Happy birthday, America: Two beers for the 4th

Photo by Brian Sorensen

Independence Day is my favorite holiday. The kids are out of school and summer fun is in full swing. Carnival-sized tents pop up in parking lots all over town, with inventories of explosive treasures underneath their canvas tops. People scramble to find a party or cookout for the big day. Nobody wants to be alone on the 4th because this day – or more specifically, this night – is one of the major social events of the summer.

Yes, every year we celebrate our nation’s birthday with fireworks, grilled meat, family, and friends. And of course we will enjoy a cold beer or two. So this week I will review two iconic beers that scream, “Happy birthday, America!”


Okay, the first beer is not technically American anymore. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch was acquired by Belgium’s Inbev in late 2008. But until then nothing was more American than Budweiser, AB’s flagship beer. The marketing around this beer was – and still is – impossible to ignore. Clydesdales and talking frogs leaped into the American conscious because of AB’s gargantuan marketing spend. Budweiser became synonymous with American brewing, even incorporating the colors of Old Glory and a bald eagle into its label art.

Budweiser is a pale lager brewed with water, malted barley, hops, yeast, and rice. Wait, what the hell is rice doing in my beer?!

Rice is an ingredient known as an adjunct (which is a term also used for unmalted grains such as corn, oats, and sorghum). The grain adds fermentable sugars to the beer, without the extra color and heft of malted barley. Craft beer fanatics have long decried the addition of rice as a strategy to increase alcohol and reduce costs. But the truth is that the crisp, dry flavor that many – but not all – Americans find appealing is the result of rice. So while most craft brewers generally stick with all-malt recipes, the majority of American lagers are brewed with adjuncts in addition to malted barley.

The self-appointed “King of Beers,” Budwesier pours yellow in color with a huge bed of white foam on top. Visually it’s a pretty beer – highly carbonated and crystal clear. The smell is mostly grain with a little bit of a vegetal characteristic. It’s not entirely off-putting, but nothing to write home about either. Sweet malt and a slight astringency define the flavor, but the mouth feel is light and effervescent (though not as much so as its little brother, Bud Light). The beauty in this beer, quite frankly, is its drinkability. It was brewed to appeal to as many people as possible – which means that despite its total lack of personality (i.e. it’s bland), it’s not going to make you spit it out in disgust (unless you have crossed the line to bona fide beer snobbery). And you have to give Anheuser-Busch credit for its ability to consistently brew the same beer over and over again across the better part of two centuries. Consistency is hard to accomplish. Some of the most technically gifted brewers in the world work at AB-InBev. I just don’t like their beer!

Samuel Adams Boston Lager

Founded in 1984 by Jim Koch, The Boston Beer Company has grown to become the largest American-owned brewery by volume. More commonly referred to as “Sam Adams,” the brewery sold 3.4 million barrels of beer in 2013. While no longer a true microbrewery by industry standards, Sam Adams is certainly a craft brewery, with a focus on variety and quality ingredients.

Boston Lager is the beer that started it all for Sam Adams. Based on a recipe developed by Koch’s great-great-grandfather, the beer was first introduced to the public on Patriots Day 1985, further connecting the beer with the aura of American revolutionist Samuel Adams. It was well-received by beer drinkers, earning the distinction of “Best Beer in America” at the Great American Beer Festival later that year. Sam Adams now brews over 65 unique styles of beer.

Boston Lager is a Vienna lager by style and is brewed with traditional two-row and crystal malts. Adjuncts are not used in the brewing process – it’s all malted barley, baby.

The beer pours a light copper color with a wonderfully creamy head. This is a well-carbonated beer, as evidenced by the tiny bubbles streaming from the bottom of the glass. Floral sweetness from the hops and some malty grain define the nose, with nice balance between the two. Even before tasting it you can tell this will be an enjoyable beer. The flavor ups the ante with notes of caramel and just enough hop bitterness to keep it from being too sweet. Boston Lager finishes crisp and dry, with just a hint of residual sweetness.

Some beer snobs have dismissed Sam Adams as a legitimate craft brewer because of its size, but you would be hard-pressed to show me anything wrong with Boston Lager. It’s not the best beer you can find, but it’s well-made and quite tasty.

The choice is clear

If you’re headed to a holiday party this weekend and would like to tote along a beer that represents your patriotism and tasteful sensibilities, the choice is clear. Between these two beers, Samuel Adams Boston Lager is the superior beer in terms of flavor and overall enjoyment (and it’s brewed by an American-owned company, to boot). The last thing you want to do is contribute your hard-earned money to Belgium’s bottom line. And no, I’m not just bitter about the World Cup.

OK, maybe just a little.

Cheers, everyone – and happy Independence Day!

Brian Sorensen
Brian is an admitted beer geek, occasional home brewer, and member of the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds (FLOPS). You can follow him on Twitter at @EBSorensen.