This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.
For all of our pride, and all our desire to see craft beer as an ascendant force ready to topple the combined powers of multinational megacorporations, there are some truths that are undeniable. One of them is this—if you quizzed strangers on the street with the question of “What is beer like?” 9 out of 10 (or perhaps 8/10) will still reply with the following, even in 2018: Beer is a fizzy, yellow, refreshing and not particularly flavorful beverage.
They are the silent majority. They are the drinkers of macro American adjunct lagers, and they’re all around us.
Craft brewers certainly know it to be true. In fact, it’s been fascinating to see macro-style lagers come into vogue among craft breweries in the last few years. In 2017-2018 alone, leading regional breweries such as Founders and Firestone Walker have released beers simply labeled as “lager,” attempting to grab some small part of the “thirst-quenching, light bodied, lightly flavored” demographic. It’s been an industry-wide admission of the truth we’ve always known: There’s a time and place for every beer style, even adjunct lagers.
This inevitably leads us back to pondering the products that once defined the American beer market to the world. The light lagers of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors and Pabst account for more than 80% of the beer sold in this country, and there’s endless argument between die-hard supporters as to which is objectively best. Given our penchant for blind style tastings, it seemed ridiculous that we’ve never actually subjected these non-craft beers to the harsh realities uncovered when you remove all traces of branding and marketing. With this in mind, we decided it was time. It’s time to once and for all determine which Big Beer company is actually making the best product.
This is easier said than done. Thanks to decades of marketing and strong associations with family and the area of the country where we grew up, macro adjunct lagers are perhaps the style that commands the most vocal brand loyalty of any. Nostalgia is huge in this field—whichever beer you first drank at a beach party or college bar, 20 years ago, has a strong chance of still being your favorite today. And once people have chosen a macro to champion, they tend to fight to the death in its honor. That’s why a blind tasting here is so valuable—perhaps more necessary in this style than any other.
For this particular tasting, I must give credit to The Chicago Tribune for inspiration. In 2017, they gathered several Chicago-area craft brewers to blind taste 16 light lagers, and the results were very interesting. The winner? Hamm’s, that famous old-school lager from “the land of sky blue waters” in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today owned and produced by MillerCoors, it bested all of the “premium” lagers on the table, along with hipster favorites such as PBR and High Life. It made me wonder: How would our results differ?
Read on, and find out.
This was a tasting unlike most of our blind tastings at Paste, for obvious reasons. Whereas most of the beer for blind tastings is typically sent to us by the participating craft breweries, this time we largely had to assemble the field via whichever beers we could find in the wild. This meant numerous trips to local Atlanta package stores, gas stations and grocery stores in search of certain elusive brands. We did manage to get some of Pabst’s many regional lager brands sent to us by helpful brand representatives—thanks to the folks at Rainier, National Bohemian and Lone Star in particular.
On the other hand, there are several prominent regional brands that are missing, for which we apologize. In the case of a few, we were told that beer was en route to the Paste office … but it somehow never managed to show up. Curious.
- This is a tasting of non-craft lagers from “Big Beer” producers. We made one sole exception—I included Yuengling Light Lager as an experiment, as it competes in the macro beer market and is largely viewed by the public through the macro rather than “craft” lens. For the first time, we’ve also ranked the entire field—because really, crowning the worst of these beers is even more interesting than determining the best.
- There was no specific ABV limit, and obviously no limit of entries per brewing company. I threw in a number of “ice” beers and even a few malt liquors, just to see where they would land.
- The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
The verdict: No beer in this tasting more perfectly demonstrated what the term “skunky” means than this iconic malt liquor, in production since 1963. Literally every single score sheet says the word “skunky” on it somewhere—it’s all you smell on the nose. It’s like if Pepé Le Pew was rendered in beer form. It’s what another score sheet describes as “beer that went bad, rubbery.” Beyond the all-pervading skunkiness, the rest of Colt 45 doesn’t taste like much of anything—or perhaps it’s simply impossible to taste anything else when you’re drinking something that has been skunked so thoroughly. Either way: Aggressively bad stuff. Why you’d continue to sell something like this in a clear, instantly skunking bottle, I do not know. No amount of Billy Dee Williams impressions is enough to make this situation any better.
