Published April 1, 2005. Web Exclusive.
We tasted seven beers which claim an Irish pedigree to determine if Guinness, the most famous, is also the best. The answer was both yes and no.
America's Test Kitchen is located in Brookline, Mass., just outside of Boston. With that Irish connection, how could we not choose to honor St. Patrick's Day with a special tasting? We surveyed our staff and received an enthusiastic vote to celebrate the day with a tasting of Irish beers.
To select our tasting lineup, we narrowed our choices not only to beers with an Irish heritage but to readily available beers—those sold in cans or bottles at the liquor store. Once we acquired our seven candidates, we needed to make certain that we were comparing similar types. There are a large variety of beers, but most fall into one of two general categories—lagers and ales.
Lager differs from ale in both fermentation technique and aging. Lager is bottom fermented—the yeasts are in the bottom of the barrel. It is a moderately hopped beer that is aged under refrigeration for six weeks to six months. Most lagers are fairly light in color, are highly carbonated, and have a light to medium hop flavor. Worldwide, lagers are far more popular than ales. In the United States, most of the beers consumed are lagers such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller.
Ale, by contrast, is top fermented—the yeasts are floated on top of the liquid—and it is aged at room temperature for only a short while. Since they can be made easily and quickly, ales became especially popular in the British Isles, where pubs historically made their own proprietary ale on site. Ales generally have a stronger hop flavor than lagers, but there are numerous types of ale, ranging in taste and body from quite light, with a taste similar to that of lager, to quite dark, with a heavy, strong, and roasted flavor. Stouts are the strongest of the ales, very dark to black, with the color coming from roasted barley.
We brought 16 tasters around a table, supplied them with glasses of water, and asked them to first sample the beers in the lager/light ale category and then the stouts. We asked them to rate each beer, identify characteristic aromas and flavors, and to pick a favorite from each group as well as an overall favorite.
We found only moderate differences in the ratings for each beer. Each one had both strong proponents and a few detractors. Overall, our tasters had a preference for the stouts; but, as several said, stouts are almost a meal in themselves, and lagers are easier to drink with food.