What is it that our tasteful beer photographers love the most about working with Busch beer?
Well, it’s definitely not the complexity. So, it’s gotta be how gosh-darn down to earth Busch is. And we mean that literally. You’re much more likely to find a can of Busch on the ground—either intact or crushed—than you are to find one at a fancier elevation, like, say, a table.
For that reason, the trick to photographing Busch seems to be taking it somewhere that’s both rural and outside. Then you just start shooting—and to be perfectly clear, by shooting, we mean with cameras, not bullets. But we see how people could make that mistake.
The best places for getting great images with Busch usually involve some combination of pine needles, poison ivy, and downed trees. Most importantly, you want these elements to be balanced. We’d love to say, “just like how Busch’s flavor is so well balanced,” but that doesn’t really apply here.
Once you’re in the right spot for a Busch, you will always
know. It’s sort of like a sixth sense, the Busch sense—which coincidentally
seems to have the effect of reducing all the other senses.
Ultimately, perhaps it’s these simplistic qualities that make Busch so adaptable to any outdoor activity that benefits from—some say, demands—light beer.
Casual jaunts through the forest? Busch always by your side!
Climbing random trees? Who
needs two hands?
Hanging out in sketchy caves? Let a bright can of Busch be your guiding light!
A few daybreak hours of semi-tipsy hunting? Well, it can’t hold a rifle (since it’s just a can of beer) but slip it into something camouflaged and so there!
Busch doesn’t necessarily have the best of reputations—but isn’t
that really more a statement about humanity than it is about the beer? Okay, we
guess it could also be the recipe. But to each their own, we say!
Well, thanks for going into the field with us and Busch. We’d
love for the two of you to say goodbye, but we can’t recall where we left the
can. We hear that’s pretty common with this stuff.
No worries! It’s out there somewhere. And, in the meantime, there will always be more good ‘ol Busch beers, just waiting for the right moment to jump out of the forest, or box, and surprise the daylights out of you. But not with its flavor, we just mean with its general presence.
off Interstate-10 in Texas Hill Country, I pull into the dusty parking
lot of a roadside BBQ joint. I’ve been driving across the South for
days, and Texas alone has felt like half of it. Now, I’m deep into a
scrubby region of high desert hills and limestone ridges. I want to grab
a quick bite plus a beer before parking my truck somewhere and bedding
down for the night.
Inside the dimly-lit restaurant, there are buck antlers on the walls
and tables filled by blue jeans with ball cap cowboys and truckers. The
counter attendant informs me of two minor wrenches in my works. First,
only 20 minutes before close, they’re sold out of everything other than
brisket, beans, and bread. And while they’d never consider forbidding a
red-blooded American from having a cold domestic with a meal, they don’t
actually sell the stuff.
I accept their terms for this transaction and, after placing aside my plate of three Bs, I set out across the parking lot to obtain the fourth at a gas station. Scanning the limited cooler options, which range among Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, my choice seems clear: a 6-pack of Lone Star tallboys emblazoned with a 5-point star and the infamous slogan The NATIONAL BEEROF [the state of] TEXAS.
According to the Lone Star website, the brewery was formed in 1883
when Budweiser creator Adolphus Busch partnered with some San Antonio
businessmen to build the “first large mechanized brewery in Texas.”
Early brews had solid Texan names that might otherwise have graced
herding dogs or one-horse towns at the crossroads of seldom-traveled
highways. Things like Buck, Standard, Alamo, and Cabinet. It wasn’t
until 1940—seven years after the brewery re-opened following
prohibition—that Lone Star beer was “brewed, based upon a premium
formula developed by Peter Kriel of Munich Germany.”
In a time-line on their website, Lone Star supplies plenty of that well-known Texas charm in the form of humorous unsupported “facts.” To start, in 1944, Lone Star Brewing went public and its IPO was so oversubscribed that “many confused would-be stock holders [went] to local bars to buy their ‘share’ of Lone Star.” Four years later, when Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first U.S. president from Texas, voters all over the state toasted “with an ice cold Lone Star.” By 1959, the Lone Star Brewery was considered the “world’s most beautiful”—with “really nice” odor to boot! And, at time of research, that quintessential Texas optimism was on full display when loading lonestarbeer.com. Unlike most brewery websites, which typically handle age confirmation with a minimum of two buttons, one being for minors, Lone Star offers a single choice: “Yes, I Am Over 21.”