The verdict: Please note—this is not the classic Genny Cream Ale, which was too much of a stretch to put in this tasting. Genesee also produces several standard adjunct lagers, of which this is the flagship, and MAN, is it bad. There’s noticeable malt here, but it presents with gross flavors of wet cardboard, followed by raw sugar and fusel alcohol. Never would we have expected this beer to be so sweet, but it’s distinctly off-putting as a result. One tasting sheet just reads “Nope. Nope. NOPE.”
The verdict: There were a handful of malt liquors and ice beers that actually performed admirably in this tasting, but this is not one of them. I’m not sure what else one could reasonably expect from the highest alcohol “beer” in this thing—at a mighty 8.5% ABV, brews in this range typically have plenty of malt or hop character to mask (or at least complement) the alcohol. Not so, on this one. “Boozy wrongness, like smelling a magic marker,” reads one score sheet. “This is not beer,” proclaims another. Aggressively alcoholic and borderline undrinkable.
The verdict: I had bad memories of this beer from my college days, and it turns out they were entirely founded in reality. As a base, Keystone Light isn’t all that bad—it’s thin, watery and devoid of flavor, but it goes down smooth. Take that base and crank up the ABV, though, and things go horribly wrong. Whatever “beer-like” qualities it may once have possessed are now hidden behind a wave of booze, sugar and weirdly fruity artificiality. “Skunky and tangy, no bueno,” says one score sheet. “Like watery apple schnapps” says another. This is everything that is bad about sub-premium ice beers—you would have to be a committed alcoholic to even cosnider stomaching it.
The verdict: I honestly wanted to like this stuff. Schlitz was my German grandfather’s cheap American beer of choice back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I remember the fanfare with which they rolled out their “classic ‘60s formula” back in the 2000’s. People don’t realize the historical importance of this brewery, which was the largest American beer producer before the 1950s, before tanking the entire company via drastic cost-cutting and replacing malt with cheap corn syrup in the ‘70s. So yeah, I wanted to enjoy this, but what we tasted was pretty damn bad. Expressive on the nose, but not in a good way, Schlitz is surprisingly vegetal—the “cooked canned vegetables” note of DMS, most likely. There are people who like this stuff, so perhaps we just had some bad cans … but if it’s a good beer, it shouldn’t be getting notes like “smells like deodorant, but tastes like armpit.” This was certainly a disappointment.
The verdict: Light lagers, as a whole, are really not supposed to come off as predominantly “fruity.” If your combination of malted barley and a little bit of corn or rice comes off with “apple juice” as the predominant flavor note, then something has simply gone terribly wrong. This cheapo entry into the ice beer category (if you don’t know, ice beers are standard lagers that are lowered below freezing, and then some of the frozen water is removed to concentrate the beer and increase ABV) is particularly bad on the nose, described in one score sheet as “paint thinner and Jolly Ranchers.” It’s simply all out of whack. Even the most tastelessly bland light lager from a major macro brewer is more pleasant than something like this. I refuse to believe that the brewers as Anheuser-Busch could possibly have any respect for the consumer who chooses to drink this type of beer.
The verdict: Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Natty, the non-ice beer version is only better by the smallest of margins. This one, rather than overpowering you with booze and weirdly ripe fruitiness, just creates a total flavor vacuum—but please note, we will GLADLY take that over the preceding beers. One score sheet describes it as “not quite as flavorful as tap water,” which is probably being generous. Another simply settles for “Watery, thin and lightly metallic.” All in all, this beer is a void into which you might pour flavor, but it’s still twangy and odd enough to be worse than some of the similarly low-volume, low-flavor examples. Either way, this is the worst of the standard “30-pack” light lagers, fit only for the least discerning of frat parties.
