Premium beer reviews

Fancy a coldie? Our expert tasters rate 46 premium beers.
 
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  • Updated:30 Jul 2007
 

01 .Introduction

Premium-beer

Test results for 46 premium beers priced from $11 to $23 per six-pack

CHOICE got together a panel of experts (four men and two women) to taste the beers and recommend the ones you’re most likely to feel are worth the extra money. We also threw a few more questions at them:

  • Do women like the same beer as men?
  • Do exotic beers (known as ‘premium’ in the trade) taste better than your normal drop?
  • Is there really a difference between lager, pilsner and ale? When you buy ‘premium’ beer, is the premium on the taste or just on the price?
  • If you’re into trying more exotic beers, this article’s for you — use our experts’ advice to try beers you’ll probably like and avoid expensive disappointments.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2007 but is still a useful guide today.


Findings:

  • Our expert tasters came up with a CHOICE six-pack of top rating beers in a variety of styles - lagers, pilsners, ales and stouts.
  • Two mainstrem brews included for comparison (Victoria Bitter and Tooheys New) scored higher than plenty of more expensive premium beers.
  • Beer is best when it's fresh. CHOICE would like to see Aussie brewers be more upfront and tell you on the label when their beer was actually brewed.

Brands tested

  • Asahi
  • Becks
  • Bitburger
  • Bluetongue
  • Boddington's Pub Ale
  • Budweiser
  • Carlsberg
  • Cascade
  • Coopers
  • Corona
  • Crackenback
  • Crown Lager
  • Grolsch
  • Guinness
  • Haagen
  • Hahn
  • Heineken
  • Holsten
  • James Boags
  • James Squire
  • Kilkenny Irish Beer
  • Kokanee Glacier Beer
  • Little Creatures
  • Matilda Bay
  • Michelob Ultra
  • Peroni Nastro Azzuro
  • Pure Blonde
  • Red Stripe
  • San Miguel
  • Singha Thai Beer
  • Sol Beer
  • Stella Artois
  • Tiger Beer
  • Tooheys
  • Victoria Bitter
 
 

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What to buy

Lager

  • Hahn Premium Lager - $14.00
  • Kokanee Glacier - $23.00

Pilsener

  • Bluetongue Traditional Pilsener - $17.00

Ale

  • James Squire Golden Ale - $13.85
  • Little Creatures Bright - $19.00

Stout

  • Coopers Best Extra Stout - $15.00

Choice verdict

  • Following the experts’ recommendations is a good start, even if you might not always agree with them.
  • If you want to experiment more widely, look for premium beers on special to keep any disappointments cheap.
  • A high price certainly didn’t guarantee a better beer in this test. While the most expensive (Kokanee, $23 for a six-pack) rated very well, several other beers that cost us $18–$19 for six were well down the scores.

Hard to choose

There’s no shortage of different brews to try — one big retailer supplied us with a stock list of more than 700 premium and imported beers. Sadly, we couldn’t test them all. Also, many of the interesting craft beers are only sold locally, but they’re well worth a try when you find one from your area.

We tested 46 top-selling premium beers that you should be able to find at your local bottle shop. Eighteen are imported and 28 brewed in Australia. All up, our experts tasted 24 lagers, nine pilsners, 11 ales and two stouts. (For what distinguishes these different types or styles of beer, see Drinking in style.)

Australians are certainly heading upmarket with their beer and drinking more imported stuff, not to mention local craft beers with names like ‘Bluetongue’ and ‘Dogbolter’. While plenty of people are happy with the old standard brews, a good-sized minority of both men and women are experimenting with their tastebuds (at a cost to their wallets).

