Monday, November 7, 2022

Cheap pale lager tier list

Food and beverages websites do love listacles. Every so often you see a prominent website put out a ranking of American lagers or cheap beers. The first one I remember was Deadspin's ranking of 36 Cheap American Beers

In a recent Vinepair article I shared on my Facebook page, my friend Randy from Twin Barns Brewing was among numerous professional brewers who were asked what their favorite macro light beer was. Craft beer drinkers probably don't realize how much pale lager professional brewers drink. When I was at the Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville the bars were running out of Pabst and High Life. 

There are a few reasons for this. Brewing is a physically demanding job. At the end of a shift something light and refreshing hits the spot. Brewers also like to be able to drink something without having to think too much about it. When you think about and critically taste the beer you make all day, it feels nice to shut off that part of your brain. A lot of brewers are also bored of IPA

Reading the Vinepair article got my wheels spinning a bit. I have my preferences when it comes to macro lagers, but like most things I struggle to name one favorite. 

One thing I don't struggle with is jumping on dead trends. One such dead trend is making tier lists. Instead of trying to pick one favorite and telling everyone why I think it is the best, putting macro lagers into tiers is a more manageable task.

What is interesting about macro lager is that there is more regional variation than some people realize. There are regional brands with a strong local following like Natural Bohemian in Baltimore. At the same time multi-national brewers like Anheuser-Busch will push some brands in some areas more than others. I was shocked to see Busch Light on tap recently in Iowa. Earlier this year when I was in Texas there weren't a lot of places that had Budweiser. 


My criteria:

These are pale lagers that are commonly available in the United States and are relatively cheap. By cheap I mean cheaper than most craft beers. Legacy brands like Narragansett that meet the Brewers Association definition of craft are included. Craft brands launched after 1980 are not eligible. With so many craft brewers making pale lagers these days, we would be here all day if I put them in tiers. Also excluded are brands that were initially craft and were later acquired, so no Kona.

Pale Lager is an important distinction. I'm not including Amber or Dark Lagers which excludes Yuengling Lager and Shiner Bock. Also not eligible are Pilsner, Helles or similar styles. What is the point of comparing Pilsner Urquell to Bud Light? I am also not doing flavored variants. Do Naturdays and Busch Light Apple on your own time. 

I am only ranking beers I have actually drank. The tiers are mostly based off of memory. Most of these I haven't drank in years, and some since college.  I did look at my Untappd to see if there were any lagers I initially missed, and if I wrote down any thoughts. I did find a couple.

To me, cheap lagers need to be clean and crisp, but need to have some flavor. The flavor can be delicate, it can be one dimensional, but I need something to hold my interest.

With that out of the way, here are the tiers:






S-Tier

These beers manage to be clean, but still offer enough flavor without being bland. 
  • Coors Banquet - More flavor than most American lagers, but still super crisp and drinkable. No wonder this beer was bootlegged back in the day when Coors didn't distribute east of the Mississippi.
  • Leinenkugel Original - Outside of Wisconsin Leinienkugel is known as the shandy brewery. The range of lagers that Leinie produces can stand on their own. When I first tasted Leinie Original in Wisconsin it was a revelation. Super clean with lots of flavor for an American lager. I wish this was more available on the East Coast. 
  • Utica Club - Brewed by FX Matt in Utica, New York, Utica Club was the first beer brewed after Prohibition. I tasted my first "Uncle Charlie" at the brewery. One of the few large brewers to survive Prohibition and consolidation, the 1800s era brewery campus is like walking back in time. The best comparison would be walking into a really old bank building with wood and brass fixtures everywhere. I was able to revisit this one at a Syracuse Mets game this summer. Still held up!
Beer, baseball, and summer nights.


A-Tier

These are all beers I really enjoy, but are a notch below S-Tier.
  • Narragansett Lager - Initially I had this one in S-tier. I love how local investors brought the Gansett brand back, consulted the last brewmaster to recreate the classic recipe, and relaunched the beer. I bought an 18-pack earlier this summer when I was in a brewing rut and thoroughly enjoyed it while my kegs were empty. It's just not as clean as the beers in S-tier. Gansett Lager has some fruit and banana going on in the flavor. Recently on the Craft Beer Channel on YouTube, Narragansett didn't fair particularly well in a blind tasting. 
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon/Old Style/Lone Star/etc - Pabst Brewing Company produces Pabst Blue Ribbon as well as other legacy brands like Old Style which is synonymous with Chicago, Lone Star "The National Beer of Texas", among several others. Any and all of these are perfectly fine. What I am not sure of is how different they are from each other. My friends from the old Come and Brew It Radio podcast attempted a blind tasting of PBR and Lone Star; they couldn't tell much of a difference. 
    National Beer of Texas!