Despite being called the National Beer of Texas, Lone Star has had
nearly four decades of out-of-state ownership. In 1976, it was acquired
by the Olympia Brewing Company of Tumwater, Washington. Then, in 1983,
it was bought by the G. Heileman Brewing Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
The next owner was the Stroh Brewery Company of Detroit Michigan in
1996. And three years later the Pabst Brewing Company, which has since
changed corporate hands and moved home bases—including Chicago and Los
Angeles—faster than an Austin hipster. Today, Pabst finds itself located
in San Antonio, which returns Lone Star to its original city. However,
the particulars of Pabst’s most recent sale offer all the intrigue of a
Cold War conspiracy.
In 2014, the New York Times and other news organizations
reported that Pabst, and Lone Star by association, was sold to a Russian
company, Oasis Brewing. But several media outlets, including Bloomberg and Slate,
dispute Russian ownership and indicate that Pabst is in fact owned by
an American company called Blue Ribbon Intermediate Holdings. B.R.I.H.
was supposedly created as a joint venture between Oasis Brewing’s
co-founder Eugene Kashper and T.S.G. Consumer Partners, a San
Francisco-based equity firm. A press release by T.S.G.C.P. dated
November 13th (not a Friday, I checked) 2014, mentions not once, twice,
nor thrice, but four times that Kashper is an American. Yet these
documents do nothing to assuage readers that Kashper isn’t the leader of
a S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-esque brewing organization.
Disregarding nationality of ownership, another controversy dogs the
national beer of Texas, this time related to recipe. Some critics have
suggested that Lone Star is in fact the exact same beer as Pabst Blue
Ribbon, just with a different label. While sitting in the roadside BBQ
joint, I crack open my Lone Star and take a guzzle to test. On first
taste, this theory seems possible. Similar to PBR, Lone Star is an
American adjunct lager with a bready, bland malt flavor, minimal hops,
and a watery quality.
Further examination of ingredients and stats reveals plenty of similarities but perhaps just enough differences to confirm separate recipes. PBR claims to include “2 & 6-row malted barley, select cereal grains… American and European hops… [and] a proprietary lager yeast.” Meanwhile, Lone Star uses the “finest hops from the Pacific Northwest with hearty grains from the Central and Northern Plains. Malted barley and corn extract…and [a] proprietary mashing regimen…” While PBR has an ABV of 4.74%, Lone Star’s is 4.65%. While a 12-oz PBR has 144 calories, the same size Lone Star has 136. And, yes, while both beers are brewed in the same facility, for all we know the vats are on opposite ends of the floor.
So, while I munch on brisket and sop baked beans with sliced bread, I
toss back another sip of Lone Star and lament not the bland flavor but
that I hadn’t opted for bottles. Because, under each Lone Star cap, the
avid collector will find one of hundreds of quirky puzzles. Each
features a combination of simple drawings, single letters, and
occasional short words, such as the word Yo + the image of a garden hoe + another garden hoe + the words and a + the image of a bottle of rum.
So, as I return to my truck with the remaining Lone Stars dangling
from a plastic 6-pack ring, I ponder my own puzzle: The letter W + the image of a cowboy hat + a last will & testament + the letter I + some drops of dew + the letter (and slash) w/ + the number 5 + the image of deceased British actor Dudley Moore + the letter L + the number one + a 5-pointed star + the letter s + a single ? and maybe a dozen of these: !!!!!!
an upscale taco restaurant, I study the menu under dim lamps reflecting
off shiny black surfaces. Many gringo friends have informed me this is
the most authentic Mexican food in town, so I’ve taken their ambiguous
endorsements to heart while contemplating items: pickled habaneros,
IPA-battered mahi mahi, chile-encrusted brussel sprouts, and something
called huitlacoche aioli—which a quick search reveals as a Mexican
delicacy and the plant disease also known as corn smut.
