $1.66/12 oz.

Rating: 7.4
All-organic California brewery Butte Creek came in strong with the “super-awesome, apricot-like deliciousness” of their flagship Organic Pale Ale. Testers praised a “fuller body,” “notes of apricot,” and the orange aftertaste, while another fan dug the “butterscotch hop flavor.” Even the hop-averse declared it “smooth and not soapy at all,” “tasty,” and “hoppy but not too hoppy.” A lone detractor compared the beer to “shoe leather,” but most thought this beer “interesting in a good (as opposed to weird) way.”

Oatmeal Stout

Fish Tale, Olympia, WA

Price: $1.50/12 oz.

Rating: 7.9
Home-court advantage paid off for Fish Tale Oatmeal Stout: It wowed judges with its “hella dark” brown hue and “smooth, full, chocolatey” flavor. One seasoned beer drinker called it a “lovely, well-balanced” stout, and another declared it “molasses-tastic.” Even light-ale cravers called it “delish” and “not as bitter as I thought — like I spilled coffee in my beer.” Highest praise: “I could totally sip this until I could walk no more.” “Is there any left?”

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