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.
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.