The verdict: You gotta hand it to Anheuser—some exec in the ‘70s apparently decided that the company needed not one, but TWO subpremium beer brands. Seriously why does this company still need both Natty AND Busch brands? The obvious answer would probably be “to take up more space on the shelf that would otherwise be filled with a competitor’s brand.” As for the liquid, it might as well be the same stuff that’s in the Natural can. This one’s badness is all the more impressive for the fact that it can’t blame its bad taste on being an overly boozed-up ice beer of malt liquor—at only 4.3% ABV, it has no excuses. Super thin of body, with twangy, artificial notes of paper bag and green apple, there’s nothing to enjoy here.
The verdict: Okay, now we’re getting interesting. Kudos to the macro giants for at least keeping their “premium” brands out of the very bottom of the basement in this blind tasting, but the fact of the matter is that Bud Light is still a very bad beer—the worst of the three major, premium “light” brands, without any doubt. Lightly skunky on the nose (despite coming out of a can), it has a particularly weird finish—moderately sweet, with an artificial, grape-like fruitiness that makes it very difficult to stomach. One tasting sheet describes this unique condition as “waxy,” for what it’s worth. It’s a little bit mind-blowing to drink this and realize that it is the #1 selling beer in the U.S.A., and likely will be for decades to come. You have to feel bad for the core demographic—even in their chosen beer style (macro adjunct lagers), you can do so, so much better than this, and even pay less in the process.
The verdict: I’m a little bit shocked that this beer actually did slightly better in this blind tasting than Bud Light, but it shares much of the same weirdness regardless. “Twangy, fruity and a bit sour, almost winey” reads one score sheet. Another, which was being slightly more kind (and buoyed the score a bit), more charitably described it as “lemony and yeasty.” However, yet another score sheet more accurately captures the overall vibe of pretty much every beer in this tasting so far: “No. Like, even for cheap beer, no.” Make no mistake, about the entire first half of these 30 beers are products we’d never want to taste again.
The verdict: Don’t feel too bad, Anheuser—Coors is making some pretty shitty light beer as well, they just have fewer brands than you do. The second of the “big three” is nearly as bad as Bud Light was, described as “off” by just about every taster and “boring” by the only one who wanted to vouch for it. “Slightly solventy, stale, cardboardy … and then a weird flavor of watermelon on the finish?” reads one particularly perplexed tasting sheet. Like so many of these other bad light beers, odd fruity flavors and overt sweetness mar the experience considerably, especially on the finish.
The verdict: This one is proof positive that “no flavor” is overall a more desirable trait than “bad flavors.” Probably the lightest beer of the entire tasting, in both assertiveness AND color (this one is practically clear), Busch Light has a distinct “this is not beer” character to it. Slightly cidery, but almost imperceptible in terms of flavors, it confounded practically every taster. One writer described its effervescence as “champagne-y,” while another offered up what sounds like a very probable theory: “When this brewery switched to bottling water after the hurricane, they forgot to switch back.” Truer words never spoken, but still, we’d rather drink one of these tasteless things than the actively bad beers that came before it.
The verdict: Man, I so wanted this one to be good. I really, really did. I’ve heard about Rainier for years from friends in the Pacific Northwest who prize the beer as their iconic regional macro lager (one of the many owned and produced by Pabst), but unfortunately the reality couldn’t live up to my hopes. Things actually start out pretty decent on the palate with this one, with some classic American lager maltiness and grainy notes, but it then makes a hard left turn into a bizarrely fruity finish—I’m talking a bowl of Froot Loops here. The brewery even seems to realize that these flavors exist, given that the official description says that Rainier possesses “a slightly fruity background,” whatever that means. The reality is a strangely artificial ending that derails a promising beginning. This was one of the most unique beers in the entire tasting, but I wish I could say that was a good thing.