During the drink order, most friends opt for complicated margaritas
with apocalyptic names—or draft beers. A barrel-aged coffee stout. A
dry-hopped saison. A sour wheat ale. I decide to deviate with the 4th
best-selling Mexican beer in the United States, Dos Equis Lager
Originally named Siglo XX (or Century 20), the beer was introduced by
Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma in the late-19th century to celebrate
the upcoming 20th. A year before, the brewery brought its first beer,
Carta Blanca, to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Ever since—and just
like northern compadre, Pabst—the brewery has claimed they also won a
blue ribbon, which were possibly as plentiful as contestants. Granted,
this humble company, based in Monterrey, Mexico, hasn’t felt it
necessary to place reminders on every can 120 years later. Instead,
during the past decade, a salt and pepper spokesman has sung Dos Equis’
From 2006 until his retirement in 2016, New York-born actor Jonathan
Goldsmith played the Most Interesting Man in the World. Through
countless TV and radio advertisements, his grizzly-bear-in-a-silk-suit
character, with regionally non-specific accent, became synonymous with
manliness. The typical commercial sees this man, or younger look-alike,
completing a variety of physically impressive accomplishments, such as
arm wrestling a military dictator, freeing a bear from a trap, or
stitching up his own wound while telling jokes to field hospital
Throughout, a voiceover by Frontline narrator Will Lyman
lists additional accomplishments and accolades: “He once ran a marathon
because it was on his way.” “At museums, he’s allowed to touch the art.”
“He is the life of parties he’s never attended.” “When in Rome, they do
as he does.” The ads conclude with Goldsmith, surrounded by fawning
beauties, stating: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer
Dos Equis.” That he sometimes doesn’t drink beer seems a bold admission
for a brewery spokesman. Especially given that most brewery
advertisements implicitly suggest beer should be continuously—if not
responsibly—consumed like intravenous drip therapy.
The result? One of the most successful marketing campaigns in import
beer history. The ads, which ran from 2006 to 2009 in select markets,
led to an immediate spike in sales. By 2009, when the company took the
campaign national, Dos Equis sales were up 17% which moved it into a tie
with Stella Artois for 8th most popular import beer. From 2008 to 2013,
Dos Equis was the fastest growing beer, with shipments increasing an
astounding 116.6%. During that same period, the overall beer industry
contracted, with shipments falling from 219 million barrels to 211.7
million. By 2013, Dos Equis had grown to be the 5th best-selling import
beer. Though, in the following years, it was surpassed by Stella Artois
and had fallen to 6th by January 2016.
Perhaps for this reason, in March of 2016, Dos Equis retired Goldsmith from the role with a commercial sending him on a one way mission to Mars. His only regret? “Not knowing what regret feels like.” Fortunately, there was enough space to take one blonde with him.
Six months later, Dos Equis began releasing new ads, with actor
Augustin Legrand, in a James Bond-esque reboot. Clearly, while Dos Equis
doesn’t often switch spokesmen, when it does, it prefers them younger,
French, and capable of doing their own stunts. In the first installment,
Legrand judo chops a coconut, rescues a piglet from a meat market, and
retrieves a soccer ball from a well—possibly signaling a shift in target
demographic from mainstream American football fans to vegan soccer
hipsters. Another change—instead of a revolving cast of beautiful women,
LeGrand appears with a recurring co-star, actress Marina Artigas. With
this new (and possibly monogamous?) most interesting man’s adventures
just beginning, only time will tell if he can lift Dos Equis’ prospects
and attract new fans.
In the upscale taco restaurant, our drinks arrive along with some
appetizers for the table. Stone ground purple maize tortilla chips with
wood-fire grilled pineapple pico de gallo. Buckwheat flautas filled with
shredded coconut shrimp and chile-orange asparagus, garnished with
caramelized serrano peppers and drizzled in goat-milk sour cream and
ancho-chile BBQ sauce. I’m not sure whether to eat this stuff or report
it as stolen from a contemporary art museum.
