The Best Worst Brews
A taste test of cheap beers. (No, Bud Light isn’t cheap enough to be a “cheap beer.”)
Milwaukee’s Best is The Beast according to one term of anti-endearment and Milwaukee’s Worst according to another. Here we see the folly of attempting to rate beers of its caliber in any conventional sense. Hyperbole abounds and paradox reigns. In truth, it is not Milwaukee’s superlative anything—not its worst beer, not even its best emetic. It is true that, if you taste one carefully, then you will discover a pleasurable faintly graininess behind the rude musk of its aroma. But this is not the whole truth, and the experience of a Beer Advocate user named bambam2517 presents a more accurate portrait:
Took about 9 of these before i could swig down a swallow without making a clicking sound with my cheeks. Once i got past that though, it was all i thought it could be. Got me cross-eyed, piss in my roomies sock drawer drunk. Left me with a skull splitting hangover the next morning. Everything I remember from it in college is still true.
Busch was introduced by Anheuser-Busch in 1955 to undercut Budweiser’s low-end competitors, making it the first cheap beer designed as such. The facts of its commercial life highlight the perversity of the category. According to the Tremblays, in the early '70s, it cost A-B half a cent more to produce a 12-ounce can of Budweiser than a 12-ounce can of Busch—"yet the price of the container of Budweiser was 15 cents higher." On the one hand, Busch's skunky corn quality is oppressive. The most refreshing things about the beer remains its label (a profile of snowy mountain peaks, clearly a suggestion about the proper serving temperature) and its name (onomatopoeic of thirst-quenching fizz).
Miller High Life is of course “the Champagne of Beers”—a slogan that these days seems to nod strictly to its high carbonation, which yields a tummy full of foam, crowding the drinker’s stomach without delivering the satisfying bloat of heftier brews. It offers a case study in the strange vagaries of consumption. High Life was once high class, but when sales slipped in the late-‘80s, Miller responded by discounting its price, which downgraded its image. The brand drifted down the ladder and became associated, in stereotypes, with various undesirable demographic groups, most recently fashionable young white people: Every hip person knows that High Life is the cool kids’ cheap beer of the moment, replacing …
Pabst Blue Ribbon. While sales of nine of the other top 10 subpremiums are down this year, Pabst Blue Ribbon is thriving; we must suppose that “hipsters” abandoned the brand because it went mainstream. The accepted marketing explanation for PBR’s 21st-century ascendance involves the delicate corporate exploitation of an organic phenomenon native to Portlandia, and the cultural critique of it detects an ironic tribal embrace of a working-class totem. I’d like to complicate the matter by simplifying things and posit that those who prefer clean, dry PBR to bland Bud or fetid Coors Light are acting as rational consumers and that PBR-deniers are the true poseurs. On that note, I direct you to the famous moment in Blue Velvet when Frank Booth, the sadistic drug-huffing gangster played by Dennis Hopper, puts in a good word for the honest charms of PBR and two bad ones for the affected embrace of Heineken. Once upon a time, I supposed that Frank’s vehement advocacy of PBR was further evidence of his degeneracy. Now I regard it as his only redeeming quality.
Porkslap Pale Ale, from an upstate New York brewery called Butternuts, is something of an odd man out on this list, being not a dull lager but a bright pale ale and not so much a cheap beer as a beer that is cheap. I include it to throw a bone to the bourgeois palate. It’s an inexpensive craft beer well-suited to such occasions as backyard barbecues and walking from the deli to a backyard barbecue. I refuse to encourage illegality, but it must be said that the package design of this product is a great bolster to the confidence of anyone inclined to drink in public: On the side of a can of Porkslap, two cartoon pigs leap with joy, jiggling rolls of Lucian Freud flesh, and making the beer look like some arcane soda pop. Further, the packaging makes it easy to explain to a toddler which can to go fetch Daddy from the cooler, please.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.