The verdict: This is right about the point in this ranking where the beers complete the transition from “bad” to “more or less drinkable.” Lone Star is of course the regionally produced Pabst brand for Texas, beloved by Austin hipsters in the same way that Rainier is by PNW hipsters. It’s a marginally better beer, a bit on the watery side and oddly sweet, but nothing in here is really a dealbreaker. The ambivalence is present in one score sheet, which just says “meh, this just tastes ‘yellow.’”
The verdict: Okay, now this is fairly surprising. We would have expected the stronger version of Bud Light—a beer that I legitimately thought had been discontinued a few years ago and was shocked to find at the store—to be more abominable than the original, rather than less. Instead, it’s merely “pretty bad,” although the tasters were divided as to how bad. One tasting sheet describes the result as “popcorn and vegetal,” but another is kinder, calling it “refreshing, with no aroma”—the only tasting of ours you’ll ever see where that is a good thing. Personally, I think we may have been overly nice to this one.
The verdict: It’s sort of hilarious to think that only a handful of decades ago, a beer like Coors Banquet had such a mystique around it that well-meaning Midwesterners would drive out to Colorado to acquire cases of it, load up their cars, and come home, Smokey and the Bandit-style. We can only assume that they really loved the flavors derived from “corn syrup (dextrose),” as listed in the official ingredients. Today, it falls in the middle of the road—sweeter than it should be and slightly boozy, you might think you were drinking one of the ice beers on the table, although it’s never oppressive. We’re definitely in the “blah” section of the rankings now, though.
The verdict: Everything about this result, and this beer, was surprising. You expect ice beers to be among the worst of the bunch, rife with boozy notes and off flavors, but Icehouse defies every expectation because it doesn’t taste like anything. This is a strong contender for the most tasteless beer in the competition—Busch Light is the only other one in the argument. Icehouse is like an achievement in scrubbing every ounce of detectable flavor out of the final product, which is all the more amazing, given that it’s an ice beer. “Super, duper thin and watery,” reads one tasting sheet. “Clean, refreshing and tasteless. It’s like the ghost of a beer.” From another sheet: “The taste of nothing.” From another: “Watery, fine light beer. Inoffensive.” This stuff is just a big blank space … which is still good enough to get it into the top half of the rankings! This one ended up being the poster child for our “no flavor is better than bad flavor” credo.
The verdict: Maryland’s regional Pabst lager, “Natty Boh,” is a popular symbol of Baltimore, and it at least acquits itself decently in a blind tasting. It certainly has more character than a lot of these—a bit of crackery malt and a little bit of citrus on the nose give you something to work with. One taster thought that the lightly citric character made the beer come off as slightly acidic or tart, but it wasn’t enough to really bother the majority of drinkers. We wouldn’t hesitate to reach for one at a crab boil, at the very least. And the can is fun to look at, right?
The verdict: Another surprise, one of the biggest of the tasting—something labeled “malt liquor” that we didn’t hate drinking! Suffice to say, this is much, MUCH better than the similar-looking Schlitz “High Gravity,” and it’s also much better than regular old Schlitz as well. This garish-looking can yields something that isn’t all that bad—crisp graininess is met on the nose by a bit of buzzy spice not unlike the profile of Czech Saaz hops. Only on the back end does a bit of booziness start to creep in—enough to make you wonder what the ABV of this thing is, but not enough to be completely distracting. Color us surprised. If someone ever forces you at gunpoint to consume malt liquor, let it be this one.
The verdict: Unfortunately, we weren’t able to acquire Milwaukee’s Best—otherwise known as “the beast”—for this tasting, but we could get its second cousin, Old Milwaukee. There’s honestly not much to say about this one—it is VERY bland, and VERY plain, but it also doesn’t have any notable off flavors that muck everything up. It is, dare we say, beer-esque. Very, very light maltiness and a clean, instantaneous finish are pretty much all there is to it—what one score sheet refers to as “fizzy corn water.” But overall, not bad.
