Bud Extra, Sparks

What to make of Anheuser-Busch's latest, um, "innovation," Bud Extra? This beer-based beverage, nicknamed "B-to-the-E," is the result of the collision of trends among young-adult drinkers, particularly the consumption of energy drinks and hard liquor. The sorta-bright young things like a blend of energy-drink-and-vodka, ideal for creating a wide-awake drunk. For the big guys in brewing, this spells trouble: Every Red Bull and vodka sold in bars and clubs is a beer not sold. The answer: a beer-based energy drink. Bud Extra looks very pale, like its namesake beer, but it tastes like drinking Red Bull from an unrinsed glass that just had Bud in it. The stuff's inoffensively mild, sweet, and unassuming, with about half the caffeine of a cuppa java. A competing product, Sparks, is simply bizarre. Promoted by SABMiller and the McKenzie River marketing outfit, Sparks has a vivid, discomfiting yellow-green-orange hue; the head is even scarier, with neon overtones. The aroma is a mix of synthetic fruit and bubblegum. The flavor profile is designed to appeal to an 8-year-old's palate, while masking its 6 percent alcohol. What the hell are these people thinking? Look, there's a long-standing tradition of flavoring beer with fruit, but stimulants don't belong in beer, m'kay? Local efforts, like Pyramid's Apricot Ale and Berry Wheaten, offer more subtle refreshment. For true inspiration, Belgian beers—and beers inspired by Belgian styles—have it all. Try Éphémère, a crisp apple-flavored wheat beer from Canada's Unibroue. Ommegang, in Cooperstown, N.Y., makes the warming, cherry-laden Three Philosophers ale. Belgium's Lindemans offers a range of sweetish fruit-flavored lambics, including Kriek, Framboise, Pêche, and Cassis. Belgian lambic producer Frank Boon also makes a Kriek and Framboise highly recommended for their superbly balanced flavors. These are waypoints to true wonders, like Hanssens Oudbeitje, a lambic conditioned on strawberries, and Cantillon Vigneronne, a white-grape lambic that nearly obliterates the line between beer and wine. These beers combine an artisanal touch with pleasing drinkability. And that's what the point of fruit-flavored beer should be in the first place.

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