Results table

  Results
Brand (in rank order within groups) Score out of 20 Origin Alcohol content (%) Bottle / can size (mL) Price per six-pack ($)
Lager
Hahn Premium Lager 16.5 Australia 5.0 330 14.00
Kokanee Glacier 16.5 Canada 5.0 355 23.00
Peroni Nastro Azzuro 16 Italy 5.1 330 14.00
Pure Blonde 16 Australia 4.6 355 13.00
Asahi Superdry 15.5 Thailand 5.0 330 19.00
Budweiser 15.5 USA 4.9 355 15.00
Coopers Premium Lager 15.5 Australia 5.0 375 13.00
Holsten Premium 15.5 Germany 5.0 330 13.00
James Boags Premium Lager 15.5 Australia 5.0 375 16.00
Tooheys New 15.5 Australia 4.6 375 11.00
Victoria Bitter 15.5 Australia 4.9 375 11.00
Carlsberg 15 Australia 5.0 330 16.00
Tooheys Extra Dry 15 Australia 5.0 345 12.00
Cascade Premium Lager 14.5 Australia 5.2 375 16.00
Grolsch Premium Lager 14.5 Holland 5.0 330 17.00
Haagen Premium Malt 14.5 Australia 5.0 330 11.00
Heineken Lager 14.5 Australia 5.0 330 15.00
Tiger 14.5 Singapore 5.0 330 18.00
Corona Extra 14 Mexico 4.6 330 14.95
Crown Lager 14 Australia 4.9 375 16.00
Red Stripe Lager 14 Jamaica 4.7 355 19.00
Singha Thai 14 Thailand 5.8 330 14.00
Steinlager 14 NZ 5.0 330 12.00
Michelob Ultra 13.5 USA 4.2 355 12.00
Sol 12 Mexico 4.5 330 15.00
Pilsner
Bluetongue Traditional Pilsner 16.5 Australia 4.5 330 17.00
Becks (local) 15.5 Australia 5.0 330 19.60
James Squire Pilsener 15.5 Australia 5.0 345 16.00
San Miguel Pale Pilsen 15.5 Phillipines 5.0 355 13.90
Becks (imported) 15 Germany 5.0 330 15.00
Stella Artois 15 Australia 5.2 330 14.95
Matilda Bay Bohemian Pilsner 13 Australia 4.7 345 14.85
Bitburger Premium 11.5 Germany 4.8 330 14.00
Little Creatures Pilsner 11.5 Australia 4.6 330 19.00
Ale
James Squire Golden Ale 17 Australia 4.5 345 13.85
Little Creatures Bright 17 Australia 4.5 330 19.00
Crackenback Pale Ale 16.5 Australia 4.9 330 19.00
Little Creatures Pale Ale 16.5 Australia 5.2 330 19.00
James Squire Amber Ale 16 Australia 5.0 345 13.85
Barons Extra Special Bitter 15 Australia 4.7 330 16.00
Cascade Pale Ale 14.5 Australia 5.0 375 11.85
Coopers Sparkling Ale 14.5 Australia 5.8 375 14.00
Coopers Original Pale Ale 13 Australia 4.5 375 13.00
Boddington's Pub Ale 12.5 England 4.7 440 14.00 (A)
Kilkenny Irish 12.5 Ireland 4.3 330 15.00
Stout
Coopers Best Extra Stout 17 Australia 6.3 375 15.00
Guinness Draught 15.5 Ireland 4.2 440 16.00
 

Table notes

Price per six-pack: This is based on prices we paid in discount bottle shops in Sydney in April 2007, but specials come up regularly in bottle shops, so that’s the best time to try a new beer.
(A) Price for a pack of four cans.

How we tested

  • Our six experts tasted the beers in groups according to style (lager, pilsner, ale or stout). They didn’t know which beer they were tasting, only its style.
  • Each expert gave each beer a score out of 20, based on the system used in the Australian International Beer Awards: 3 for appearance, 6 for aroma, 8 for flavour and body and 3 for technical quality. A score of 17 or over would win a gold medal, 15.5 to 16.5 a silver and 14 to 15 a bronze.
  • The score printed in the table is the experts’ consensus score reached after the tasting, when they discussed the beers and their individual scores, still without knowing what the beers were. It’s usually the average of their individual scores.

Do women like different beers from men? It seems not. Our two female experts told us they considered and tasted the beers in the same way as the men, and their scores didn’t stand out as different. As well, our lay panel was 50% female and statistically their overall scores were no different from the men’s.

The biggest loser?

Is beer fattening? Of course it is if you sink too many, but it’s less fattening than plenty of other drinks. On average, a 375 mL glass or bottle of lager gives you 580 kJ — a lot less than you’d get from a Mojito (about 950 kJ) or a Vodka Cruiser (about 850 kJ per 275 mL bottle).

Low-carb beers, such as Pure Blonde and Michelob Ultra, can be marginally less fattening, but regular beer is only about 2% carbs anyway. Most of the flab-forming kilojoules come from the alcohol. If you’re worried about a beer gut, you’re better off going for low-alcohol beer — or cutting out alcohol altogether!

What about the average punter?