So first, I toss back a sip of my Dos Equis. A pale adjunct lager,
there’s a hint of grain, but more notes of carbonation than flavor. It’s
not good, not bad, nor special. Except for a faint disagreeable
aftertaste that’s likely caused by the receptacle. Dos Equis, like many
Mexican beers, is often served with a wedge of lime. This, because green
and clear glass bottles, unlike brown bottles, allow harmful UV rays to
penetrate and cause skunky off flavors. I squeeze a little more lime to
mask this taste, consider dumping in some garlic poblano aoli from a
nearby table, and realize:
I don’t often drink Dos Equis, but when I do, I’m reminded why I don’t.
In a rural German town, I sit on the patchy sand of a fake beach bar amidst a growing Sunday crowd. College kids home for a visit, young professionals chatting, parents watching children frolic under a fountain. Beyond the tree-lined river rises a timber-framed old town and an onion-shaped church tower. I inhale a salty smell—not ocean air but bratwurst and pommes frites. And surveying the locals’ drinks, I’m surprised by the absence of German Pils. Instead, it’s a split between tiny umbrella cocktails and translucent bottles of golden liquid with blue-white labels and bright green limes shoved down their gullets. Sure enough, my wife and her hometown friends return from the bar with a round of now-ubiquitous Corona Extra.
Promoted by ad campaigns such as Find Your Beach or Always Summer,
it’s no longer surprising to find Corona among the green valleys of
interior Germany, or the red-rock plateaus of Utah, the glaciers of
Iceland, the rising towers of Dubai, etc.
According to Grupo Modelo, which is a subsidiary of AB-InBev (not a Mariachi super group), Corona Extra was first brewed in 1925 and became the top-selling Mexican brand by 1935. Five years later, the company eliminated the pesky paper labels because they wrapped beers in Mexico’s humid climes like wet ponchos. Instead they printed their details directly on the glass bottle, which includes a crown icon and two devoted griffins that look less like eagle-lion hybrids than they do camels with some stegosaurus heritage.
Sporadic imports to the United States began in 1933, but not until
’76 did large-scale shipments begin. Corona surpassed Heineken in 1997
to become America’s top import beer. In 2013, Grupo Modelo merged with
AB-InBev to create the world’s largest
Belgian-Brazilian-American-Mexican beer cocktail. To satisfy antitrust
concerns by the Justice Department, exclusive rights to distribute
Corona in the U.S. were sold to Constellation Brands.
Many theorists contemplate Corona Extra’s rise. The Harvard Business Review has attributed Corona’s surging popularity to aging spring breakers who, later in life, wish to fondly recapture those hazy memories of the wild parties of Mexico. HBR claims taglines such as Cross the Border have allowed Corona to become “the drink of choice among yuppies.”
Accessed prior to their merger with AB-InBev—a simpler time when
corporate brewers were more candid on their websites—Grupo Modelo
described how Corona’s symbolic image is carefully cultivated through
rhetorically universalized “ad campaigns that share a similar look and
message.” Remarkably, these campaigns are simultaneously “tailored to
the tastes of consumers in each market,” by targeting “people who are
looking to relax responsibly,” by allowing “strangers [to become]
friends,” by letting “conversation flow so easily between friends,” and
by encouraging “a philosophy of living in the moment.” To summarize
their complex marketing plan, the company emphatically states, “We try
not to complicate things.”
Yet, complications do arise among brew connoisseurs who regularly decry Corona Extra as one of the worst tasting mass-market beers available, attributing its universal popularity to a physically appealing veneer. This controversy deepens when examining the one thing that sets it apart—the infamous clear bottle.
John J. Palmer explains in “Chapter 22: Is My Beer Ruined?” of his respected text, How to Brew,
that skunky aromas in beer are caused by photochemical reactions of hop
compounds from exposure to blue-wavelengths and ultra-violet light.
