Much as it pains me to say it…it appears as if Anheuser Busch might have been correct…
The folks at AB have long regarded the entire phenomenon of American craft brewing – which they at first laughed off, until it began to be obvious it wasn’t going away and was eroding their market share – as a sort of new generational youthful folly, on a par with the Sixties anti-war protests and hippies and love beads and flower power. Anheuser Busch had it worked out that what Americans of each successive generation really wanted to drink was ONE style of insipid, watery, flaccid faux-Pilsner, as created by Adolphus Busch’s rewriting and “simplifying” of traditional German/Czech Pilsner recipes, substituting the far cheaper corn and rice for that expensive barley that gave German Pilsners their backbone. “This will be good enough for Americans,” he said, by way of explaining his dumbed-down take on a traditional Euro style, “They don’t know beer, anyway.”
So, for over 100 years, that flaccid Pilsner was virtually all we had to drink. It became synonymous with the term “beer” in American minds. Sure, a precious few small US breweries made an occasional ale but well over 90% of all domestic beer production was tiny variations on that basic corrupted recipe.
All this sounds like a science-fiction story to today’s young people; like “Invasion of The Beer Snatchers”. ONE style of beer? Mention it to a twenty-something. They get that glazed-over look, as though you had just described rotary phones or only three TV channels. Back through the 50s, 60s, 70s, and into the 80s, the reverse of today was true. “Dark beer” was a shadowy rumor, the sole province of disturbed Euro-trash poets and artists who also smoked black cigarettes and wore berets and lived in attic apartments in New York…or somewhere. Not where we all lived, anyway. The quick thumbnail of the 1960s went like this: “Three channels, black & white. Dial phones. 45 rpm records, three-minute songs, sock hops. TV dinners, Betty Crocker recipes, Wonder Bread. Those new-fangled 8-track tapes. Hand-cranked windows in all cars, gear shift lever on the column, AM radio only. No video games – playing Outside, hula hoops and toy guns. Computer? What’s a computer? Mimeographs just giving way to photocopiers that needed daily refills of toner.” And so on. And on. And on.
And even while the first, larval stages of the coming Technological Revolution were just beginning to crawl from their laboratory wombs, beer was…just that lame-ass Pilsner.
Even today, that lame-ass Pilsner is STILL is the largest-selling style of beer on our planet. Quick, what are the top-selling beers in the world? If you named any craft beer, you lose. Here’s the start of the list:
1. Snow · 2. Budweiser · 3. Tsingtao · 4. Bud Light · 5. Skol · 6. Heineken · 7. Harbin · 8. Yanjing…
ALL light lagers in the same exact style as Budweiser. Heineken, of course, tastes sorta radically different from the rest, as they long-ago pushed mild and inoffensive but crisp hops to the fore and down-played malts. Heineken tastes like hops tea and that resonates with a LOT of people but it, too, is fundamentally a watery Pilsner-style beer.
At first and for a LONG time, artsy and even slightly free-thinking American youth refused to have anything to do with lagers. Budweiser, of course, was the youth poison of choice and that kept the whole “King of Beers” nonsense afloat. And the nouveau “weight-consciousness” spawned the hellish reality that is Bud Light, a pallid version of something that was already pallid. Anheuser Busch’s response to millions adopting new beer habits? Scorn and derision. Super Bowl ads ridiculing “Peach Pumpkin ales”, this less than two weeks after they bought a craft brewery which was just releasing…a Peach Pumpkin ale.
I was told by a sitting AB vice-president that their vast conglomerate board meetings are still rife with talk of “young drinkers returning home to Bud“; that their market analysts insist that craft brewing will run its course and we all all eventually realize that, hey, we PREFER weak, relatively tasteless domestic lagers, made in quarter-million gallon batches. And we all just laughed and cracked another Dogfish 90 and shook our heads.
Then, about five years ago, now, there began to be a small wave of reappreciation for lagers, the basic beer style of the Pilsner. Bottom-fermented (yeasts sink to the bottom of the tank), (fun fact: That famous Budweiser “Beechwood-aged” thang? Beachwood adds no flavor. They use staves that lay on the bottom and allow the yeasts a place to “flocculate”, in effect lounge chairs for yeast beasts) cold-brewed, lower-alcohol lighter beers, as opposed to the warm-brewed, top-fermented (yeasts float on the top) ales with their bigger flavors and higher ABV. Our ongoing war against drunk driving dovetailed nicely with the idea of less alcohol. Our communal sun-worship promoted the appeal of lighter beers. Lagers caught on once again and today, we have whole new waves of the kind of tedious Euro-snot beer pedants who always bemoaned America’s fixation on bigger beers, IPAs, Imperial Stouts and basically anything that didn’t fit their German/Austrian/Czech lager obsession. As with Pinot Noir drinkers in the wine culture, lager fans embraced the ideas of “subtlety”, “nuance”, and “restraint” as virtues and while I don’t at all begrudge these folks their preferences, they do get right condescending in their continuing criticism of current American beer styles, reserving particular venom for the whole idea of the US version of the IPA. You can occasionally slide an “authentic” English-style IPA past one of these jamokes but it requires some shoving. They will usually allow that, yes, IPA IS a legitimate English beer category but that our pervasive US influence has now even ruined the British.