The verdict: This being a less-than-serious blind tasting, I decided we should have some fun by conducting a little experiment. Deep in the heart of Milwaukee, there resides a local legend known as “Schlabst.” Apparently created by a local man named Peter Wilt, this fabled brew was generated when he couldn’t decide between Schlitz and PBR at the bar. Being an enterprising fellow, he did what any of us would do—he bought a bottle of each and combined them in the mug, Schlitz on the bottom and Pabst on the top (it would be a “Plibtz” if reversed). The result was apparently deemed successful enough that “Schlabst” remains a local custom. And indeed, it’s not bad, but that’s almost entirely thanks to the presence of PBR, which—spoiler alert—we all quite enjoyed. So this is the result of taking a beer we didn’t like (Schlitz) and combining it with a beer we all enjoyed (PBR) to find the expected result—a passable beer that minimizes the negative aspects of the weaker half.
The verdict: The “King of Beers” itself, Budweiser’s sales continue to wither on the vine each and every year compared with Bud Light, but just about everyone should be able to agree that it’s the far superior beer of the two. “Bud Heavy” is fairly light and inoffensive on the palate, without much malt presence to speak of. There are hints of sweetness here, but it’s not as galling as Bud Light by any means, presumably because it’s balanced by the slightest hints of bitterness. With that said, this beer is still “acceptable” more than it is “memorable.”
The verdict: Well look at that, something in the “sub-premium” category actually snuck into the top 10. Another case of “no flavor is better than bad flavor,” Keystone Light can brag of being very clean and extremely mild—the gulf between this and the horrific Keystone Ice couldn’t possibly be bigger. It’s also better than several of the other “low-flavor” options like Busch Light and Icehouse, simply by virtue of not being quite so thin and watery in texture. Other than that, this one is very nondescript. One tasting sheet describes it as “Very plain, a little musty, not much going on here but no problems.” Another calls it “literally nothing but wheat water,” while acknowledging that it still drinks plenty easy. What more can you ask from something this cheap? This is like “best case scenario” frat party beer.
The verdict: One of the only segments of Anheuser’s portfolio that has actually been growing in recent years is this low-carb beer, which has been very successfully marketed toward endurance runners and irritating CrossFit disciples from coast to coast. This stuff is the ultimate in “I don’t want to taste anything, and I just want it to go down effortlessly,” clearly designed to be poundable following your workout. It might be the driest of all the beers we sampled; there is no residual sweetness in this thing, which means it is ridiculously easy to drink. As one score sheet says: “Super dry, bland and fizzy. Clean, but practically nonexistent.” That’s either a plus in your eyes or a minus, but at the very least this beer is exactly what they intend it to be.
The verdict: I was hoping this spot would go to Yuengling Premium Beer, the little-known product Yuengling produces that is actually Budweiser-esque, but it proved difficult to find. Instead I substituted Yuengling Light Lager, which has a slightly more amber hue (it looks lighter in person) and a bit more malt character. Indeed, this was pretty much the only beer in this tasting regularly described by tasters as genuinely “malty”—what a novel concept, right? It features hints of toast and bread crust on the palate, but is still very light of body and somewhat watery in texture, which makes more sense when you find out that it’s only 3.8% ABV. On one hand, it’s kind of impressive that they produced a decent beer at 3.8% ABV, but on the other hand, you’d be better off with almost any regional craft brewery’s much more flavorful amber ale.