  • Guinness Blonde - Guinness launched Guinness Blonde American lager as a product for the American market. Something American drinkers might go for after St. Patrick's Day when sales of Guinness Draught traditionally tank. Hearing about how Guinness coaxed their house ale yeast into producing a clean lager tickled my inner beer nerd. This beer is easy to drink with a kiss of modern hop flavor. When Guinness opened their US brewery in Baltimore the beer was re-branded as Baltimore Blonde and the recipe tweaked. Notably Guinness added Citra to go with the Mosaic hops, how novel. Still, I'm sure this new version is as good if not better. I need to give it a try soon.
  • Harp Lager - Speaking of beers I need to revisit, this is a lager made by Guinness in Ireland. My best recollection of Harp is that it is clean, very crisp, with a hint of hop bite in the finish. Underrated.
  • Modello - Modello Negra is probably my favorite Mexican beer. As pale lagers go, Modello Especial is my Mexican lager of choice.

B-Tier

I like these, just not quite as much as S-Tier and A-Tier
  • Iron City - As Old Style is to Chicago, IC is to Pittsburgh. I drank a lot of these during Homebrew Con week this year. Fairly clean, if not quite as much flavor as the beers in the higher tiers.
    Yinzer beer!

  • Coors Light - The first light beer on the list. I used to go through phases where I would drink more light beer than regular American-style lagers. I probably didn't drink Coors Light the most, but I always have had a soft spot for it. To me Coors Light has a really refreshing quality I can't put my finger on. 
  • Michelob Light - This is my uncle Paul's beer! I always forget about this one. I was actually reminded of it in the Vinepair article. Before the Michelob brand was synonymous with Michelob Ultra, Michelob was developed as a premium to compete with imports and the nascent craft beer movement. Michelob Light has more flavor and body than other light lager on the market.
  • Stella Artois - Stella is my JetBlue beer. Drinking a Stella immediately after drinking an adjunct lager really shows the difference in flavor you get from an all-barley malt beer. It is ironic that in American TV commercials Stella Artois is poured into a chalice, and the bartender is wearing a tie as he carefully removes the excess foam. The whole thing is designed to ooze sophistication. Meanwhile in Britain, where at 5% Stella is considered a high-alcohol beer it has this unfortunate nickname
  • Genesee Cream Ale - After finishing up the 18-pack of Narragansett this summer, I grabbed a 30-pack of Genesee Cream Ale. As a cream ale, I can forgive Genny Cream being a little more estery than the other beers in the upper tiers. Borderline A-Tier. I moved Genny Cream down to balance A-Tier and B-Tier; I think it's where it belongs. When the Genesee Brewery purchased new fermenters as part of a modernization and expansion project, the tanks were shipped from China to Rochester, New York via the Erie Canal. Cool as hell!

Depends on the day

The beers in this tier have faults. Sometimes the faults are charming and these beers can drink like a B-Tier or even A-Tier. Other times the flaws are all I can taste.
  • Budweiser - I have probably written more about Budweiser on this site than any other commercial beer. Bud was my go-to for most of my 20s. When I drink it now it either feels like seeing an old friend for the first time in years, or green apple slowly builds up on my palate the more I drink it.
  • Heineken - In an era before craft beer, imports like Heineken were the only premium options available. That's why my grandfather was a Heineken man. Pa's Lager brewed in his honor takes cues from Heineken and Stella. Heiniken is known for it's skunky/funky flavor that I can tolerate some days more than others. 
  • Miller High Life - Kind of similar to Budweiser in that I get quite a bit of acedaldehyde from it. Compared to Bud, High Life has a little less flavor and body, but might have a little more drink-ability. Anyone who has High Life in a higher tier is overrating it. 
  • Rolling Rock - The poster beer for DMS. Loads of canned corn flavor. I go back and forth on this one more than any other beer. Some days it hits like an A-Tier, some days an F-Tier.
Too fresh, too clean
These beers are clean, inoffensive, but kind of lifeless.
  • Carlsberg - Cleaner than Heineken, but I think Stella has a little more flavor. Nothing wrong with Carlsberg, but not one I'd go out of my way to drink. Carlsberg does do a lot of important research at their brewery. They were the first brewery to isolate lager yeast. We do owe them a debt of gratitude. 
  • Miller Lite - This was my friend Randy's beer of choice in the Vinepair article. He barely tolerates my baseball opinions. If Randy reads this I will probably hear about it. I will say this: technically speaking Miller Lite is the best light beer. It's the cleanest light beer on this list, finishes crisp, and has a nice underlying grain flavor. The issue I have with Miller Lite is every time I drink it I get bored with it halfway through my first one. It becomes too drinkable after awhile. The flavor is too subtle and gets lost with each sip. 
  • Shiner Premium - When Shiner launched in Massachusetts we picked up a sample pack. This is the cleanest and most generic tasting lager I have ever tasted. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing notable about it either. If Shiner Bock were eligible for this list, I'd probably put it in B-Tier.

