by Victoria Bourne
You know the drill. You’re in the grocery store, looking for beer, so you mosey over to the cooler and see a host of familiar names: Coors and Budweiser, New Belgium and Starr Hill, Guinness and Heineken.
Tucked into that collection, however, are brands you’ve never heard of, like Kinroo Blue, Bronzen Schild, or Josephsbrau. They have all the trappings of “real” craft and European beers (hoppy graphics and Old World fonts) but these were made specifically for the store, often by some name-brand brewery.
But are they any good? We were curious, so we grabbed two varieties each from Aldi, Lidl and Trader Joe’s and called in five local craft beer aficionados – all of them VA Growler contributors – for a totally unscientific, but still pretty righteous, blind taste test.
The players were: Malia Paasch, owner of The Birch beer bar and Four Eleven Yorkboutique bed and breakfast and fine dining restaurant in Norfolk; Matthew Korfhage, award-winning food writer for The Virginian-Pilot; Irv Harrell, a 25-year journalist and soon-to-be member of a 12-step program; Pete Newell, a freelance writer and beer lover; and George Culver, photographer and mustachioed bon vivant.
We sequestered our panel in the dining room of the Four Eleven York boutique inn and cycled them through a lineup of 12 beers – six controls (well-known labels, but none from local breweries) and six store brands – with styles that ranged from hefeweizen to Belgian tripel.
Our panelists took to their task with the seriousness of a high school AP chemistry exam. There were furrowed brows and maybe a grimace or two as they ranked the 12 brews for aroma, look, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.
Surprisingly, the favorite came from the store brands. A German pilsner named Wernesgruner, produced for Aldi, had an average score of 63. The beer is made by a German brewery of the same name that dates back to 1436. According to the beer-maker’s website, it exports to 25 countries worldwide. Paasch called it a beer-flavored beer – one that’d be a safe bet at a dive bar.
It was followed by a control beer, the Orval Brewery’s Trappist Ale, which notched a 62.
Lidl’s Craft Explorers Hop Blast IPA rounded out the top three with a 58.6. It’s brewed by North Carolina’s Foothills Brewing Company under the name 638 Brewing Company, Inc., according to RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.
One interesting note: Lidl, which was named Beer Supermarket of the Year in 2018 at the New York International Beer Competition, offered up a beer that had the lowest average score of the night. Bronzen Schild Belgian Tripel, produced for the grocery store by Belgium’s Van Steenberge Brewery, may have earned the highest honor in its category at that New York competition last year, but it fared less well among our panelists, who gave it a 40.8.
There were plenty of bemused expressions when the beers were revealed. Generally the panelists agreed grocery store brands could be a bargain for shoppers, but with so many great local alternatives, why not spend a couple bucks more?
“They’re what you’d expect from a grocery store beer – without question,” said Harrell. “They just wallowed in mediocrity.”
Editor’s note: One of the control beers, the Schneider Weisse Original, was pulled from the rankings after panelists insisted the original pour tasted off and they tried a second helping after the reveal from a fresh bottle from the same pack. That time they said it tasted better.