“Brown glass bottles effectively screen out these wavelengths,” he
writes, “but green bottles do not.” Palmer doesn’t even consider clear
bottles, which offer less light filtration than green ones. Thus,
skunkiness results when the beers are “left in direct sunlight or stored
under fluorescent lights, as in supermarkets.”
Grupo Modelo regularly boasts about creating one of the most
recognizable bottles in the world. However, as early as 1926, one year
after Corona’s introduction, the company “briefly considered the
possibility of bottling Corona Extra in a dark bottle, to…preserve its
flavor, but rejected the idea almost immediately.” The transparent
bottle was the key to their beer’s unique success. After all, they
wrote, “when you use only the finest ingredients, you’ve got nothing to
Of course, that raises the question, if there’s nothing to hide, what’s the lime for?
In the pretend ocean-front bar near the actual border of
Baden-Württemburg and Bavaria, I reluctantly accept my Corona. Like a
wet beach towel, I wring every drop of juice from my lime before taking
the first gulp. A pale lager with low carbonation, what little flavor
Corona has beneath its citrus over-taste seems interrupted mid-sip by a
pungent aroma. As if a sunny cruise were cut off by a storm, sending
passengers below decks into dank corridors that smelled of stale pool
But, admittedly, what Corona never cuts off is fun. From the peaks of Patagonia to the pyramids of Giza, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the halls of Harvard, Corona Extra is an omnipresent beer with a questionable taste and an extra nice beach body. Apparently, that’s worth every gag.
What is it about Yuengling that captures the imagination of our tasteful beer photographers? Well, we’re not really sure. So, let’s just say that we appreciate experience–and Yuengling is really, really old. It’s one of the oldest beers in America. Not exaggerating.
But despite Yuengling’s age, this beer is no stuffed shirt—it’s a liquid-stuffed bottle, which is completely different. And this particular bottle is always up for just casually hanging out.
Old docks with minor flood damage? That’ll do!
Rustic barns with rotting planks? Um, yes, please.
Sit in a puddle of fetid rainwater inside a damaged cast iron fountain? Yuengling in there at the word fetid.
Despite coming from America’s oldest brewery, Yuengling isn’t necessarily well-known across the entire country. The beer is distributed to less than 20 states and only those that are east of the Mississippi River.
But despite its regional qualities, Yuengling has a big presence. Just take a sip and you’ll see what we mean. It kind of lingers on the palate far longer than one might be prepared for.
The trick to photographing a Yuengling is that you need to take it somewhere that is really, really old. Then just set it down and take the picture. That’s pretty much it.
Oh, one other thing. You may need to patiently explain, every five minutes, what a camera is and how that all works. This isn’t so much because Yuengling wants to get into photography—it’s a beer without arms or eyes, come on.
You just need to put Yuengling at ease. Kind of like some people need to put their stomachs at ease after having too many Yuenglings.
Anyways, when the light is just right, and the setting looks appropriately run-down and folksy, this is what we like to call Yuengling time.
Just remember that before you even realize it, your time with Yuengling will come to an end. We’re not saying you should savor it. You certainly can if you want. But, ultimately, we’re not comfortable encouraging that.
Thanks for coming out with us and hanging with our old Yuengling! We’ll have a full review up in the near future. And in the meantime, give a Yuengling a chance. If you want. No one will make a fuss if you don’t.
In a roadside gas station in the Missouri Ozarks, I scan the beer cooler. Less than 100 miles south of St. Louis, AB-InBev products dominate my view. The red and white family crest of Budweiser. The blue blast and white italics of Bud Light. The snow-topped mountains of Busch. The yellow and green highlights of Bud Light Lime. In the bottom row rests a few outsiders like Natural Light and Keystone.
“Don’t pick for too long,” says a friendly fella in a camo ball-cap and beige Carhart jacket. He chuckles, as he bends at the gut to retrieve a twelve pack. “Give yourself a headache.”