It may (or may not) surprise you that the experts rated the two mainstream beers included in the test (Victoria Bitter and Tooheys New) higher than many of the more expensive imported beers. Full marks to the brewers of these standard drops for producing quality beers at an affordable price.

Many regular beer drinkers would probably agree, but the experts are trained to ignore personal preferences and judge the beers on quality alone.

So, how do the rest of the experts' scores relate to the preferences of ordinary beer drinkers?

To find out, we recruited 10 non-experts (five men and five women) who just enjoy a good beer. We gave them 18 of the beers to taste (10 lagers, four pilsners and four ales) — beers the experts thought were particularly good or bad, and a few in between.

Their verdict?

  • Our lay beer buffs generally favoured the same beers as the experts, with one notable exception — most of the non-experts liked Little Creatures Pilsner, while the experts gave it the equal lowest score in the test.

Drinking in style

All beer starts off with four basic ingredients:

  • Water
  • Malted grain (usually barley)
  • Hops (for bitterness, flavour and aroma)
  • Yeast (to ferment the malt)

From these four ingredients (once only three — hops were first included just a few hundred years ago), and since the time of the pharaohs, brewers all over the world have created a vast number of different styles of beer. But there are still just two basic types: lagers and ales.

  • Lagers are fermented with a yeast that works at cold temperatures, relatively slowly and at the bottom of the vat (‘bottom-fermented’). This type of deep fermentation allows the flavours of the malt and hops to come out.
  • Pilsners are lagers with more intense hop flavours.
  • Ales have more intense, complex and fruity flavours that come largely from top-fermenting yeast that works quickly at near room temperature. They’re matured for a shorter period than lagers.
  • Stouts are darker ales made from malt that’s been roasted at higher temperatures than for lagers and ales. This gives stouts a deep, rich colour and fuller flavour.

04.Fresh is best plus meet the experts

 

Fresh is best

Beer is best drunk fresh, so if you’ve enjoyed drinking a European or American beer in its homeland, you may be disappointed by its taste once it has journeyed here on a container ship.

On average, the imported beers in this test scored below the local brews; the imported Becks even scored lower than the Australian-produced version, which seems to bear out the freshness argument. But that’s not to say you won’t find some impressive imported beers if they’ve been stored and handled well and aren’t too old — Kokanee Glacier Beer from Canada was equal top for lagers, and Peroni Nastro Azzuro from Italy equal second.

The labels could be more helpful
Labels can be strong on brewmaster babble:

  • “Brewed in a traditional best bitter style with a fine balance of noble hop character and smooth malt undertones.”
  • “Brewed with pale pilsener malt and a late gift of imported Hersbrucker hops.” And so on...

But most brands don’t give you any indication of how fresh the beer is.

Beer goes stale within three to six months of bottling. Most brands have a best-before date stamped on the bottle (though it’s sometimes very hard to find). The mainstream Australian brewers have agreed on a date nine months after bottling. Most beers in this test still had more than six months to go when we bought them.

But a few brands had no date at all (only a coded batch number) and Coopers had only an unhelpful ‘best-after’ date.

The big US brewer Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser and Michelob) tells you on the label when the beer was brewed. Why can’t Aussie brewers be as upfront?

Buying tips

  • Buy the freshest beer you can. Get it from a bottle shop with a fast turnover, and look for best-before dates (for those bottles that carry them) with the longest time still to run, preferably at least six months.
  • Don’t get your brew from the glass-fronted fridges in bottle shops, especially if it’s a beer that comes in clear glass bottles. Exposure to light causes a chemical reaction that gives the beer an off flavour that Americans call ‘skunky’. (In this test, Sol and Corona Extra came in clear glass bottles, and neither scored well.)
  • Remember that beer is a perishable commodity. Treat it as you would milk — keep it somewhere cool and dark, and don’t wait too long before you drink it; as if you needed any encouragement ...

Meet the experts

Cheers to our expert tasters, who did an outstanding job (pictured from left to right):

  • Geoff Skurray, Professor of Oenology, University of Western Sydney
  • Nicola Rimmer, Brewer, Tooheys
  • Paul Rogers, wine lawyer and lecturer, University of Western Sydney
  • Caroline Aspridis, Draught Operations Manager, Fosters Australia
  • Franklin Lucarotti, Malt Shovel Brewery
  • Peter Aldred, Course Coordinator for the Graduate Diploma of Brewing, School of Science and Engineering, University of Ballarat