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Aug. 15, 2022

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10 cheap beers worth drinking

You don’t have to spend a lot to get a quality brew

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Josh Noel's picks for best value beers. (E.
Josh Noel's picks for best value beers. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune) Photo Gallery

CHICAGO — Inflation won’t quit. The price of gas has reached the stratosphere. The stock market is taking a beating. And I won’t even start on crypto.

Boy, could we use a beer.

But we don’t need just any beer in these fraught economic times. What we need more than ever is good beer at an even better value.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to pretend we’re in college and settle for oceans of cheap, lousy beer. It means bang for the buck. It means finding the beers that perform above their price. It means finding the great deals hiding in plain sight.

I tasted about 25 beers to assemble this list, shopping with an eye on price, but shunning anything that didn’t pass the most essential test: good taste. There is no sacrificing quality on this list. In a few cases — looking at you, Trumer Pils and Victoria — these are arguably among the finest examples of their style on shelves.

These 10 beers punch above their financial weight, starting with the cheapest. Prices are taken from the ubiquitous chain of Binny’s stores, which means you may occasionally find them a little cheaper or slightly more expensive. Prices do not take into account sales — and several of these beers can be found at sale prices, which make them better deals still — and reflect the prices at the time of publication.

1. Hamm’s (Molson Coors)

Style: Light American lager

There’s a lot of cheap beer in this world, but rarely do those beers boast much depth. Hamm’s, which won our blind tasting of American macro beers five years ago, is easy drinking, but also boasts that depth: a clean malty backbone with a touch of yeast-driven fruitiness that dries out in the finish. It’s just weighty and interesting enough, but light enough, in terms of both flavor and its 4.7 percent alcohol, to enjoy on repeat.

Speaking of repeat, the reason Hamm’s is a tiptop deal is the key to finding value in beer: volume. Beer gets cheaper the larger the package, which is the reason there are few six-packs on this list. But a 30-pack? Now we’re talking value! What’s more: With gas averaging $5.93 per gallon in the Chicago area as of mid-June, Hamm’s is actually cheaper than the 4.6 cents per ounce you’re paying at the pump.

Price: 30-pack of 12-ounce cans for $14.99; 4.1 cents per ounce

2. Pilsner Urquell (Pilsner Urquell Brewery)

Style: Czech-style pilsner

There’s nothing otherworldly about Pilsner Urquell, but it’s as dependable as beer comes — and, despite its meager 4.4 percent alcohol, a clear step up in heft and complexity from most major American brands. But it’s still eminently approachable, a soft pilsner with minimal hop bite, but crisp grassy softness.

Price: 4-pack of 16.9-ounce cans for $5.99; 8.8 cents per ounce

3. Local’s Light (Short’s Brewing)

Style: Craft light American lager

After years of mocking light beer, craft breweries such as Short’s figured out the medium is so popular for a reason: They’re simple and refreshing, and people like them.

Local’s Light is weightier than its largest light beer competitors in terms of both flavor and alcohol (5.2 percent, which is a lot for a “light” beer). But Local’s Light is crisp and bright easy drinking. Bonus: At 115 calories and 3 grams of carbs per can, it’s a part of the recent low-cal trend in craft beer.

Price: 12-pack of 12-ounce cans for $12.99; 9 cents per ounce

4. Josephsbrau Bavarian Style Hefeweizen (Trader Joe’s)

Style: Hefeweizen

You had to figure Trader Joe’s and its array of cheap beer brands had to appear somewhere on this list. I tried several of them looking for that intersection of quality and price and landed here, with a fairly faithful, if not slightly sweet, take on this classic German ale.

Josephsbrau Bavarian Style Hefeweizen hits the style’s expected banana and clove notes with abundance, reminiscent of banana bread in the aroma and on the palate, but while remaining crisp, dry and refreshing. This is not a definitive take on hefeweizen, but at this price, it is a very respectable effort.

Price: 6-pack of 12-ounce bottles for $6.49; 9 cents per ounce

5. Trumer Pils (Trumer Brauerei Berkeley)

Style: German-style pilsner

Made by an Austrian brewery in Berkeley, Calif., this is my favorite beer on this list, worthy of being a year-round fridge staple. It’s a perfectly threaded pilsner: a softly floral aroma, with notes of grass and hay, that’s spry and dry on the palate with light bitter muscularity in finish. It’s never the wrong time for a Trumer Pils.

