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Who Makes the Best Dive Bar Beers?

Putting Budweiser and Corona to the test

During the summer of 1997, I found myself amid a field of peers, all of us congregating under a banner of moonlight. The dewy grass tickled my ankles and gave me a chill despite the 75°F evening. As I clung to a frosty silver can and slowly brought it to my mouth, a gulp of icy beer shot past my lungs and into my stomach. In retrospect, it was like a scene out of Dazed & Confused — a gaggle of high school kids quietly partying in a suburban field, with the sole ambition of avoiding the cops — or popo, as we referred to the police back then. And, of course, getting drunk.

In my hand was a Coors Light — the first beer I ever tried on my own, not counting the sips of Tsingtao I had reluctantly swallowed over the years with my parents at various Chinese restaurants. All throughout high school I drank Coors Light at these parties, and when my parents were out of town, and I bought beer for friends with my fake ID at a local bodega, Coors Light was always my move.

During my four years of college in upstate New York, my friends and I drank Coors Light while playing beer pong, and we drank Coors Light while pre-gaming with Power Hour before frat parties. But when we actually hit those parties, our heels clinging — as if we had stepped in bubblegum — to those sticky frat house floors, we'd continue the night not quite where we had left off with Coors Light, but knocking back plastic Dixie cups of PBR, Natty Light, or Milwaukee's Best — the best of the worst kegs those TD Chi brothers could find.

If you look to the roots of "traditional American" mega breweries, many got their start early on during the 19th century, and were founded by German immigrants who shacked up on U.S. soil and did what they knew best — brew the beer of their country: lager, or lagern in German.

Around this time, lagers (and more specifically pilsners, which originated in the Czech Republic) were "the hot new thing" in beer-brewing in most part of the western world, explains Ryan Sweeney, beer expert and owner of The Surly Goat in Los Angeles, among other lauded craft beer bars. Prior, all beers in the world had been brewed as ales, meaning they were top-fermented beers (the yeast would rise to the top of the brew during fermentation, hence the name), and the yeast needed to be kept at a relatively warm temperature, between 50°F and 77°F, to stay alive. As compared to ales, lagers were (and still are) brewed at a colder temperature, around 50°F give or take, with bottom-fermented yeast, and this process is known as cold lagering — basically storing beer in a cold environment. Thus, lagered beers displayed cleaner flavors, while ales were usually more fruity (this flavor discrepancy comes down to the the chemical reaction which occurs with yeast and warmer or colder temperatures). When German immigrants came to the U.S., they brought with them this cold lagering style.

Budweiser, The Great American Lager, Is Born

Arguably the most ubiquitous symbol of American beer is Budweiser, a light lager which E. Anheuser & Co. brewery co-owner Adolphus Busch first brewed in 1876, drawing on German brewing traditions, but tweaking them for an American palate. In effort to prevent the beer from spoiling, Busch developed a method to pasteurize his popular brew — he was, in fact, the first to pasteurize beer — which enabled him to preserve the product and ship it long distances. Busch later introduced refrigerated railcars, which made cross-country beer distribution a reality and, in 1879, Budweiser became the first national beer brand. (Following their Budweiser hit, twenty years later Anheuser-Busch released Michelob.) But it really wasn't until post prohibition that Budweiser truly exploded.

From 1920 to 1933, almost all breweries were wiped out. However, Anheuser-Busch was able to sidestep Prohibition in a way and stay in the game by changing their business model and brewing non-alcoholic malt drinks like a product called Bevo. Because their production facilities were functional during Prohibition, once repeal set in, Anheuser-Busch had an immediate head start (with a fully functioning brewery) on beer production.

Directly after Prohibition, a race between brewers commenced to get beer out as quickly as possible. In effort to turn the most profits, many brewers modeled their beers on German lagers since that was the most popular style prior to 1920, but they cut corners using un-malted, cheaper quality ingredients which yielded beers with less flavor. Meanwhile, Americans had basically stopped drinking for more than a decade, and so these watered-down brews were a perfect fit for the general public, which desired something easy to drink. And keep in mind, Anheuser-Busch had already been leading the beer industry with its pasteurization and refrigerated railcars pre-Prohibition, and so once Prohibition ended, the company was poised to quickly take over the American beer market since local breweries around the U.S. would have folded during Prohibition — for Bud, there was really no competition.

America and Light Lagers

America became the land of the light lager usually a sessionable brew under 6 percent ABV because that beer style was one of the first, and most widespread, types introduced to this country. Light lagers, which are also now labeled "American-style pale lagers," "American adjunct-style lagers," and "American adjunct lagers," are crisp, and easy to drink because, let's face it, they're not too far off from mildly booze water.

According to Sweeney, an American adjunct lager is "just cheap, mass-produced beer ... it's the McDonald's version of beer." In referencing typical beers found at one's local dive bar, he goes on to explain, "They're all adjunct lagers. So, adjunct is when you're using non-malted barley, so that's when you use corn and rice. [Companies] just [call] it a pale lager because that's the color, and it sounds a little bit better."

