The Best Worst Brews
A taste test of cheap beers. (No, Bud Light isn’t cheap enough to be a “cheap beer.”)
Courtesy Pabst Blue Ribbon.
By popular demand, our topic today is beer, cheap beer, beer cheaper than a relatively solvent individual generally sucks back. “Try all of the cheapest beers,” a thirsty mind demanded. “Compare and rank them.” Some of you may be wondering, in the solicitous tone a gracious host takes toward a problematic guest, whether the subject under discussion might be better off beneath discussion. Such concerns are not to be pooh-poohed; most conversations about cheap beer employ the word rank strictly as an adjective. And yet the theme of cheap beer abounds with richness and flavor, thus presenting a vivid contrast to the fact of it.
Let’s begin by polishing the lenses of our cheap-beer goggles: In the mind of the bourgeois reader living among the connoisseurs of America’s growing number of craft beers, the phrase cheap beer may well cover a broad swath of domestic macrobrews—any of the mass-produced adjunct lagers and light lagers snobbed at as BMC dreck. While it is entirely accurate, in terms of culinary aesthetics, to identify all such beers as cheap beers, as a matter of cultural analysis, it is fatally imprecise. I’ve recently been arguing this point with some of the finest talents in the beverage industry, by which I mean the girls behind the tap at my neighborhood bar. Asked to name her cheap beer of choice, one tattooed barmaid told me, “Bud Light with a little grapefruit juice in it.” I started to protest that Bud Light wasn’t cheap enough for my purposes. “That’s as cheap as I go,” she said. “I’m a high-class lady.” I tipped her an extra buck for delivering a quote that sets up my thesis statement so perfectly: To survey the world of cheap beer is to examine a complicated terrain of class markers, class solidarity, and classiness indices.
Bud Light is the best-selling beer in America, followed by Budweiser, Coors Light, and Miller Lite, and each of these is considered, on account of its pricing, a premium beer. When the big brewers of St. Louis and Milwaukee expanded nationally after Prohibition, they charged premium prices for the flagship brands they advertised as primo product. In 1950, Budweiser was a luxury good consumed by a small elite, and popular-priced beers “commanded a market share of about 80 percent,” according to The U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis, by Victor J. Tremblay and Carol Horton Tremblay. Today, popular-priced beer is not terribly popular, and the term of art for the category is subpremium. This is the beer we are talking about when we talk about cheap beer—the beer down on the bottom shelf of the convenience-store cooler and the basement floor of the frat-house taproom. Today, subpremium beer commands a market share of about 10 percent.
Question: What happened? Short answer: Whassup? What happened were a few million TV commercials and the Veblen effects they engendered. People who study the structural economics of beer agree that buyers who prefer premium BMC dreck to the subpremium kind are consuming the conspicuity of a label. (Trader Joe’s nods toward this dynamic with the name tag on its totally-not-that-bad bargain beer, Name Tag Lager.) Scholars like to point—and to laugh while pointing—to a blind taste test conducted by Consumer Reports in 1996. There, a panel of beer experts determined that two subpremiums, Old Milwaukee and Stroh’s, were superior to all the premiums and superpremiums (such as Michelob) that they tasted. Conclusion: “Paying more does not necessarily get you more when it comes to beer.”
But what, exactly, are you getting when you pay less? Sometimes, it is the local pride of a traditional favorite—Olympia in the state of Washington, Lone Star in the republic of Texas, resurgent Narragansett in New England. Sometimes, it is a can of relatively palatable foreign swill marked down for complex cultural reasons; I eagerly await an economic explanation of why Mexico’s crisp Tecate is 20 cents cheaper than Bud at one New York deli and 20 cents more expensive just a few blocks away. And sometimes you are getting an economy-priced headache. Let’s knock back a mixed six-pack of notable brands.
Natural Light is the best-selling beer in the subpremium segment, the fifth-best-seller overall, and—at this writing, in the view of RateBeer.com—the second-worst beer in the world. (It trails Olde English 800, a malt liquor favored in the 1980s by Eazy-E and more recently by college students. It is not in the purview of this exercise to discuss malt liquor, a topic I intend to avoid until there exists a magazine titled Ugly Buzz Quarterly willing to pay $5 per word for my wisdom on that foolishness.) Natural Light is among the cheap beers sold by the 30-pack, which, based on my own experience as an undergraduate, constitutes a single serving. I refuse to encourage young people to drink in such an irresponsible manner as I did because that would be morally wrong and totally superfluous; copious anecdotal evidence suggests they need no such encouragement. But for the sake of this story, I tried to enjoy a Natural Light responsibly and derived no enjoyment from sitting down and sipping one at a leisurely pace. My first mistake was the sitting. Beers of this type are not supposed to be drunk while sitting, unless perhaps the seat in question is mounted on a riding mower. Rather, you douse your central nervous system with them while standing, ideally over a rousing match of beer pong or robopound. Idling over a light beer, with its low alcohol content (4 percent or so) and its high amount of brewing adjuncts (cloying corn, rancid rice), you catch only a gnat of a buzz—or else advance straight from clear-headedness to a faint fogginess resembling a piddling hangover. If you’re having only one beer, Natty Light is one to avoid.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.