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Friday, April 19, 2013

Mass Market Lagers Compared (Part 1)

I have always intended to do a survey of mass market lagers, and there's nothing like a book chapter to bring urgency to such a plan.  So on Wednesday I went out and rounded up a bunch of them (there are tons, more than you probably imagine) and last night Sally and I cracked open the first chunk.  To make this interesting, I will list the beers I tried and you can guess which were the tastiest.  I'd put one head and shoulders above the rest, another two were quite nice, two were skunked (green bottles!) but somewhat discernible, and one was really quite bad.  So the challenge--which was the really good and which the really bad?  (I've listed the countries of origin, not necessarily where they were produced.)
  • Asahi Super Dry (Japan)
  • Beck's (Germany)
  • Carlsberg (Denmark)
  • Foster's (Australia)
  • Heineken (Netherlands)
  • Peroni (Italy)
  • Steinlager (New Zealand)
  • Stella Artois (Belgium)
  • Warsteiner (Germany)

So first off, what characterizes these beers generally?  It's not that mass market lagers have less flavor than some other styles.  Rather, the flavors are just more overly-processed and hard to distinguish.  A helles is no tour de force of intensity, but you are able to distinguish the malt and hop flavors.  In mass market lagers, you get a sweetness without malt definition and usually just a tiny sprinkle of hop spice.  I've forgotten how fizzy and gassy they are, too.  When you're drinking a bunch in a row (not that I drank anywhere near all of any single beer), you instantly start to bloat and burp.  This is what the mass of men like in a beer.

The Good
By far the best was Peroni.   More a true pils than a mass-market lager, it had less carbonation and a warm bready malting.  The hops were--at least in comparison to every other beer we tried--vivid with spicy herbal quality.  In a blind tasting, I would have been certain it was a German beer.  In the next tier down was, quite surprisingly, Foster's.  It's a full beer with toasty malting.  Many of these wear badly, as the sugars begin to cloy, but the toastiness of Foster's makes it far more moreish.  I threw Warsteiner in partly as a ringer, but it disappointed me and was only good, not great.  It had the nice malt character you expect from a German beer but only a tiny blush of peppery hops.  Smooth and easy-drinking, but very, very mild.  Sally was also picking up a strong honey ester that put her off it.

The Bad
By far the worst beer was Carlsberg.  I'm not sure I've ever even had the beer before, and I certainly won't again.  It had a wicked combination of tin and sweet corn in a very watery solution.  It is an august brand (lager yeast was first isolated there) and I expected better.

The Stinky
Stella and Beck's were both lightstruck.  It wasn't too horrible in the case of Stella, which was otherwise quite a bit like club soda.  Beck's is a fairly hoppy beer by comparison, but has a watery consistency--like a watered-down pils.

The Average
Asahi has almost no flavor whatsoever, and because it is dry, it finishes without a whisper.  Heineken, the most familiar to me of all these beers, is a medium-bodied, fairly sweet beer that is on the upper end for mass market hopping.  Steinlager is actually pushing the upper tier--it's closer to a pils and has grainy malts and fairly decent hopping. 

The Ringer
I did toss a Session Lager in there just to see what to make of it.  It stuck out like a sore thumb.  Lots of husky, thick American malts and obvious citrus hopping.  I joked to Sally that it tasted like an imperial stout next to the others.  I was really hoping it would stick out, but I had to make it run the gauntlet to see. 

Stay tuned for round two...


  1. Boak's comment on Beck's in a blind-tasting: 'It tastes like spit.'

  2. Good stuff. "Quite a bit like club soda" is going to be my new tasting slogan. I only wish you had staged this as a blind tasting.

    I used to like me some Steinlager before there were so many better choices; maybe if it wasn't in a darn green bottle it would have ranked higher in your list.

  3. "Quite a bit like club soda." That could apply to virtually any American lager. I see you conveniently left those clunkers out. Good thinking.

    I do not know the Peroni. Warsteiner seems like a decent beer, but comparative tasting can reveal the shortcomings of any beer. Steinlager remains my favorite cheap beer when I'm in Hawaii, green bottle and all.

    One obvious thing about these beers is that none of them has any staying power at all once they start to warm up.

  4. Beck's pilsner available in the USA, since 2012, is brewed at AB-InBev in St. Louis, not Germany. This is not reported on the 12pack package.

    You would think AB-InBev distributions channel would treat their beers better.

  5. Out of curiosity do you know how close the bottles you tried were to their pull dates? Just wondering how much of a role that could play...and how things would panned out if you had Beck's and Heineken from a can instead...of course what you bought is their "natural" state in the market place.

  6. "quite a bit like club soda" reminds me of the term used to describe a golf shot that almost goes into the lake. It's called a Budweiser, because it's pretty close to water.

  7. re: lightstuck Stella and Beck's
    For fairness, you should seek non-abused beers for comparison. Eg, a bottle from the middle of a light blocking cardboard carton box or canned beer.

  8. I couldn't agree with you more. Peroni was at the top of my list. But I can't forget about the Heineken. Great post! From

  9. When you consider macro lagers, as a New Zealander, I'm a little bit proud of Steinlager. It could be a lot worse, especially compared to the fizzy, sweet, brown beers that make up most of our macro beers.

  10. I've argued this before years ago, but without a doubt, Carlsberg, heineken, and so on absolutely know their beer is getting skunked. But that skunked taste is part of its brand identity. Most people can't articulate what it is, but the people who drink these beers *like* it. Possibly because it's a kind of sulfury flavor that mixes with the sulfury taste of lager (which is mostly industrialized out of mass produced lagers), who knows.

    Most beer snobs hate it, but I've had intermediate level tasters tell me they know what it is, but like it anyway.

    Subjective taste is a hell of a thing. Well, that, and marketing.

  11. Daniel, you may be right in some cases, but certainly only in the American market. No one in Amsterdam wants a skunked Heinie.