Irish Beer | Cook's Illustrated
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Irish Beer

Published April 2005

How we tested

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.

Test Results

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.

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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.)*