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Can Store-Brand “Craft” Beers Measure Up to the Real Thing?

We put an assortment of faux-indie offerings from Trader Joe’s, Costco, Aldi, and Walmart in front of a panel of local beer pros.

A selection of faux (and real) craft brews  

Remember when you were a kid who loved Fruit Loops, but your mom would come back from the store with Fruity Os or another cheaper but name-brand-adjacent imitation? They have that for beer now! It’s borderline impossible to keep up with the number of craft beers and breweries, so some retailers are turning the saturation of craft into their next opportunity. Retail giants find a contract brewer, slap on their own branding and design, and suddenly there’s an entirely new craft-looking beer brand that exists only within the confines of your favorite grocery store.

They’re certainly cheaper—a six-pack of store-brand IPA or stout is typically several dollars less expensive than the name-brand alternative. But are they any good? We sought out some of Chicago’s best brewing professionals and made them drink some of these imitation brews.

Our tasting panel included:

We all met at Dovetail’s second floor barrel loft to blind-taste some beers. We used a pretty simple methodology, one shared by literally everyone who hoists a beer:

  • How does it look?  (worth a maximum of two points)
  • How does it smell? (four points)
  • How does it taste? (four points)

We tasted four flights of beers grouped by style—lagers and pilsners, Belgian white ales, pale ales, and dark beers. In each flight, we also included one well-regarded national brand beer for comparison. It helped us benchmark which of these beers were worth drinking on their own merit, rather than just the best of the generics. Here’s how the beers scored.

Lagers and Pilsners

Oranjeboom Premium Lager from Trader Joe’s

Sight: 1.71
Smell: 2
Taste: 1.43
Overall: 5.14 out of 10 points
Price: $6.99 for six 16 oz. cans

This Dutch-style lager was once upon a time an actual Rotterdam-based brewery (founded in 1671), but it’s since been closed and passed between conglomerates as a brand property. It’s now a cheap European-style lager made under contract in Germany and shipped to the U.S. Dost and Wesselink spotted some floating material in their pour that they dubbed “sea monkeys.” It was not well-loved.

Bacher Lager from Aldi

Sight: 2
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 1.29
Overall: 5.15
Price: $5.99 for six 12 oz. bottles

This offering’s label looks like a movie called for Beck’s in the script but couldn’t get the license for it. It’s also by far the skunkiest thing on the entire roster, owing to the green bottles which don’t block the UV wavelengths that make the skunking reaction happen. So it ended up smelling like your dog got in a fight under the porch and needs a tomato juice bath. Which turned out not to be ideal in a beer.

Wernesgruner Lager from Aldi

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 2.71
Taste: 2.29
Overall: 6.86
Price: $5.99 for six 12 oz. bottles

One of the surprising things we found is that the faux-Euro options at Aldi were, in fact, not faux at all. They manage to contract from brewers in Europe, ship it here, and still charge a price you can pay for with a pocket full of change. This German lager scored shockingly well for a beer that was less than a month from its sell-by date.

Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 2.29
Taste: 2.0
Overall: 6.15
Price: $9.49 for six 12 oz. cans

The tasters weren’t nuts about our ringer. Wesselink pegged it as medicinal, even though the tasting was blind, which was a little spooky. Cicerones Solarte and Pfafflin dug it—“some Noble [German/Czech varieties] hop aroma. Not terrible,” and “not bad,” respectively. But Jones thought it came across a little sweet, and as such, named this one “Diabetes Beer” on his tasting sheet.

Simpler Times Pilsner from Trader Joe’s

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 1.57
Taste: 1.86
Overall: 5.29
Price: $3.99 for six 12 oz. cans

“Something…happened” was one tester’s ominous tagline for this super-affordable pils. Dost, Solarte, and Jones all picked up a hint of banana (Solarte likened it to banana-flavored Runts candy specifically), which definitely isn’t what you want in a lager.

Belgian White Ales

Allagash White

Sight: 1.71
Smell: 2.86
Taste: 2.71
Overall: 7.28
Price: $8.99 for four 12 oz. bottles

No one was fooled by our leading off with the ringer—people rightly dug this classic example out of Maine. Just about everyone picked up on the fruity, spiced character, and felt confident enough to guess not just that is was the national brand, but which national brand it was. Wesselink called it “proportional,” which might be the nicest thing he said about a beer all day.

Mission Street Belgian-Style White Ale from Trader Joe’s

Sight: 1.57
Smell: 1.57
Taste: 1.43
Overall: 4.57
Price: $6.99 for six 12 oz. bottles

This was our first entry to literally get a “meh” (Pfafflin’s sentiment), and that was one of the nicer tasting notes. It reminded Katz of Desitin (a medicated butt paste for infants), which really speaks to the massive universe of descriptive language you can use for beer.

‘Round Midnight Belgian White from Walmart

Sight: 1.29
Smell: 1.29
Taste: 1.0
Overall: 3.58
Price: $12.46 for a sampler pack of twelve 12 oz. cans

You could supply power to a small island nation with the hate our tasters had for this beer. It’s alarmingly close to the minimum possible score, and Berger thought it might have been subject to an infection bacteria. Jones wrote “MARSH” in all-caps, while Katz picked up notes of “wet bag.”

Pale Ales

Wild Range IPA from Aldi

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 1.43
Taste: 1.29
Overall: 4.58
Price: $6.99 for six 12 oz. bottles

The problem with random tastings like this is that even if a beer comes out of the brewery completely fine, shipping, handling, and age can really gross it up. Pfafflin emailed after the tasting to reiterate that a lot of the flaws we ran into were the fault of bad handling or a long time sitting on the shelf, rather than a problem at the brewery. “It’s probably because there’s a stigma attached to ‘generics’—that somehow, they’re not as good as the name brand stuff,” she wrote. “Combine that with the fact there’s so many ‘name brand’ beers out there at a comparable cost, people are probably going to pass over the generics more often, so they’ll sit on a shelf longer.” Which is a very detailed way of illuminating this was a very old, very stale beer by the time we got to it. The taste was so washed out that Wesselink thought it could pass for the milder English style of IPA.

