Ask a Cicerone: What's the Best Affordable Beer?

Crystal Luxmore, beer writer

Ask a what? A Certified Cicerone®. That is, a beer expert who has passed a particular certification exam administered by the Craft Beer Institute. You can think of them as beer sommeliers.

Many folks step into a bottle shop these days and are blown away by the cost of some of the beers. Sometimes beers get pricey they're made from special ingredients, using complicated, risky, cost-intensive methods, or aging in expensive barrels. Sometimes it's just a function of demand. But what's the best beer for your money? What beers outperform their price range?

We asked our crew of beer experts for their best value picks: the beers that really deliver for the money, and stand out from others that cost the same.

Here's what 14 Certified Cicerones had to say.

"St. Bernardus Abt 12. Shortly after WWII, the monks of St. Sixtus Abbey, who make the elusive Westveleteren 12 ale, decided to contract out the brewing of their signature beers to St. Bernadus, a cheese factory down the road. (The Westy 12 is often ranked the best tasting beer in the world, partly because of its rarity. When bottles did come up for sale in Canada last year, they sold out in minutes). But in 1992, when St. Sixtus's monks decided to resume brewing on-site, St. Bernadus didn't shut down its brewing operation; it kept right on making the stuff—but under its own name. Today's St. Berny 12 is remarkably similar to the legendary Westy. Both beers are rich, multifaceted, boozy brews with notes of nutmeg, toffee, fig, plum, biscuit, and warming alcohol. The big difference: You don't have to wait in line for hours—or fork out $70 or more for four bottles—to drink this one. Here in Ontario it's $7.95 for a 750 ml bottle. Bargain."—Crystal Luxmore

"I'm pretty hard on cash at the moment, so this question particularly resonates with me. I try to get twelve packs as they generally offer more for less, and I always keep an eye out for sales. Here are the three that I've actually bought the most of over the last five months: Negra Modelo: A solid Vienna Lager which is superbly refreshing in hot weather and I don't feel guilty about drinking out of the bottle with a lime. Guinness: It's low in calories, low in alcohol for all day drinking, and also roasty and flavorful enough for when the temperatures drop. New Belgium Seasonal: Around the end of the season, twelve packs are often priced to move, and the bottles are filled with liquid gold. I can't say I'm a big fan of Fat Tire, but New Belgium has a great track record of producing flavorful seasonal beers which are a steal even when the prices aren't marked down."—Joshua A. Cass (821 Cafe)

"If I wanted the most alcohol for my money I'd get a forty of Old English 800, but that's not how I define 'value' in a beer. That said, high ABV brews often pack loads of flavor. They also require more effort, ingredient input, and time to mature. Big beers are more expensive to produce, however, there are some huge delicious options available in a six pack. One of my favorites is Lagunitas' Brown Shugga. It's a fall-winter seasonal that tastes a little different year to year, but it's always a beautiful beer with a complex, rich, and nutty toffee malt profile. Incredibly, a sixer of this 10% abv world-class barleywine can be had for $11 at the freakin' grocery store!"—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

Michael Ferrari of Luck in Dallas.

"Deschutes Brewery, hands down. They're an incredibly reliable brewery; they just don't make a bad beer at all, and top of that, you could select any one of their great beers from year-round Mirror Pond to awesomely rare Abyss, find another beer of comparable quality, and Deschutes will be less expensive."—Michael Ferrari (Luck)

"Your best bet for finding something good and affordable is to understand your local brewery scene—even if you are not willing or able to visit the brewery itself to pick up some beer, your local breweries should be well-represented in your local supermarket and hopefully are more competitively priced than the stuff FedExed in from Alaska. The big national craft brewers, like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, usually also provide good value for the money. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a classic for a reason: it's delicious. And usually priced fairly. Sam Adams has been brewing a range of interesting beers like their Double Agent IPL, an India Pale Lager that twists up the omnipresent hopzilla IPA with lager silky smoothness."—Charles Coy (The Corner, Santa Monica, CA)

