Given that it's summer, and times are hard, and in part because of the surprising hostility expressed towards American macro beers by a fair number of beer lovers, I've temporarily abandoned my exploration and research into micro brews, brewpubs and craft beers, to actually try a few American style pale lager macro brews. I thought it would be pretty simple; I'd walk to the local grocery store, and get a couple of 22 ounce bottles or 16 ounce cans. In fact, it quickly became apparent that it wasn't going to be that easy. First of all, I wanted to avoid Budwiser for the simple reason that I've had a fair amount of Bud on tap at Dodger games, and that familiarity, I thought, might give "the king of beers" an unfair advantage. I decided to try beers that were familiar brands, macro beers that were widely available all over the United States.
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Fondly known as "PBR," Pabst Blue Ribbon has been brewed since 1882, and is the recipient of a Gold Medal winner at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival, and a Gold at the 2006 World Beer Cup. Pabst Blue Ribbon is 4.74 ABV, and is an American style Pale Lager, according to Pabst. Currently most of the Pabst brands are actually brewed and bottled by the MillerCoors company. According to the Pabst Web site, Pabst Blue Ribbon uses 6-row barley, Pacific domestic and imported Yugoslavian hops; it is then aged at high gravity, cellared and "finished to the likeness of a fine Pilsner."
You'd think, given the comments of various beer fans, that this would be terrible. It's not. It's recognizably beer, though it does seem rather more watery than the micros I've been enjoying, with a slight bitter quality, and yes, it really is very carbonated. My drinking taste-test companion remarked that it "Tastes like rodeo. "
Miller High Life
Founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1855 by Frederick Miller who purchased the small Plank-Road Brewery, changed the name, and expanded. Miller is now part of the MillerCoors company, itself part of the Miller, Coors, Molson conglomerate owned by the South African Breweries corporation, SABMiller. The core beer for the company, Miller High Life has been produced since 1903, with a hiatus during Prohibition. The venerable slogan "The Champagne of Beers" is a reflection to both the pale yellow-gold color of this American Lager, and most particularly, to the noticeably high level of carbonation is a fairly low alcohol beer—4.7% ABV.
Miller High Life is surprisingly yellow-gold in color, and while it's slightly hoppy at the end, overall, my impression is that it's sweet; easy to drink. It's noticeably carbonated; I could see someone forgetting that this is beer and not soda, and yes, the Champagne analogy is an apt one. I have to say, while Pabst Blue Ribbon wasn't anything like horrible, I'd much prefer to drink Miller High Life, and I'm likely to deliberately look for it. This is the perfect beer to drink icy cold on a hot summer day, particularly with large amounts of good pizza, or as the ice-chest companion to a fish fry.
My third beer was Rainier. Rainier, founded in 1884 was a Seattle brewer, one with wide appeal all over the Northwest; folks used to ask for "Raindeer." In the late 1990s the Rainier brewing company was sold, first to Stroh's, then to Pabst. Pabst no longer has any breweries, and contracts most of its brewing to MillerCoors. The Rainer "tallboy" was cold, and that did make a difference, but frankly, I don't think I could distinguish it from the Budweisers I drank at Dodger Stadium, or from the Pabst Blue Ribbon I tried a couple of days ago. It's not awful, it's definitely beer, but, I'm not rushing out to buy a six pack any time soon. If you're not from the Northwest, you might not realize that this is heartbreaking; Rainier was a beloved "local" beer for years and years, available only in Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, and a few Canadian border towns. In 1999 when Pabst closed and sold the Seattle brewery, a cultural icon (and a beer recipe) were both gone forever.
When I first thought about writing this piece, I decided, before actually shopping, to try three macros; Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller High Life, and Michelob, on the recommendation of a friend who had fond memories of Michelob as a surprisingly good beer. As it turns out, I'm hopelessly naive about macro beers, retail sales and distribution. Finding Michelob, just Michelob rather than Michelob Ultra, proved to be impossible. For one thing, they've renamed the original Michelob beer; it's now called Michelob Original Lager. For another, Anheuser-Busch has done very odd things in terms of branding. For years, the Michelob's bottle with the gold foil was an icon. One of the things that was distinctive about Michelob was that since the 1960s, they'd been using a mixture of malt (made from barley) and rice to make their beers, rather than the traditional 100% malt. In February of 2007 Anheuser-Busch began using a new embossed teardrop bottle inspired by the "teardrop" bottles used in 1961 and discontinued in 2002, and they returned to 100% malt. Now, though, the Original Lager is in a standard bottle like any other Michelob bottle. Their branding decisions involve trying to muscle in on the "craft beer" market—to the point of making seasonal beers, and offering suggestions about food to accompany their beers that use language reminiscent of the snootiest of wineries.