Decent ethnic restaurant beers

These beers are fine. I can't say I have ever bought any of these at a store.
  • Asahi/Sapporo/Tsingtao - These beers are all pair nicely with sushi or Chinese food. Just enough flavor and carbonation to cleanse the palate, while not being too filling when eating lots of rice. Sapporo gets bonus points for its 22 ounce can. Asahi to my recollection is the cleaner beer. In a world where beer styles grow like weeds, I guess a craft beer with a moderate percentage of corn is a "Mexican Lager", while a beer with a moderate percentage of rice is a "Japanese Lager". 
  • Fosters - Fosters used to have the slogan: "Fosters, Australian for Beer!" I used to joke that it was "Fosters, Australian for Budweiser!". I think I have only ever had Fosters at Outback Steakhouse. It's fine, but it would be nice if they could import fresh kegs of Coopers instead. 
  • Tecate/Dos Equis - Maybe Dos Equis is better than Tecate. I don't have a strong feeling either way. Maybe if we were comparing Dos Equis Ambar to Tecate that would be my choice. I'll take any of these with chips and salsa over a slushy margarita made with cheap tequila.
  • Peroni - Italian PBR. Literally "Nastro Azzurro" translates to "Blue Ribbon". Does cut through rich Italian dishes nicely.
  • Tennents - If I am drinking at a soccer bar on a Saturday morning, usually I'll order an Irish Coffee or Guinness Draught. Tennent's, the top selling lager in Scotland, isn't bad if you want something a lighter on the palate. 
Won't say no
These aren't my favorites or aren't otherwise notable. If its in a cooler, or you are offering me one I won't say no.
  • Bud Light - The best selling beer in America and the unofficial beer of the angry Masshole. Bud Light is like wearing a shirt that shrank in the laundry. Not big enough to hide the underlying flaws that are there. However I did get to drink Bud Light out of a tank at the brewery in Merrimack, New Hampshire. In that setting it was amazing. I think of that every time people say Guinness is better in Ireland. 
  • Busch - When I was in Iowa and saw a corn cob tap handle, I thought it was Busch. The bartender corrected me and was surprised I didn't know it was Busch Light. Sorry dude, I'm not from there! The story about the launch of Busch Beer is that Saint Louis Cardinals Owner Gussie Busch, the chairman of Anheuser Busch, wanted to rename Busch Stadium "Budweiser Stadium". At that time corporate ballpark names were not allowed; fair to say times have changed. Anyway, if Gussie Busch couldn't have his Cards play at Budweiser Stadium, nobody could stop him from coming out with Busch Beer.
  • Busch Light - The unofficial beer of Iowa, I don't think I have seen Busch Light on tap anywhere else. I remember in college vastly preferring regular Busch to Busch Light. I had to revisit Busch and Busch Light to check my recollection. Regular Busch is only 4.3% ABV, while Busch Light is 4.1%; so not a huge difference there. Busch Light is noticeably fizzier than Busch. The lower carbonation level in regular Busch gives it more body, perceived or otherwise. The higher carbonation in Busch Light really pushes out fruity aromas, i.e. faults, in the beer. I still preferred regular Busch in the side-by-side, but both belong in this tier. 
    Not much separating these. 

  • Corona - The best marketed beer maybe of all time. I don't love Corona with or without a lime. However much they paid to have Vin Diesel and Paul Walker drink Corona in The Fast and the Furious it was a steal.
  • Hamm's - The cheap beer of Minnesota. While there for the Craft Brewers Conference, was told I had to try it. Wasn't horrible.
  • Keystone Light - I remember this being comparable to Busch Light. Not about to buy "30 STONES" to confirm.
  • Michelob Golden Light - Another cheap beer you can find all over Minnesota and Wisconsin up there with Hamm's. I remember really liking this when we went to Wisconsin in 2014. Trying it again in 2022 I didn't like it quite as much. Funny story is that when Jennie moved to Massachusetts she was really disappointed this isn't available here. She had to switch to PBR as her go-to cheap beer. 
    Sharing a Mich Golden with my colleague Rob at CBC in 2022

  • Molson Canadian - My dad has been mostly a Bud man during his life. As a young man, him and his buddies memorized the credo on the Budweiser label. For some reason I remember my dad drinking Molson when I was a kid. Did this brand have some kind of popularity surge in America in the late 1980s? This is one I forgot about until I checked Untappd. At that time it reminded me of Heineken.
  • Straub - A legacy brand from Philadelphia. I had this as a hotel beer a few years ago and remember nothing about it. It was probably okay. Can't move it up to a higher tier at this time, but may do so in the future
  • Red Stripe - Another beer I haven't drank in a long time. Not sure how it compares with other import lagers like Heineken, Stella, Carlsberg, etc.

F-Tier

Beers I don't like that much.
  • Amstel Light/Michelob Ultra - Both too watery and lacking in flavor for me. If Miller Lite really only has one more calorie than Michelob Ultra, give me that all day long. Bud Light and Coors Light can't be that much heavier either.
  • Bud Light Platinum - I drank this when it launched for two reasons: an Untappd badge, and to obnoxiously sing the Justin Timberlake song from the commercial. I can't carry a tune, but my falsetto is elite. Bud Light Platinum tasted like Bud Light mixed with well vodka.
  • Corona Light - I want to know who drank Corona Extra and thought the world needed a lighter version.
  • Landshark Lager - I am not really a Jimmy Buffet fan. Fair play to him for turning a few hits from the 1970s into a lifestyle brand and an estimated net worth of $900 million. I drank his beer once and hated it.
  • Natural Ice/Natural Light/Milwaukee's Best - These serve a purpose: frat parties and high school kids.
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