Football season coincides with tailgating, and for many fans the beverage of choice for these parking-lot parties is beer.
Yes, there are pretty tasty wines that come in a box, and the cocktail crowd can fire up blenders that whirl away when plugged into a car's cigarette lighter. There are oceans of sports drinks and bottled waters to satisfy nonimbibers and designated drivers. But at most pre-game shindigs, suds hold sway.
Consider, for example, the tale told by Marc and Gary Scher, better known as the Poe Brothers, who for the past 10 years have presided over their prize-winning tailgate operation on Lot G at M&T Bank Stadium before Baltimore Ravens home games. A few years ago, the brothers added boxed wine to their lineup of beer and soda. But wine soon proved to be a nonstarter, which led Gary to discover this cosmic truth: "This is a tailgate; you gotta serve beer."
The beer at this tailgate comes from both a keg and cans. On the night before a game, Gary and Marc ice down a quarter keg of Coors Light and fill a 120-quart cooler with a variety of canned beers. "I have the keg for the light-beer drinkers, and we supplement that with cans of regular beer," Gary said.
The Poe Brothers' approach of using both kegged and canned beer got me thinking about which type of beer would be the ideal tailgate brew. So I engineered a test.
I bought a 12-pack and a quarter keg of Yuengling Lager, made in Pottsville, Pa., one of the more popular mid-priced beers in the Baltimore area. I also purchased a "keg" of Bitburger Premium, brewed in Bitburger, Germany. This 5-liter vessel, which looks like an oversized beer can with a spigot at its bottom, holds the equivalent of fourteen 12-ounce beers. I also picked up some 16-ounce cans of this lager.
I iced the beers down, then lugged them to an outdoor gathering of friends and family members. It was a crab feast, but before anyone could crack a crab, the panel of six men and women had to sip and rate the four cups of beer -- two from kegs, two from cans. This was a blind tasting.
The Yuengling finished in a dead heat, with three tasters preferring the sample from cans, three the kegged beer. The Bitburger cans scored a lopsided victory, 5-1, over their kegged counterpart.
As a beer drinker with a pro-keg bias, I was surprised by the results. Joe Frinzi, director of quality control for the Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, took the results in stride when I spoke to him on the phone. While Yuengling sells much more beer in kegs than cans, tastes vary among beer drinkers, he said. "I think kegged beer is crisper and has more body, but that is just me," he said, adding that kegged beer is not pasteurized. Canned beer has more carbonation than kegged beer, which some drinkers prefer, he said.
Frinzi, who has been in the beer business since 1969, said canned beer has improved over the years. In the '50s and '60s when beer cans were made of steel, there was some worry in the industry that the beer would taste "tinny," he said. Nowadays, beer cans are made of aluminum and lined with a protective coating. That, coupled with the practice of rotating older stock off the shelves, has virtually eliminated the tinny-taste issue, he said.
In a tasting of bottled and canned craft beers by members of The Wall Street Journal staff last year, canned beers won four of the top five spots.
The good showing of canned beer in my test made me examine my assumptions. I am not as dismissive of its flavor as I once was. Now factors such as cost and how hard it is to lug to a tailgate would figure in my call (see accompanying chart) to go with cans or a keg.
I now think of canned beer as the equivalent of a wide receiver. It is mobile, easy to carry and, when poured in the glass, packs more taste wallop than expected. Keg beer is like a lineman. It has substantial body. It has to keep cold to perform well. But once it has iced down and assumed its spot in the middle of the action, it can not be moved until it is drained.
Tasting tailgate beer
Yuengling Lager Quarter Keg, $45; eighty-four 12-ounce servings, 53 cents each. A good deal, but you'll need the strength of a lineman to lug it around.
Easiest to handle
Yuengling Lager 12-can pack , $8.50; twelve 12-ounce servings, 70 cents each. Handles and chills well. Not as much body as tap beer but very sprightly.
Bitburger 5-liter keg, $18; fourteen 12-ounce servings, $1.28 each. Eye-catching keg posing as can. Beer goes flat in a hurry.
Bitburger 8-can pack, $10; eleven 12-ounce servings, 90 cents each. Terrific zingy pilsener. Too bitter for some.