Photo by Alex Ulreich

Coors Light was the first beer I tried at age 15, and I bet that some American-style lager is what commenced your drinking career, too. And there's something to be said about the shitty beer you grew up drinking. Good or bad, that flavor becomes ingrained in your brain. The taste (or lack thereof) becomes connected with a sense of nostalgia and familiarity, and that's one reason why Justin McManus, owner of Manhattan's Peter McManus Cafe a typical Manhattan pub that serves an array of such brews like Bud, Coors, and Miller — believes his patrons drink light lagers. Per McManus, "... my customers drink [these types of beers] because it's what they are familiar with." Beyond that, adds McManus, "These are the beers and brands most Americans had when they first started to drink. You develop a loyalty to that. We are an old school bar. Many of my regulars have been drinking here for decades and they enjoy that consistency."

If you walk into any dive bar or pub — from New York to Los Angeles to Texas — American adjunct-style lagers are what you'll find, by the pint, by the bottle, possibly on Special, maybe scribbled in chalk on the wall. But do these easy-drinking, nearly hop-free beers really all taste the same? In effort to answer that question, Eater selected some of the most ubiquitous American adjunct lagers, essentially all the usual suspects on offer for $5 at your local dive, and decided to taste through them all to find the best of the best. Should you grab that Corona Extra or that Miller High Life?

One note. While you now know that I spent my formative years knocking back cans of Coors Light, I expected to have a predilection for that beer. And while sipping the cardboard-flavored liquid did bring back memories of college pre-gaming and parties, that beer, and it's heavier counterpart, did not make the cut.

Taste Testing American-Style Adjunct Lagers

"It's almost magical how you can take something, and create something that tastes like nothing," remarked an Eater co-worker as we embarked on a massive taste test of 22 lighter American lagers basically the beers you'd typically find in a dive bar. The commercial, mass-produced kind.

In the mix: Rolling Rock, Tecate, Keystone Light, Dos XX, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Foster's, Corona Extra, Corona Light, Coors, Coors Light, Budweiser, Bud Light, Labatt Blue, Amstel Light, Pacifico, Natural Ice, Natural Light, Busch, Michelob Ultra, Miller Light, Miller High Life, Old Milwaukee, Becks.

Totally unsurprisingly, Corona Extra and Corona Light everyone's favorite Mexican beach beers, brewed in Mexico City by Grupo Modelo were at the top of the list. As compared to many of the other beers we tried, Corona Extra channeled a bight, mildly nutty, slightly creaming character, with just a hint of bitterness, along with larger, more aggressive bubbles. While Corona Light tasted like a diluted version of Corona Extra, we still could perceived notes of citrus.

Also under the Grupo Modelo umbrella was another winner, Pacifico. This brew brought a salty/saline taste, along with a mild bready note, and we picked up a bit of rubbing alcohol on the exhaust.

While not the most interesting beer in the world, Dos XX — brewed by Heineken-owned Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma in Monterrey, Mexico did come out on top too, with a pleasant bready flavor, light aromatics, and a refined, elegant finish.

One of the most surprising hits out of the bunch was good old Keystone Light, produced by MillerCoors. This frat party favorite smelled softly of white grape juice on the nose, was reminiscent of yeast, went down super smooth, with small bubbles. Watery  — like them all but with flavor. (An interesting note, some believe that Keystone Light and Coors Light are the same, or nearly identical brews; both beers are brewed by the same company.)

Though not quite the Champagne of beers it purports to be, Miller High Life also from MillerCoors — had a subtle suggestion of green apple on the nose, followed by citrus and yeast, finished with a quick bitter bite. Overall, this beer was a little bit brighter and cleaner-drinking than Miller Lite. Interestingly, though, we found Miller Light to have more flavor overall as compared to High Life.

Pabst Blue Ribbon, from Pabst Brewing Company, earned immediate points for its retro bottle label. Overall we found the brew a bit sour, and slightly bitter from hops — a welcome flavor since most beers herein were basically devoid of hop flavor. Another beer in which we could actually taste the hops was Heineken-owned brand Amstel Light, this one was higher on our list since it actually displayed flavor.

Labatt Blue, brewed by Labatt Brewing Company in Ontario, Canada (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev), bought a (relatively) big, malty flavor, along with a pleasing brightness.

Ultimately, as is the case with food and drink in general, the beer someone enjoys is totally subjective. But when considering American adjunct brews, predispositions to certain brands perhaps connect back to early, formative drinking experiences. But for those without brand allegiance, when a dive bar night strikes, the above mentioned adjuncts bring the most taste of the bunch. Within that group, we found the most flavorful to be Corona Extra, Labatt Blue, Amstel Light, and — the sleeper hit — Keystone Light.


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