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I won't pretend to have sought out Redd's Apple Ale. I got a box in the mail at the Reader that was the right size and heft to contain a couple bottles, and because just a few weeks earlier I'd been sent a promotional sampling of Deschutes beers, I opened it pronto.
Nothing in the package indicated that Redd's is a MillerCoors product. I began to suspect as much after I passed a bottle around the office and someone said, "Oh yeah, there were a shit-ton of ads for that stuff during the Super Bowl."
A quick Internet search revealed that Redd's is already sold in several other countries, including Poland, Russia, Colombia, and South Africa. An article that ran last spring in Advertising Age, prior to a summer 2012 test launch in the southern and southeastern states, described it as "an apple-flavored ale MillerCoors is positioning to compete with flavored malt beverages such as Mike's Hard and Twisted Tea, which [marketing director] Ms. [Sarah] Ross noted do not come in apple flavors." The national U.S. roll-out was earlier this month. Promotional copy that's appeared in many dutiful writeups of the launch describes Redd's as having "low malt and bitterness cues," which is code for "targeting people who don't like beer."
I mean, competing with Mike's Hard and Twisted Tea is setting the bar pretty low.
If against all preliminary evidence you're still imagining that Redd's might turn out to be something like New Glarus Apple Ale, the fact that it comes in clear glass bottles ought to dash those hopes. Because clear glass offers almost no protection against ultraviolet and visible light, beers in such bottles are easily "lightstruck"—that is, bitter compounds from the hops photodegrade, imparting a "skunky" taste. Some beers packaged in clear glass, like Miller High Life, use hop extracts that don't contain the vulnerable compounds, but in this case I reckon clear bottles didn't present a liability because little if any hops were used.
As far as the government is concerned, in the making of an "ale" or a "malt beverage" (a common industry term for alcopop) there's no rule against treating a brew made with grain to remove most of its malt character, then arriving at a finished product by adding flavorings and sweeteners. If I understand the regulations properly, in most cases beers can't be fortified with alcohol, but malt beverages can. Redd's weighs in at an entirely reasonable 5 percent.
The label on Redd's includes the words "natural apple flavor and caramel color." I'm no food scientist, but I can't imagine caramel color being necessary in anything brewed with the kinds of malts we're used to seeing in beers—under ordinary circumstances they contribute all the color themselves. This is just speculation, of course (alcoholic beverages don't have to include ingredients on their labels), but it would help explain why Redd's can legally be called an "ale" while sharing so few of the usual characteristics of beers.
Anyhow. I'm beginning to feel like I'm procrastinating.
The bottle I reviewed bore the date code APR1513. Redd's fizzes vigorously, like a soda, but the bubbles disappear in seconds—there's no head at all. This isn't terribly surprising from a beverage with "low malt cues"; the polypeptides in malts play a crucial role in head formation. Hard ciders often behave the same way, but you don't expect to find malts in something that's fermented from apple juice.
The smell is basically apple juice, or even hard apple candy—I can't detect any hops, malt, or yeast character. You can just barely tell that something has been fermented.
Redd's is aggressively carbonated, as I think I mentioned. The taste is of apple juice or weak cider, with a lick of tartness that's not present in the nose. The fruit flavor is one-note and shallow, though—I suspect there's no actual apple juice involved at all. (If you could legitimately say "made with real apple juice" instead of "natural apple flavor" on your label, wouldn't you?) Redd's is also pretty sweet, but according to MillerCoors the Polish version is sweeter. There's no finish to speak of, and hops are just as absent from the taste as they are from the aroma. As the beer reaches room temperature, I think I can pick up a very faint graininess, but it's a little like wet cardboard. Protip: Don't let this stuff warm up. It gets nasty.
Given the minimal labeling requirements, the best way to tell whether Redd's is sweetened (short of submitting it to a lab) would probably be to drink a whole bunch and wait to see if you wake up with a praying-for-death hangover the next day. But I'm not about to do that.
To be fair, Redd's accomplishes what I figure it was intended to: if it's well chilled, it's easy to drink and pleasant enough. In the context of a craft-beer column, I could safely beat up on big bad MillerCoors by carrying on like this stuff is worse than having Hitler piss in your mouth, but Redd's honestly isn't offensive or even disagreeable (the apple flavor, however, leaves a strange funky aftertaste that apple juice doesn't). At the same time, though, neither does taking a sip of it especially motivate you to take a second. It's not like there's any complexity to explore. It's an apple-flavored alcoholic fizzy drink, and that's about all there is to say about it. For the price—roughly nine bucks a six-pack, based on what I've seen in the wild—you could do better without putting in much of an effort.
And of course if you do try Redd's, you'll have to reconcile yourself with the fact that it's likely so expensive only because somebody has to pay for the incredible marketing blitz that might have persuaded you to give it a chance.
I'll let tragically underrated Virginia stoner-metal band King Giant play us out with a tune from their 2012 album Dismal Hollow.