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Mexican Lagers

Published January 2015

How we tested

When a southwestern or Mexican-inspired recipe calls for beer, our instinct is to reach for a Mexican lager. While developing our Cook's Illustrated recipe for our Drunken Beans, we decided to give this category a closer look. We narrowed the lineup to the four best-selling imported Mexican lagers (priced from $7.69 to $9.69 for six 12-ounce bottles) and then sampled them plain (after all, we’d likely be investing in a six-pack, plus recipes rarely call for more than a cup) and in our Cook's Illustrated Drunken Beans.

All four lagers were developed at Mexican breweries and continue to be brewed there, but big-name marketing and distribution companies based in Europe now own them all. (Heineken, for example, owns two of the four in our lineup.) They’re also often classified as American Adjunct Lagers. Technically, any ingredient beyond those used in traditional German brewing—water, yeast, barley, and hops—is considered an unessential, or adjunct, ingredient, rice and corn being the most common. While these grains can be used to enhance the beer’s flavor, body, and aroma (corn in particular imbues beer with a crisp, refreshing flavor and subtle sweetness), they can also be used to cut costs. All four lagers in our lineup use corn.

All four Mexican lagers were straw colored and light bodied. The best beers of the group had a crisp, clean, lingering bitterness, while the lowest-ranking one had decent fizz but little flavor, “like a bland champagne.” In Drunken Beans the playing field leveled off a bit; all but one performed acceptably well (the most “watery” brew lacked balance, delivering beans that tasted too boozy).

Finally, we compared our favorite Mexican lager with our go-to mild lager, Budweiser (also an adjunct lager, made with rice). There was a clear difference. Tasted plain, Budweiser was deemed “fruitier” and “sweeter,” yet still “weak” in both flavor and body compared with our imported favorite. In the beans, Bud contributed a one-note sweetness that was underwhelming compared with our favorite import. Deemed “off-dry but not sweet,” with “mild bitterness on the finish,” our winner offers nice complexity and balance. We’ll grab a six-pack for cooking up a batch of beans or simply for serving at our next taco night.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*