From the Archives: The Great Blind Beer Taste-Off in 1981

In 1981, we hosted "The Great Blind Beer Taste-Off," in which 11 "experienced drinkers" tasted 16 light and dark imported and domestic beers. There were no San Diego craft beers in the story, as it was still about eight years before pioneer brewery Karl Strauss would open its doors. Candidates were listed with their country and ranged from Anchor Steam Beer (USA) and Pilsner Urquell (Czechoslovakia) to Albani Porter (Denmark). "All of the beers tasted are normally considered to be premium or superior brews," wrote J. Lee Anderson. "When a beer of the quality and popularity of Michelob comes in dead last in a taste test, you know there is some heady competition."

The beers were judged on their "body, head, color, nose, a positive presence of hops or malt, and plain old flavor." Nowadays, being judged on your body, head, and nose sounds more like a beauty pageant. The lexicon was less anatomical for a blind taste test we conducted in 2017, when our connoisseurs sipped a whopping 34 beers from four categories (Hoppy, Belgian-Inspired, Malty, and Freestyle) and ranked them based on aroma, taste, finish, and overall balance.

With the boom of craft beer, San Diegans have developed a sophisticated palate as well as a vocabulary—brush up on the jargon in our feature story this month (page 100). We talk about flavor, style, satisfaction, and mouthfeel. But back in 1981? "The comments of our cognoscenti ranged from sweet to scatological." Coast Walk co-owner Don Allison called Anchor Steam "silently commanding." Molson’s (Canada) was deemed "tapioca in a bottle" by artist-writer Mike Dormer. Pat Shea, a former Charger and co-owner of the bar Sweeney O’Shea’s, said Negra Modelo (Mexico) reminded him of "Tijuana Jail, 1964."

By the 15th beer, however, fellow former Charger and bar co-owner Walt Sweeney said, "It all tastes better at closing time." Mission Beach "housewife-bartender" Tobie Jones said, "Taste buds gone!"

As for the winner? Anchor Steam rated highest and, it was noted, priced at only 83 cents per 12-ounce bottle at Chip’s Liquor in Pacific Beach (today Chip’s charges $1.83 per bottle). Chip’s then-owner Adek Firestone said he stocked "225 imported beers and all the domestic brands we can get. We still don’t have Stroh’s from Detroit, but we’re working on it." They still didn’t have any San Diego beers either, but San Diegans, thank goodness, were about to start working on it.

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