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The Ultimate Flagship Beer Showdown

In "I'd Tap That," Aaron Goldfarb and a panel of tasters pit "whales" against "shelf turds" in an effort to understand everything from Imperial IPA to Saison. This round: a showdown of flagship beers.

Flagship Beers

It used to be breweries would bet everything on a single flagship beer. You said you wanted a Sam Adams, and you meant a Boston Lager. Order a Sierra Nevada, and you expected their Pale Ale. Some people still think Anchor Brewing is actually called “Anchor Steam.”

But the days when brewers would hang their hat on a single offering are over.

The beer geek appetite for novelty and rarity has given way to a limited-release culture that eschews a core lineup of beers, let alone a single flagship. That’s why Other Half released, by my count, 155 different beers last year. And why Washington D.C.’s Bluejacket has produced a remarkable 225 beers in the few years of their existence. Or, why the hot, upstart British brewery, Cloudwater, doesn’t have a single year-round offering.

The flagships of yore—the Stone IPAs, Bell’s Two Hearted Ales and Brooklyn Lagers—can be now be found at most well-stocked supermarkets, ballpark concession stands, Irish pubs or even at the airport. This has become cause for dismissal for most beer geeks. But I still wanted to know, how do these beers stack up years—or even decades—after their respective heydays? Can Dogfish Head 60 Minute still matter, or simply taste good, amid a new paradigm of IPA?

Unlike previous tastings, which generally involved a month of prep, countless emails, phone calls and, more often than not, “knowing a guy,” this tasting’s logistics entailed going to a supermarket the morning-of. But that’s kind of the point; these are the beers that literally anyone can buy, whenever they want, so much so that we take them for granted.

For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; and Ethan Fixell, a fellow beer writer and beverage educator. We tasted 23 flagship beers blind, from red ales and amber lagers to pale ales and IPAs. Some proved to weather the test of time, while others felt like relics—a taste of history, better left to it.

The Top Five

Allagash White

A flagship that still fills its purpose, White (first brewed in 1995) accounts for 60 percent of Allagash’s total revenue, allowing them to be more experimental with beers like their incredible Coolship series. The quintessential American take on a Belgian wheat, White is spicy on the nose from the presence of coriander with notes of orange peel and banana. It remains both surprisingly complex and eminently drinkable.

  • ABV: 5.1 percent

Anchor Steam Beer

With a caramelly, biscuit-y malt bill, we thought a European beer had been slipped into our tasting accidentally. Instead, it was this one-of-kind amber beer first conceived during the Gold Rush, bottled in 1971 and now trademarked by the brewery. (We likewise found Anchor Liberty Ale, America’s first modern IPA, to still taste quite delicious more than 40 years after its debut.)

  • ABV: 4.9 percent

Left Hand Milk Stout

The strong espresso notes in this beer made us think we’d inadvertently included a sample from last month’s coffee beer tasting. But Left Hand’s Milk Stout (1994) is not infused with coffee; instead, it uses both roasted and chocolate malts that, when combined with lactose sugar, yield an ashy, smoky profile balanced by plenty of creaminess. In 2011, Left Hand launched a nitro version of the beer in bottles using a special widget-less technology, making the beer’s mouthfeel even more velvety.

  • ABV: 6 percent

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

The pale ale that launched a thousand pale ales, Sierra Nevada’s game-changer (1980) still holds up. While many drinkers today are scared to buy hoppy shelf turds, for fear that they lack freshness, SNPA is so well constructed that it remains fragrant and floral even after a month or two in the cooler. “We continue to gravitate toward the beers that are balanced and have the most drinkability,” said Fixell. Indeed, though bitter from the use of Cascade hops, the malt rounds it out.

  • ABV: 5.6 percent

Stone IPA V1.1

This is a great example of a brewery rejiggering an aging flagship for today’s market. Last year, Stone Brewing knocked the dust off their now 20-year-old IPA (first released in 1997) by changing it’s dry-hopping to add more de rigueur hops like Calypso and Motueka. The nose is bright and fruity, with hints of mango and peaches leading into a refreshing and clean mouthfeel.

  • ABV: 6.9 percent

The Bottom Five

Rogue Dead Guy Ale

One of the first craft beers to achieve some national renown, today this beer from the early 1990s feels dated. The overly malty German maibock is not the most common style in America these days, and for good reason. A couple years back, I went on a tour of Anheuser Busch’s plant in St. Louis, where they let me taste Budweiser’s unhopped wort—i.e., beer before it’s been fermented into alcohol. This is how Dead Guy tastes, today: like drinking a bowl of milk after finishing your Lucky Charms.

  • ABV: 6.5 percent

Abita Purple Haze

One of the more offbeat beers to become a successful flagship, Purple Haze (and that’s ®!) is a lager brewed with raspberries. The 1990s-era Louisiana offering hearkens back to a time when breweries were pursuing the “girly” beer market—yes, offensive in both name and execution. One panelist thought this was surely made by “fermenting crappy candy.” Indeed, despite its low-ABV profile, it is remarkably cloying.

  • ABV: 4.2 percent

New Belgium Fat Tire

Colorado’s New Belgium remains one of the most important breweries in America, with world-class offerings like La Folie and La Terroir. Nevertheless, their famed flagship—first brewed in 1991—was quite a disappointment. One of our panelists found the amber ale “hollow” and lacking in flavor; another thought it was reminiscent of “drinking from a dirty pipe.”

  • ABV: 5.2 percent

Ballast Point Sculpin

This used to be my favorite IPA on planet earth. Having not had it in years, I recalled a bracingly bitter, dank and piney IPA that defined California brewing in the previous decade. Today, we found a beer maltier than need be, lacking in complexity and with an unpleasantly oily mouthfeel. As one panelist noted, this once-great beer tasted like a run-of-the-mill “sports bar IPA.”

  • ABV: 7 percent

Shiner Bock

Shiner’s 108-year-old flagship remains revered, though mostly by Texans who would have you thinking it’s the nectar of the gods. Don’t. One panelist thought Shiner’s American-style dark lager drank like “standing sink water” while another believed it tasted like “lead poisoning.”

  • ABV: 4.4 percent

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