I reply with the obligatory chuckle, holding the cooler door open. After
he’s gone, I copy his selection. A simple yellow-brown box with a mounting
plaque pierced by antlers rising from the head of an impressive twelve-point
buck—with a torso, not of flesh and fur, but four Gothic letters that sum to a name:
Little known outside its inner-Midwestern distribution region of southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois, and northern Arkansas, Stag is often referred to as an Ozark beer. This regional attribution is easily confirmed when driving south from St. Louis along country highways like 30, 67, and the infamous 21—Missouri’s deadliest highway, ominously known as Blood Alley.
Along the way, one will encounter frequent Stag signs, plaques, posters, and even the occasional hulking billboard that declares the beer, “Your Hunting Buddy Since 1851.” It’s an endearing, though somewhat dubious, claim that suggests the subsistence hunting of mid-nineteenth century homesteaders was less about surviving in a rough and untamed western frontier and more about toting giant pre-Igloo coolers of punch-tabs through a tipsy, wilderness playground of yet-to-be-filled tags.
Sharper and less sweet than more familiar American beers like Budweiser, Stag is a light-bodied lager with a crisp finish. The Stag Brewing Company boldly describes its flagship (and only) beer as “brewed and groomed for the independent and self minded…who like a strong man’s beer.” As if realizing the somewhat ambiguous nature of this statement, Stag offers a slight qualification: “Strong as in determined.” Continuing this cryptic self-examination, Stag recounts “special [brewing] conditions which enhance malt’s natural flavors,” to somehow paradoxically arrive at “the simplicity of pure Midwestern grains.” Completing this mysterious recipe with “the zest of hops,” Stag can certainly be called, “common ingredients with an uncommon taste.”
First brewed in Belleville, Illinois in 1851, Stag predates Budweiser by a
remarkable twenty-five years. In 1989, following a path worn a decade earlier
by TV’s intrepid Laverne and Shirley, George Heileman bought and moved Stag to
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where dreams have been known to be made to come true.
Today, the Stag Brewing Company is in turn owned by the Pabst Brewing Company
and contract-brewed by MillerCoors at their Milwaukee plant.
But Stag is anything but a big city beer. You won’t find it in most watering holes and dive bars of Milwaukee’s urban beer metropolis, but instead in the open fields and country saloons hundreds of miles south. In fact, the geographical distance between brewery and consumptive locale leads to a reasonable inference that part of Stag’s unique taste comes from some form of in-the-can travel-aging.
My introduction to Stag came in the early aughts with a truck full of raft guides headed for a summer float-trip through Missouri’s canoe-lands. Amid the brick and glass storefronts of a prototypical Midwestern town square, I first spied the iconic ungulate on a yellow sign above a chili restaurant we’d selected for our pre-trip dinner. Inside, over a steaming bowl of chili, I soothed my flaming tongue with the cool compress of a cold Stag.
For three days, Stag beer was by our sides, as we paddled through riffles
and pools, around limestone bends, and under forests of pine and oak. I saw
Stags regularly render single hands nearly unusable for those carrying canoes
around shallows, for those shimmying up cracks through limestone caves, and for
those beaching boats for lunch breaks. Stags were jammed between legs when
frantically paddling away from snags. And Stags floated aimlessly downstream
next to guffawing paddlers and overturned canoes.
Stag became an invaluable commodity when young-uns and parents were out of sight, and the float trip tradition of boobs-for-beer would see bartered Stag cans flying through the air in exchange for fleeting, fleshy visuals. It was a Stag in the hand of one old feller, sitting in a lawn chair on a beach, who, at the sight of my approach, relieved himself through his shorts without standing up. Whether it was a defiant lack of bowel control, or some form of pheromone warning system alerting me that he’d claimed the spot, I never found out. In reality, he was probably just messing with me.
Mirroring the rugged, crumbling Ozark hillsides, the oldest mountain range
in north America where it frequents, Stag is understandably considered an
outdoor beer. Confirmation of this status can be found in the form of crushed,
disintegrating cans littered beside Ozark hiking trails, mixed into the trash
lines along Ozark irrigation ditches, and dropped in the grassy median strips
of Ozark diner parking lots.
