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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Irresistible To All: Mass Market Lagers Compared (Part 2)

My survey of mass market lagers continued last night (part one is here), with more revelations and insights.  Minor ones, perhaps, but insights nevertheless.  Yesterday's batch was clustered much more around the median beer than the first, which featured impressive winners and losers--and glory of glories, we had only one skunked beer in batch two.  I'll list the beers again for you, and you can consider which came out on top. (Countries listed are origin, not necessarily where the beer was made.)
  • Coors (US) "The legend since 1873"
  • Kirin Ichiban (Japan) "One of the world's most unique beers"
  • Kona Longboard (US) "Island lager"
  • Miller Genuine Draft (US) "Fresh draft taste/frescura y sabor"
  • Pacifico (Mexico) "Imported beer/brewed in Mexico"
  • Sapporo (Japan) "Irresistible to all ... masterpiece of the brewer's art"
  • Singha (Thailand) "The original Thai beer"
  • Spaten (German) "Premium lager" 
Now, while you're considering those, let me mention that this batch contained three beers I'm quite familiar with, and as I was drinking them, the role of familiarity and nostalgia came into focus.  I can't drink a Miller without thinking of my youth.  Miller and Hamm's were two of my go-to cheapies, and that spritzy corn beer holds a lot of associations.  Singha I drank in Thailand, one of the nicest countries on the planet, and its slightly rough malt and lemongrass character remind me of heat, humidity, and Phad Thai.  Finally, Pacifico is my current go-to beer for hot days.  There's something similar among the Mexican beers, and of these, Pacifico is my fave.  Maybe it's the sunny yellow label or the association I have with it as a summer beer, or the slight exotica it brings with it when it comes across the border.  In each case, it's actually impossible for me to decouple the mental associations from the flavor.  This is our boon and our curse as humans--we have big, flamboyant brains that we use for silly things like investing meaning in cheap beer and remembering lyrics to bad songs.  C'est la vie.

Anyway, to the beers.  The easy winner was Longboard Lager, but I wouldn't call it a ringer.  It is very much brewed to be a mass market lager.  It's the kind of beer I could hand to my father and he'd agree that it was beer.  Perhaps rich and "European" tasting, but beer.  It's got just 20 IBUs and 4.6% alcohol, and could never be mistaken for a pilsner.  Yet it is very full in flavor, with a kiss of toast on a grainy malt bed and a bright, slightly lemony dusting of hops.  (Full Sail Session Lager, by contrast, really isn't brewed to compete with these beers.  My dad would politely have one and then head back for a can of Busch.)

The Japanese acquit themselves nicely.  Kirin, which I have drunk very rarely, was hugely floral--Sally said Gardenia--and had a sweet honey malt base.  It was lush and tropical.  Sapporo started out tropical, with a touch of lychee, but then warmed into that classic very dry, toasty profile I associate with the Japanese.

Miller Genuine Draft is spritzy but a bit thin.  When cold, it has a subtle white wine note (Riesling?) that fades into a more pronounced corny flavor as the beer warms.  If you want to really get a sense of American beer and the effect of corn, Miller's your beer.  Coors has more body and is crisper, but is fairly neutral on the palate.

Pacifico is surprisingly full-bodied in comparison with these others, especially the American beers.  You think of hot-climate beer and you think crisp and light.  The malts are toasty and I couldn't find any cereal malts with my tongue and nose; anyone know what the grist is?  Singha beer (don't ask no questions, Singha beer, don't tell no lies) has a flavor that I pick up in many Asian beers all the way to India, and I would love to know what it is.  It's a bit rough, a bit grassy.  Singha is distinctive, but not in uniformly positive ways.  Nevertheless, I am powerless to resist its charms.

Spaten was skunked.  (Though I've had the beer fairly often, and it's a good one.  Spaten Lager is not exactly a helles--it's fizzier and has less prominent malt character--but does have the density and richness you'd expect from an all-barley beer.)

The survey was by no means complete.  Mexico and Canada were under-represented; Japan probably over-.  But this wasn't a bad start.  Perhaps I'll make another round, but perhaps not.  At a certain point, you come to the place of diminishing returns. 

Your thoughts?


  1. By all means, have a terrible mass-market Blue or Canadian, but no-one in Canada expects them to be any better than anything else and probably a lot worse. It would also be fun for me but probably a terrible experience for you to survey all of the weird amber / cream ales in the Canadian market, some of the worst offenders include Granville Island's 'Maple Cream Ale'.

  2. "a flavor that I pick up in many Asian beers all the way to India, and I would love to know what it is. It's a bit rough, a bit grassy."

    Just a guess here, but maybe sorghum? Some sorghum can produce apple flavors, but I think grassy is a possible outcome of using sorghum as well.

  3. Given the choice between any of these in this post, I'd pick either the Coors or the Longboard Island Lager. The Longboard because I've never had it. The Coors because it's kind of a decent fallback/worst case scenario beer. Still weak, but at least it tastes like something.

  4. For me, it's a tough call between Pacifico and Longboard. Neither has much character, but they're okay in a pinch...especially if it's hot. We have Longboard on tap at my athletic club, despite my efforts to get them to bring in something better. It's lame, but a lot better than Bud Light. My dad would taste any of these beers and quickly reach for a bottle of his (really dreadful) homebrew. Enough said.

  5. Pacifico is the best of mass produced Mexican beers IMO. Coors is good lawnmower/grilling beer. Longboard not worth the extra cost over Pacifico or Coors.

  6. Kaplan--could be. I don't know what's in the grists of those beers (and good luck finding out--I've tried!) and I'm not really familiar with sorghum's flavor, except in gluten-free beers.

  7. Jeff, you're kind of going backwards with the style descriptions here. If you're making a descriptive grammar of beers, Spaten is a DEFINITIVE helles, literally the first one to come out of Munich. If you go into a bar in Munich and order a helles there's a good chance spaten is going to come.

    You want to criticize its lack of malt character compared to, say, Augustiner by all means--blame the process. Could be any number of things, shittier malt, lack of decoction mashing, who knows. Spaten is a lousy beer these days but it's still as helles as ever.

  8. Daniel, shouldn't we say Spaten is the HISTORICAL helles? Spaten's role in brewing history is astounding, and introducing a helles is one of the brewery's many laurels. But I don't think you get to claim to be the standard of a style for all time just because you introduced it 119 years ago.

    It's a great beer to use when you're talking about styles and the seams that separate them, though. Where does helles end and mass market lager begin? Is it possible for mass market lagers to be all-barley, or does that definitionally make them helleses? The answers are always going to be provisional and debatable.

    By my reckoning, it is possible to make all-barley mass market lagers, but they have to be very light, have not a huge amount of malt presence (though bready, grainy flavors shouldn't be verboten), not much in the way of hops, and they should be very fizzy and gassy. Spaten hits the marks right down the line. I can't claim to be an expert on German beer. I was only in Bavaria a week, and although I drank as much beer as a human could do in a week's time (a lot of it helleses, a type I love), I obviously still left a lot on the table. But what I encountered in those Bavarian hellesbiers was different than modern Spaten.

    Your mileage may vary.

  9. Is Kona as "mass market" as these others? I didn't realize it was so widely available.

  10. I'm talking about the style of beer, Anon, not the volume. Longboard is stylistically a mass market lager, not a helles or a pils.