Kirkland IPA from Costco

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 2.29
Overall: 6.01
Price: $19.99 for a sampler pack of twenty-four 12 oz. bottles

The beers from Costco, with their color-swapped but otherwise identical labels, are the inspiration for this whole challenge. They’re brewed by Stevens Point Brewery in Wisconsin, who do a ton of contract work for craft brands. The IPA held its own, even against a much bigger and more well-funded competitor (more on that in a bit).

After Party IPA from Walmart

Sight: 1.71
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 2.00
Overall: 5.57
Price: $12.46 for a sampler pack of twelve 12 oz. cans

Slightly better luck the second time for our friends from Walmart. Wesselink and Dost didn’t think the flavor and aroma hop additions worked together at all. Solarte succinctly wrote “tire fire!” In the end, it turned out to be the very essence of a middle-of-the-road contender.

Mission St. IPA from Trader Joe’s

Sight: 2.00
Smell: 2.71
Taste: 3.00
Overall: 7.71
Price: $6.99 for six 12 oz. bottles

This is that shining unicorn in lederhosen, that thirst-quenching dream you hope you’re getting when you take a flier on a store’s brand of beer. It’s made by Utah-based Uinta Brewing, and drew flattering comparisons to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from both of our Cicerones. This was the overall favorite, ringer beers included.

Lagunitas IPA

Sight: 2.00
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 2.14
Overall: 6.0
Price: $9.29 for six 12 oz. bottles

A widely available, well-regarded IPA that scored well but didn’t quite match up to the offerings from Trader Joe’s and Costco. (Beer is weird sometimes.) Everyone picked up on the generous amount of hops, which Solarte dubbed “weed and diesel,” Pfafflin called “tropical,” and Jones dubbed “orange peel and carpet.”

Kirkland APA from Costco

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 1.14
Taste: 1.43
Overall: 4.58
Price: $19.99 for a sampler pack of twenty-four 12 oz. bottles

This beer was from the less assertive American Pale Ale beer style, but it was already in the sampler pack, so our professional opinion was “sure, what the hell?” It just kind of faded into the background like a McFly sibling mid-“Johnny B Goode.” Jones put its generic inoffensiveness best when he said “It tastes like beer, but I’m not loving it.”

Dark Beers

Kirkland Porter from Costco

Sight: 1.71
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 1.86
Overall: 5.43
Price: $19.99 for a sampler pack of twenty-four 12 oz. bottles

This one promised a lot of coffee and roast flavors it didn’t necessarily deliver. Dost and Wesselink called it “bland” and “empty,” but it was also pegged as smooth and clean. We found it to be like an inoffensive pair of perfectly nice slacks in a bottle.

KBC Porter from Trader Joe’s

Sight: 1.71
Smell: 2.0
Taste: 1.86
Overall: 5.57
Price: $6.49 for six 12 oz. bottles

Smelled better than it tasted, according to our panel. Jones dubbed it “chocolate ceiling tile,” and we stopped and shed a single tear, finally understanding the beauty of poetry.

Boatswain Chocolate Stout from Trader Joe’s

Sight: 1.86
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 2.0
Overall: 5.72
Price: $4.99 for six 12 oz. cans

KBC’s evil twin delivered more flavor than aroma. The tasters got some decidedly roasty notes, calling it “Guinnessy” (Solarte), “ash” (Katz), and “cig burn beer” (Jones).

Kirkland Brown Ale from Costco

Sight: 1.71
Smell: 2.0
Taste: 1.86
Overall: 5.57
Price: $19.99 for a sampler pack of twenty-four 12 oz. bottles

It’s not a stout or a porter, but we again activated the Sampler Pack Protocol. Berger picked up some “good malt,” but others thought it was boring.

Deschutes Black Butte Porter

Sight: 2.00
Smell: 1.86
Taste: 2.00
Overall: 5.86
Price: $9.99 for six 12 oz. bottles

This was a divisive one. Everyone thought it was boozy, and featured ale yeast flavors ranging from Solarate’s “almond extract” to Pfafflin’s “boozy raisin.” Katz liked it better the more she drank, and Berger thought it was really clean and drinkable. There was some talk afterward about whether it was in its best condition, maybe owing to bad handling or storage along the way. But like a one-legged Kyle Schwarber in the World Series, it showed up and gutted out a win.

Overall Rankings

  1. Mission Street IPA (Trader Joe’s): 7.71 
  2. Allagash White: 7.28
  3. Wernesgruner Lager (Aldi): 6.86
  4. Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils: 6.15 
  5. Kirkland IPA (Costco): 6.01
  6. Lagunitas IPA: 6.0
  7. Deschutes Black Butte Porter: 5.86
  8. Boatswain Chocolate Stout (Trader Joe’s): 5.72
  9. KBC Porter (Trader Joe’s): 5.57
  10. After Party IPA (Walmart): 5.57
  11. Kirkland Brown Ale (Costco): 5.57
  12. Kirkland Porter (Costco): 5.43
  13. Simpler Times Pilsner Beer (Trader Joe’s): 5.29
  14. Bacher Lager (Aldi): 5.15
  15. Oranjeboom Premium Lager (Trader Joe’s): 5.14
  16. Wild Range IPA (Aldi): 4.58
  17. Mission Street Belgian White (Trader Joe’s): 4.57
  18. Kirkland APA (Costco): 4.43
  19. Round Midnight Belgian White Ale (Walmart): 3.58

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