My first taste of cheap beer came when I was a pre-teen, when my father brought home a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best—not to drink, but to pour into scattered old pickle jar lids to trap and kill slugs in his garden. I stole a sip before the slugs could drown in their bubbly grave. The beer was warm and reminded me of moldy cornflakes.
High school parties introduced me to Bud Light, never in a bottle or can, always out of a red plastic cup, and always filled with dirt and debris from playing drinking games. You didn’t really drink Bud Lite so much as you poured it down your throat.
Later, at a Pacific Northwest college and nearer to legal drinking age, I turned my nose up at cheap lagers and dove into the cultured world of microbrews. India pale ales seemed so exotic that they might actually be from India. Hefeweizens were a mystery to pronounce and Russian imperial stouts felt regal. Now, microbreweries have proliferated across the United States to the extent that they’ve run out of names for beers. Even the laziest convenience store will carry four different kinds of IPA.
But the math was all wrong back then. When four Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys cost less than half of a four-pack of Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, the choice on a college budget is clear. PBR wins, even though it is lumped into the pool of “things hipsters like.” But if there are such things as hipsters, they are not drinkers of PBR. Broke-ass young people are drinkers of PBR because the brew hits that sweet spot where taste and affordability intersect. A cold PBR is a treat. It’s an all-malt beer, which means it’s not made with cheaper grains like rice and corn.
After PBR, I discovered Miller High Life, the “Champagne of Beers.” Normally, I’d warn against drinking anything that comes in a clear bottle, as the sun’s UV rays will have skunked your beer’s flavor into something close to stale sock sweat, but there’s something about that bottle—it reminds me of art deco architecture and the beer is especially effervescent with sour notes (maybe am I a hipster?).
And then, if you can find it, there’s the Coors Banquet, the kind that comes in a stubby brown bottle or cream-yellow can. This beer isn’t as prolific as its silver-canned cousin (Coors Light), but damn if it isn’t tasty. But the best so-called crappy beer would have to be New England’s Narragansett. I’d drink this beer over most microbrews even if the prices were comparable. It pours golden and it drinks easy with a well-balanced trio of sweet malt, bitter hops and sour bubbles.
It’s finally time to celebrate cheap, ordinary beer. These budget brews are a reminder that not everything has to be artisanal and refined. It is OK to be blue-collared and not blue-blooded. I like to drink my beer in context—an ice cold PBR on the beach with some friends is bliss. It doesn’t matter how a beer sommelier might rate it. And a headache the next morning from drinking an expensive microbrew feels no different from a budget six-pack hangover. The difference is you’ve got some change in the morning to eat something greasy.