Stag encourages this rural sensibility through marketing efforts that try to keep pace with other outdoors-targeted beers. For instance, in recent years, Busch has offered hunting-friendly camouflaged beer cans—many of which have been tragically lost in the pre-dawn duff at hunter’s feet and now remain scattered across the forests, literally hidden under figuratively thirsty noses. Not to be outdone, nor to over-do, themselves, Stag doesn’t offer individually patterned cans, but simply camouflages the entire box of a seasonally-released 24-can case. Clearly, Stag recognizes that a hunter’s beer is most vulnerable, not in the field, but when furtively carried from cash register to car.
Stag didn’t always occupy such a limited consumer niche. In the 1950s, Stag was a mainstream beverage pushed by a semi-cosmopolitan cartoon spokesman. In a series of persuasive commercials, the nearsighted Mr. Magoo bumbles his way through numerous beer-fueled misadventures. In one, he drunkenly jumps aboard a disembarking riverboat and shares a pint with the conductor. In another, Magoo unwittingly prognosticates the future popularity of slosh ball by picnicking on a baseball diamond during a professional game, admirably shifting the ballplayers’ wandering attention to drinking. In a third, Magoo confuses a public library for a bar and demands table service from a mousy librarian, before inexplicably pulling his own beer from his Stag-branded briefcase and insisting a studious patron imbibe with him.
Stag is a simple beer that demands complex description. It is offered in 12-ounce cans and bottles, or in a rare half-quart can that subtly reminds folks that no one knows what a quart is anymore. Stag has been anecdotally described, but not medically endorsed, as the chosen beer of diabetics (due to its low sugar content) and binge-drinkers (due to the alleged guilt-free ability to consume massive quantities without suffering a massive hangover).
The peculiar lettering of the Stag name—an old-timey, medieval font with a forward-facing ‘g’—conveys not the rugged individualism of the Ozark outdoorsman, but the Magna-carta-like imagery of King’s deers, protected forests, and castle walls. Even the color of Stag’s label invites discussion. Is it gold? Is it a shiny light brown? Is it a deep, acrid yellow that resembles the first hazy pee of morning after over-imbibing in the very beer that issues from this vessel?
Whatever Stag is, it’s a beloved beer. This status is plainly apparent as I continue my drive south on MO-21, winding through the eroded Ozark Mountains, past gas stations and minimarts, taverns and BBQ joints, many of which sport the Stag logo in their windows. This region is often called Middle America—even though the actual geographic center of the lower forty-eight lies 500 miles west in Kansas. So, perhaps a better name would be Stag Country. Because Stag isn’t just a beer, but a state of mind. A mental meal that is all the liquid food for thought a drinker needs. A beer fondly nick-named around these parts as Steak, Taters, and Gravy.
In a rental cabin in the mountains, friends and I unload supplies for a New Years gathering. We have enough steak and bacon flats to build a high protein fort. A bag of limes offers a slight chance of vitamins to go with forecast rain showers. And several dozen boxes of various beer brands hint at the cabin-bound weekend to come.
Yes, we have fancy grapefruit IPAs, English brown ales, and old
standby Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. But those are balanced by mainstream
offerings, including American light beers and cheap choices. Slipping
off the grocery bag like a plastic cloak, I reveal the shiny gold and
white box of Miller High Life: The Champagne of Beers. An appropriate
choice, given that we forgot to bring actual champagne.
In 1855, German immigrant Friedrich Müller purchased a small brewery in Milwaukee and founded the Miller Brewing Company. Anglicizing his family name as Miller, the founder died in 1883. But the company remained with the family until 1966 when it was bought by W.R. Grace & Co., which sold it three years later to Phillip Morris, which sold it in 2012 to South African Breweries, which was bought in 2016 by AB-InBev, which avoided antitrust concerns by divesting from their 50% stake in Miller Brewing by selling to Molson-Coors. Phew.
