Where’s That Crappy Beer Come From?

I like cheap light beer. There, I said it and I’d say it again. Truth be told, I don’t really think of the stuff as “beer.” Sit me down at a decent bar and I’ll generally seek out an aggressively hopped pale ale. But under the right circumstances a pale, watery lager (canned, of course) is the only right and proper choice.  On a deck or porch on a hot day, fishing in a canoe, eating bacon in northern Wisconsin — anytime when one might consider a glass of water, really — these are times best suited for a light American lager. Cold and refreshing, with just the barest hint of beer flavor.

And so it came to pass that I found myself in the massive liquor department of a local mega-mart recently, seeking economical canned brew. I’m talking the amusingly named brands from a bygone age — Schlitz and Blatz received a glance, but Miller Lite, Budweiser, and Coors were right out. Of course, I had the gnawing realization that the process was all hipster posturing. After all, MillerCoors contract brews all of this stuff, right? And don’t they own some of these brands? Hell, every package has a Milwaukee PO box. Where does crappy beer come from anyway?

I ended up buying Hamm’s, so let’s start there. “The land of sky blue waters” is Minnesota, and according to Christopher B. O’Hara’s Great American Beer Hamm’s was once that state’s largest brewer and the country’s 7th largest in the 1960s. Now it’s one of MillerCoors vast stable of brands. So much for sticking it to the man.

Pabst Blue Ribbon is the hipster beer of choice, but at one point Pabst was right up there with Anheuser-Busch and Miller. These days Pabst is basically a holding company for a slew of classic beer brands that are contract-brewed elsewhere, so your PBR probably comes from the MillerCoors beer supply.

Schlitz is part of Pabst’s portfolio of beers. Schlitz had been one of the top sellers in the 1950s and 1960s, but was purchased by Stroh’s in the 1980s. (In my younger days I found it amusing to read the slogan “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous” in close proximity to “Brewed in Detroit.”) Stroh’s was eventually bought by Pabst Brewing Company, which gave the brand a kick in the ass with its claim to have reformulated the “classic 60s Gusto formula.”

Same goes for Old Style. It was originally brewed by the G. Heileman Brewing Company in La Crosse before the company was snagged by Stroh’s. Now it’s part of Pabst, which did some marketing magic recently by making a big deal out of the fact that it’s “kraeusened.” Because that’s what I’m always looking for. Kraeuening.

Ah, Blatz. One of my favorites, due primarily to its utter lack of flavor. It, too was one of those classic brands that bounced between various owners. It’s part of the Pabst collection now, naturally.

The lesson here, apparently, is that any attempt to buy a cheap ironic beer will invariably support the big boys of brewing. So it goes, I suppose. There are some craft brewers who are attempting to recreate the light styles of old, but that will have to wait for another day. For now, I’ll make do with my Hamm’s.