NEW YORK — By popular demand, our topic today is beer, cheap beer. Some of you may be wondering 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.
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.) 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. 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.
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 U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis,” by Victor J. Tremblay and Carol Horton Tremblay, 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.
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.
Patterson writes about spirits and TV for Slate.