"Walk into a local grocery store, see if there are any dusty 750 mL bottles of Belgian beer stronger than 7% ABV, likely find it on sale, and—unless one sees evidence of mistreatment/yeast agitation—buy up the lot and walk out a very happy beer drinker. These bottled beers express themselves magnificently when aged, as the flavors begin to mellow and really come together as a whole. The store owner has done all of the work aging the beer, and the savvy buyer reaps all the benefits at a discounted rate for immediate consumption."—James Tai (Pinch)

"Over and over again, the Lagunitas brewery has offered some of the best values for your money out there. These folks make stellar beers and have always gone out of their way to make sure they keep their prices affordable and accessible. Even the stronger beers follow this pricing model, and one of my favorites that I think just can't be beat in terms of value and what you get for your money is Lagunitas 'Hop Stoopid.' It's a big, full bodied, super aromatic Imperial IPA that's 8%, dry hopped and delicious. It comes in 22-ounce bottles and I've consistently been able to find it in stores for $4-$5. They could easily charge more for these."—Anne Becerra (The Ginger Man)

Christopher Barnes of 'I Think About Beer' and Columbia Distributing.

"My favorite value beer of the season has to be Sierra Nevada Narwhal Imperial Stout. At $2.50 or $3 for a 12 ounce bottle, it's a steal. But it's not just the price to alcohol ratio that makes this a bargain; it's the huge quality of the flavor. Narwhal is a bone dry Imperial Stout with big, balanced flavors that make it a great beer to pair with a wide range of fall/Thanksgiving desserts, or you can just drink it as the dessert. This beer would a great buy at $5. Petrus Wood-Aged Pale Ale and Rodenbach Grand Cru have to be the sour bargains of all time. Petrus, at around $4 for an 11.2oz, and Rodenbach, at $10 for a 750mL, provide a huge bang for your buck if you're looking for sour beers. You don't even have to sacrifice any flavor with these two bargains."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer)

"Orval can often be found for about $5 or $6 a bottle and this truly unique Trappist beer can be cellared and compared in vertical tastings over the years to come. The fresh herbaceousness dries out and develops more funky flavors over time."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)

"The best value in beer is likely the best-made, locally-brewed beer you can find. It's not a cop out, it's good advice! If they are taking pains to make a high-quality beer, it won't get any fresher. Packaging and shipping something that is ideally served fresh can be pretty detrimental, so buy local!"—John Wyzkiewicz (Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant)

"I just drank a Summit Saga IPA that I picked up from work for $7.49 for a sixpack. All I can say is wow. I was really impressed with every aspect of this beer and I put it up there with some of my favorites like Firestone Walker Union Jack and Bells Two-Hearted but at 2/3 the price. Schlafly and Boulevard six packs are routinely under $7 in our market, an unbeatable value from the two biggest craft brewers in Missouri."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

Jesse Vallins of The Saint in Toronto.

"The biggest one that comes to mind for me is Schneider Aventinus—I can get this beer for less than $3 and it's one of the most complex and elegant beers I've ever tasted. It's got lots of dried fruit and dark bread flavour, spicy yeast notes and a super long finish; and because of its effervescence, it manages to stay relatively light and lively on your tongue, even at 8.2% ABV."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

"They aren't sexy, but German imports are almost across-the-board underpriced. The fact that you can still find $3 500-mL bottles of some of the best lagers and wheat beers in the world is absurd, especially when you consider how far they traveled to get to you. Seriously fantastic beers from Schneider, Weihenstephan, or Ayinger are absolutely everywhere in the $3-5 range."—Mike Reis (Lime Ventures)

"For a clean but tasty lager, DAB Dortmunder Export is good pick. It has a cracker-like malt backbone, a touch of salty minerality, and a soft floral hop character. Eight or nine dollars gets me six half-liter (16-ounce) cans, which are allowed in many places that bottles are not, like the park or the beach, which is why my German friends fondly refer to DAB as 'Train Beer.'"—Aaron Libera (Sanford Homebrew Shop)