Many excellent craft pilsners sit on shelves, but this one is comparable to most, and at a significantly cheaper price. Out of curiosity, I also tried Trumer alongside the Trader Joe’s take on pilsner, which maps out to about the same price. Trumer is far better.

Trumer Pils is available in 12-packs of cans and green bottles; go with the cans to avoid the “skunking” that can come with light exposure.

Price: 12-pack of 12-ounce cans for $13.99; 9.7 cents per ounce

6. Victoria (Constellation Brands)

Style: Mexican lager

Here’s a list of Mexican imports more expensive than Victoria: Corona, Corona Light, Pacifico, Modelo Especial and Modelo Negra. Which of those more expensive beers do I prefer to Victoria? None (though Pacifico and Modelo Negra are close).

This amber brew with a toasty note in the aroma is the epitome of laid-back approachability — crisp, balanced, but with a lightly malty touch. And it’s aces alongside food, whether a burger or a plate of enchiladas. There are cheaper Mexican beers — Tecate, for instance — but they’re also one-note by comparison. I’d rather spend a little more for Victoria, which is a bargain among Mexican imports.

Price: 12-pack of 12-ounce bottles for $14.99; 10.4 cents per ounce

7. Big Wave Golden Ale (Kona Brewing/Anheuser-Busch)

Style: Golden ale

It’s no surprise that Kona beers, bought by Anheuser-Busch in 2020, are priced competitively; that has been much of Anheuser-Busch’s decadeslong approach to dominating the beer industry.

The result is some beers that are excellent bang for the buck, though. It may be the Hawaiian branding winning me over — no matter that this beer is made at Anheuser-Busch breweries in California, Colorado, Oregon and New Hampshire — but there’s an appealing tropical fruit element to this beer, a pleasant banana-mango note (even though no fruit is added) in a light, crisp and refreshing ale that’s a true summer sipper.

Price: 12-pack of 12-ounce bottles for $15.99; 11.1 cents per ounce

8. Anchor Steam (Anchor Brewing)

Style: Steam beer

The most classic of American craft beers, with roots stretching back 125 years, continues to hold up in a sea of competitors: toasty, malty, yeast-driven fruitiness (in the berry-melon realm) with a dash of bitterness. Anchor Steam remains balanced, approachable and elegant. It’s a modest 4.9 percent alcohol and another beer that’s excellent with food.

Price: 12-pack of 12-ounce bottles for $16.99; 11.7 cents per ounce

9. VarietI-PAck (Lagunitas Brewing)

Style: India pale ales

Lagunitas was a pioneer in the craft beer realm with an early embrace of brewing IPA and selling it at a competitive price. Both have only become truer since the brewery’s sale to Heineken in 2015.

Lagunitas has remained as deft with hoppy beer as any large brewery. But the real standout in the VarietI-PAck — a variety pack of IPAs, naturally — is, well, the variety: three cans each of four hoppy beers (the flagship IPA, A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, Hazy Wonder and DayTime low-calorie IPA), all of them dependable, at a price cheaper than most craft 12-packs.

Price: $17.99 for 12-pack of 12-ounce cans; 12.5 cents per ounce

10. Fresh Squeezed IPA (Deschutes Brewery)

Style: IPA

With IPAs, the challenge is obvious when aiming for value: These tend to be expensive beers, and the ones available cheaply generally aren’t very good. Trust me — I tried several for this endeavor.

Fresh Squeezed is the most expensive beer here — but for a very good IPA, it’s a very good deal.

Like the best and most interesting IPAs, Fresh Squeezed offers intensely fruity aromatic hoppy notes — mango, papaya — but also hits the intersection of dry, bitter and balanced on the palate. It’s really everything you could want from an IPA. It’s at least a few bucks cheaper than comparable IPAs, and a clear step up from cheaper ones. It’s often on sale, too. I found it at a steal of a price of $12.99, which makes its per-ounce cost comparable to the Trader Joe’s beers.

Price: 12-pack of 12-ounce cans for $18.99; 13.1 cents per ounce

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