The verdict: Let it be known: Miller makes the best beers in this category, and it’s not even close. In fact, an astounding four out of the top five entries into this field are Miller-owned brands. As for the original “light beer,” Miller Lite, it obliterates the other two members of the Big Three (Bud Light, Coors Light) in the premium category, being both less flawed and more interesting, which still isn’t saying much. Lightly grainy/crackery on the palate, with just a touch of sweetness, it avoids the accusation of being thin or flavorless while also avoiding the pitfall of being strangely fruity, boozy or sugary. Many score sheets echo variations upon “a good example of the style.” Of the three major light brands, Miller Lite has been the one with the best sales momentum in the last few years, and I can now see why. If blind tastings ever became compulsory, this is the beer that would end up dominating the macro “premium light” segment.
The verdict: I admit I had to laugh, seeing Miller Genuine Draft perform well in a blind tasting. This is the beer my parents drank while I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, consuming it at backyard cookouts and neighborhood functions. Now, it can barely be said to exist at all—I was sort of surprised I even found it in Georgia. It went from being one of the biggest macro brands of the ‘80s and ‘90s to being completely eclipsed by the hipster cred of the (quite similar) Miller High Life, but credit where credit is due—if you’ve ever enjoyed High Life, you’ll probably like this one too. MGD is very clean and very neutral, with a moderate amount of lightly bready malt, followed by a little hint of vanilla sweetness. It is extremely standard, but put it in a blind taste test next to Budweiser and Coors Banquet and it will be the beer you wish the other two could be.
The verdict: Everything that MGD does, Miller High Life simply does better—ironic, given that this is the “value brand” of the two. It’s the equivalent of Busch being superior to Budweiser, but whatever; take the value where you can get it. High Life is a bit more assertive on the nose than many of these beers, and for once we mean that in a good way, as it brings prominent notes of shredded wheat, hints of lemon citrus and a touch of corny sweetness into play. The texture is pretty nice as well, on the fuller and creamier side, without the watery thinness of most of the others. There’s not much to say; it’s just a good example of the style.
The verdict: Millions of hipsters can’t be wrong, yeah? Well yes, but let’s not pretend that PBR came into the vogue back in the 2000s because it was the objectively better brew—it was all branding at the time. With that said, it’s also one of the best adjunct lagers out there when tasted blind. Perfectly balanced and with plenty of character, it’s not lacking for flavor and not plagued by glaring imperfections. From one score sheet: “Subtle sweetness and cream of wheat, inoffensive and authentic grainy character on the back end. Tastes like an actual beer.” From another: “Tastes fine, actually has some complexity.” That’s about as high a form of praise as you’re likely to hear in any blind tasting of macro adjunct lagers, so congrats to you, Pabst.
The verdict: Well, here it is—absolute vindication for the Chicago craft brewers who chose Hamm’s as the best macro lager in their own Chicago Tribune blind tasting. Here, with a field twice the size, the results were exactly the same—Hamm’s on top, proving itself as the most interesting, tasty and ridiculously affordable of all the macro adjunct lagers. And like four of the other top five, it’s also made by Miller (well, MillerCoors anyway). Another interesting observation about the top four, while I’m at it: They’re all 4.6 to 4.7% ABV. Is this the perfect range for American light lagers, or just a coincidence?
Regardless, Hamm’s was simply that much better than everything else on the table. Crisp and light of body, it brings a nice bit of grainy/bready malt complexity, followed by a touch of vanilla/corny sweetness. On the nose, it stands out for an honest-to-god (but very subtle) hop profile, which trends toward fresh/floral notes and hints of lemony citrus. It’s refreshing, while being flavorful enough that the palate never gets bored. It’s most definitely the cheap lager that I’ll be keeping in my own fridge from now on, and that will be surprisingly easy, given that Hamm’s is now distributed in Atlanta. It would seem that the secret behind this beer is starting to get out—could it be the next hipster sensation to dethrone the likes of PBR and High Life? If it does, it will have Paste’s support.
In honor of Hamm’s victory, please enjoy this vintage TV ad depicting a man and his bear out for a leisurely Sunday drive. Any given weekend in The Land of Sky-Blue Waters, right?
JIm Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more craft beer content.