And the glee coming off these guys about the resurgence of lagers registers on the Richter scale.
It is absolutely true that the majority of Americans never really did reject domestic Pilsners, as alt-beer fans never rejected any of the other lagers we see from Indie/Craft brewers. There has always been a place for lighter beers. As there should be. I drink lagers a LOT and have a relative handful that I will drink instead of an ale, at times. (Great Divide “Hoss” comes to mind) Mine tend to be Viennas and Bocks and dark Lagers but I adore Pinkus UR Pils, Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen, Celebrator, Weinstephaner Helles, and dozens more. But I am primarily an ale guy. I like BIG flavors, in beer, wine, Whiskey, ginger ale, ice cream, pizza and most other things. I don’t drink most Pinot Noir because most Pinot Noir is a fairly narrow set of flavors, all breadth and no depth, and tends to be made, at least in the Northwest, aggressively acidic, even puckeringly tart.
I think America is experiencing the lager boom, frankly, because we are, at heart, a nation of people who do NOT appreciate big and varied flavors. We seem to prefer that light palate rut and we use lagers as the same thing our parents and grandparents used them for: conversational lubricant. Our ancestors would not even understand the urge to think about, talk about, and criticize whatever beer we’re drinking at the moment. It was just…BEER, after all, and it was all pretty much the same thing. A tavern in my current neighborhood tried, about a year and a half ago, to drag customers back to that time when you bellied up to the bar and just said, “Gimme a beer” and drank whatever you were handed. It failed spectacularly and I was one of those who helped insure that it did. My son came up from Denver, one Christmas, and walked in there. The taps weren’t marked and no beer list was visible. The bartender walked over and said, “What do you like?” My son said he liked a beer list. “No,” the bartender said, “What style do you like? Stout? IPA? Pale ale? What?” My son said “IPA” and the guy pulled him a draft and set it in front of him.
“What is this?” my son asked.
“Do you care?” the bartender said. Ay-yi-yi…
“YES, I CARE!” my son said, “IPA covers a lot of ground. Great Divide is not the same as Deschutes. Stone is not Bale Breaker. Different IPAs taste different. How many IPAs do you have?”
“Well,” the guy answered, “Six.”
“What are they?” my son asked. The guy sighed theatrically and read his list.
I knew the owner slightly, so I called her the next day. Left a message. Got a call back and explained why this self-image thing that tavern has of itself as a sort of film-noir-ish speakeasy where real men drink what they get doesn’t work in today’s world. She agreed. When I went in two days later, the taps were labeled and her manager was no longer employed.
But there are, sadly, a wave of new beer fans now who drink mainly to be with the Cool Kids in the cool taprooms and don’t care what their glass contains, which explains hard seltzers. There’s been a backlash against what many people have always ridiculed as being “into beer.” Many of today’s drinkers see what they drink as a lifestyle accessory and lagers are lighter and “safer” – lower alcohol lets idiots pretend they won’t get drunk and can still drive, explaining the rise of “session beers”. And auto accidents.
Having said all this, it’s worth noting that craft brewing is not at all falling apart and, despite the pandemic and the waves of latent juice-box sippers and their milkshake IPAs, new breweries are still opening and the evolution of styles marches on.
And I must note that this post is NOT – NOTNOTNOT – an indictment of “lager” as a beer style. It’s an indictment of BAD lager and the willingness of SO fuggen many people to draw no lines between clumsily-made, low-ambition lager and a well-crafted, balanced, tasty lager of the type that some American craft breweries are already making…well, the ones with expert and careful brewmasters who give a shit about their reputations, anyway.
But Anheuser Busch has always been a bear for marketplace research and maybe they saw this lager resurgence coming. It certainly works to their ultimate benefit and maybe if they were actually willing to climb down off the “King of Beers” bullshit and work at making a lager with the character of a Victory “Prima” Pils or a pFriem Pilsner or a Chuckanut Hellas, they could eventually quit flailing like speed-addled toddlers at the doors of craft beer and carve out some new success. It’s not like they don’t have the resources. But a swelled head is hard to cure and theirs has been swole up like a tick for 125 years.
Even though it will almost certainly do little or no good – I’m not under the impression that I, in any way, fit that description of the phony term of “influencer” – I intend to continue to flail away at those mindless US beer fans who will just dump any ol’ liquid into their flannel-lined pie-holes, with no consideration of how well the beer is made, whether it’s coherent or not, whether it is, in fact, tainted in the way that one notorious Northwest lager was when I was handed it by someone buying me a beer in an area bar. One sip told the tale: musty like grandma’s attic, weak, watery, little or no hops, and barely-discernable grains. In short, an almost perfect clone of Bud Light, if the folks at AB had forgotten to clean their lines for about a week and a half. Disgusting. I excused myself to the men’s room, went into a stall, and poured it carefully down the toilet, lest any of it land on the floor and insult the droplets of urine.
It would be nice if today’s beer fans could bother to taste around more widely, explore some of the styles of ale that sidle up to Lager Territory (Cold IPA, Brut, and Extra Pale come to mind) and quit reflexively running back to the comfortable haven of Less Flavor but…we’re Americans. And we likes our comestibles unfancy and unobtrusive…and lagers fit that like a condom fits a cucumber.