I’m already steeling myself for the inevitable fallout from this post. If the amount of flack and incensed comments I’ve received from my posts deriding the Redd’s family of “ales” is any indication, I’m bound to suffer a deluge for the denigration I’m about to level on Big Beer’s attempts at Belgian White Ales. My targets this time are Blue Moon and Shock Top – those “approachable” and “gateway” brews that anyone wearing an MCI or ABI hat likes to foist upon unsuspecting drinkers. This time, however, I’m armed with more than my opinion. This time I’ve got science on my side – or at lasts semi-rigorous testing and experimentation.
If you’re a craft beer lover, you no doubt already think that Blue Moon and Shock Top are far below the par set by American craft brewers and international breweries devoted to recapturing the magic of the hazy-and-spicy Belgian Wit. Read on to discover the surprising (to me at least) results of a blind witbier tasting that I hosted recently.
Admittedly, I dissed Redd’s without trying the brew. I’m ok with that. It isn’t like I pretended that I’d tried it; I disclosed that i was writing the post as a response to a request from a relative who said Redd’s Apple Ale was so bad that she couldn’t finish one bottle of it, let alone the whole sixpack that she’d purchased. I was surprised by the passion that the Redd’s supporters showed in their defense of the awkward beverage. I knew that if I was going to take on the darlings of the “crafty” world, I’d need ammunition beyond opinion.
It was actually Julie’s idea to hold a blind tasting that would pit the Miller and AB pretenders against a line-up of some of the world’s best witbiers, and we were finally able assemble a line-up of six craft examples (in addition to the two macros) and convene a tasting panel to try them all. The methodology was simple – the panel would taste through two flights of four beers each without knowing what beers were being sampled. They were briefed on the history of witbiers and we briefly discussed the characteristics of the style and then started tasting. I facilitated the tasting and the discussion, and while I sampled the beers as well, my opinions did not make it into the final data.
Our four person panel was made up of tasters with varied background and Palates:
- Julie – Cofounder of Beer of Tomorrow and my partner in all things, Julie likes a good witbier, and it was once among her favorite styles (though now her tastes usually lean towards more full-flavored brews).
- Jenny – A long-time friend, and perhaps the biggest fan of the witbier style that I know. Wits are her go-to beers, and she is particularly fond of the witbier’s refreshing qualities after a long run. Or for brunch. Or when it’s hot out. She likes wits a lot.
- Sean – A beer blogger with a tuned and practiced palate. He enjoys the occasional wit, but he prefers other Belgian styles over the lighter witbiers
- Sarah – A casual beer fan who enjoys experimenting with new styles and discovering new flavors. She tends to gravitate to British styles and pale ales over wits.
The Line Up
I tried to assemble a mix of craft wits from local breweries, regional breweries, and international brewers, and I was particularly careful (as I always am) to buy only the freshest examples I could find. After collecting the eight brews, I randomly assigned each to a flight. Here’s what we ended up with.
- Shock Top
- Ommegang Witte
- Allagash White
- Eagle Rock Brewery Manifesto
- Blue Moon
- Saint Archer White
- St. Bernardus Wit
- Avery Brewing White Rascal
After an palate-awakening glass of pilsner, the panel sat down to the first flight and was immediately struck by beer #1’s bright orange color and intense, overly orange scent. Julie’s fear that the macro brews would give the craft examples a close-race went immediately out the window as the panel looked, sniffed, and tasted through the first flight. After the first flight was finished and we’d discussed the panelist’s opinions, I served an intermission glass of Oskar Blues Old Chub – a Scottish Wee Heavy style now available in nitro cans. This beer was the furthest thing from a witbier that I could think of that wouldn’t leave the panelists palates in shambles for the second flight.
Flight number two went similarly to the first with the macro-brewed beer being an obvious outlier to the other three examples. As we tasted and talked it became obvious that each panelist looks for something a little different in their witbiers. Some like the spices to be added with a heavy-hand while others found the crispness of the brews to be the biggest draw.
After tasting and discussing the second flight we turned the discussion to over-all favorites and what characteristics of each the tasters liked best. I then poured everyone a celebratory glass of Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee (palates be damned at this point) and asked them all to rate their four favorite brews from the tasting.
Each taster rated their top four brews, and I assigned each beer points for the votes. A first place beer was awarded 4 points, while the fourth place brew received a single point. The points were tallied, and not only was there a clear winner, it was a beer that I’d not expected to make the top four. But before I get to the winning brews there are two points I’d like to make:
- Neither Blue Moon nor Shock Top received a single vote nor a single point. In fact, every taster had Shock Top firmly in last place, and Blue Moon in 7th place.
- Blue Moon is far, far better than Shock Top. Each taster remarked that Shock Top was terrible and that they’d prefer to never drink it again, and each taster said that the gulf between Shock Top and Blue Moon was very wide – Blue Moon was an absolutely serviceable wit bier, but it was far, far below even the 6th place craft option.
Tasters called it “balanced”, “zippy”, and “bright.” It was deemed the most refreshing of the line-up, and the brew had a beguiling peppery character and a little more hop bitterness than most other contenders. However, even though White Rascal was the points-winner no taster picked it as their favorite beer! It received three 2nd-Place votes and a single 3rd-Place vote for a total of 11 points.
Each panelist actually chose a unique beer for their favorite: there was one 1st-Place vote for each of Ommegang Witte, Eagle Rock Manifesto, Allagash White, and St. Bernardus Wit.
A Tie for Second Place
The second place award was a tie between local favorite Eagle Rock Brewery’s Manifesto and the classic Belgian import St. Bernardus Wit with each beer scoring 9 points (one each 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-place vote). This was a surprising – but delightful – result in my eyes. Not only did a locally brewed beer that I love to recommend to craft drinkers score so well, the Beer Advocate #1 rated Wit Bier scored predictably high in our rankings (which feels like an endorsement of our methodology).
Even the 6th-Place finisher – the new San Diego brewery Saint Archer’s flagship canned White – was well-liked by the panel and that brew received two 4th-Place votes. It just didn’t have the vibrancy or depth that the winners displayed.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was Allagash White coming in 4th Place. I’ve long considered this to be the unrivaled example of the American Wit that showcases a deft balancing of wheat-character, spices, and hops. The beer did score a single 1st-Place vote, but only two others cast a vote for it (both as their 4th-Place finisher). Even I was swayed by the brightness of the St. Bernardus and Avery brews over my favorite Allagash.
This experiment showed me the importance of unbiased tasting and testing, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Don’t Drink That, Drink This:
How about instead of drinking Blue Moon or Shock Top, drink any other craft-brewed option. You can’t go wrong, especially in comparison to Shock Top. In fact, if you find yourself marooned at some chthonic bar that only served macro brews you’d be far, far better off with a Blue Moon than many other Macro-brewed options. It’s a remarkably mediocre wit.
But if you want the best – look for the widely-available Avery White Rascal (in cans and bottles). If you want a local option from Los Angeles, you can’t beat Eagle Rock Brewery’s Manifesto, and the St. Bernardus Wit is an excellent, slightly restrained imported example of the Belgian-native style.
And finally I’d like to thank my panelists for spending a Friday evening on as geeky a pursuit as a blind beer tasting! You guys are awesome, and made hosting the tasting and writing the coverage a joy. Cheers.