Miller Brewing released their longest running brand High Life two days before New Years on December 30th, 1903. So, not to nitpick, but really, it’s been out for more like 115, not 116, years. Back then, most beer was sold on draft in taverns. High Life was a rarity, coming in a clear slender bottle. And its gradually tapering neck, like all classy things, was wrapped in gold foil. For these reasons, in 1906, the brewery adopted the nickname, The Champagne of Bottle Beer. Curiously, the phrase remained mostly unchanged until 1966, a full 12 years after that exact wording was printed on cans. Finally, in 1966, someone realized it might make sense to pull the word “bottle” off of the can. The simplified nickname, ever since, has been The Champagne of Beers.
The release of High Life was soon followed by the appearance of the
now-famous Miller High Life Girl. According to the Miller-Coors Blog,
originally she was dressed as a ringmaster atop a wooden beer crate,
complete with whip and tall hat. Then, in 1907, Miller advertising
manager A.C. Paul was lost in the northwoods of Wisconsin when he had a
vision of the Miller Girl sitting inside a crescent moon, among other
changes. While that region of Wisconsin is not known for the production
of hallucinogenics, the end results suggest the possibility. The
colorful dress was retained and the tall hat became some sort of
sombrero. The whip was tucked under one arm so her hands could
double-fist a beer bottle and fancy glass. Still, it took almost 40
years before the poor carnie-turned-corporate-spokeswoman had the
courage to turn her head and look directly at the viewer.
Despite High Life’s curmudgeonly age, the brand is actively engaged with 21st century social media. The @millerhighlife Twitter feed features a continuous stream of revealing messages about “living the High Life” that are publicly available and “intended for those 21+ only.” For example, from November 2016: “Every batch…must pass 250 quality tests before leaving the brewery.” And, as everyone knows, nothing says party like 250 ambiguous diagnostics. Other recent gems include: “Don’t overthink a High Life pairing…” and “Miller supported local farmers in mid-1900s by renting advertising space on silos and barns.” Certainly a charitable act, which in later years, evolved into Miller supporting local billboard owners.
In 2002, at the World Beer Cup, Miller Brewing made a bold showing with 6 total awards in 5 out of 76 categories. Of note, High Life took gold in Category 27: American Style Lager from among 18 total entries, including silver medalist Canadian by Molson Brewing of Etobicoke, Canada. But official awards seem academic when compared to more personal endorsements. One vote of confidence was offered in 2015 by a 110-year-old woman in New Jersey who credited High Life as one of two reasons for her longevity. When asked about her secret, Agnes Fenton, of Englewood New Jersey, revealed she drank three High Lifes everyday, plus plenty of Johnny Walker Blue Label, just like her doctor suggested 70 years before. In interviews, Ms. Fenton gave no indication if her doctor had discovered this medical miracle in the northwoods of Wisconsin.
In the kitchen of our rental cabin—with some odd melon-themed
wallpaper bordering the counters—I snag a High Life as the hour
approaches. Known for lively carbonation, I’m curious if I can make a
bottle bubble over when the moment arrives. Upon opening, the cap lets
out a typical hiss, which falls far short of a champagne-like explosion.
A basic American adjunct lager, High Life is made with a yeast strain
brought from Germany plus Galena hops, and a blend of barley malt and
corn adjuncts. Taking a sip, the primary characteristic is bubbles,
followed by a sweet but mild hint of grain and little indication of
hops. Its flavor reminds me of most New Years Resolutions—fairly weak,
short-lasting, cheap to implement (what with 12-packs often available in
the $7-9 range), and something folks might try once a year without
remembering why they gave it up the last time.
One welcome absence is the lack of associated skunk flavors, which
typically occur in clear bottles offering no UV protection. In this
case, the answer is Miller’s use of special-engineered light-resistant
hop-derivatives. Truly, one is living the high life when consuming a
throw-back beverage infused with modern chemicals.
But for me, as midnight draws near, my grand substitution experiment
is a failure. My High Life bubbles on well within the confines of the
bottle. Yes, I could shake one up and spray it around the room, but that
would feel like a Pyrrhic victory. Fortunately, a lifelong buddy spots
my disappointed look and descends with a plan for remedy.
In one swoop he smacks the bottom of his own bottle onto the top of
mine. Hark! Frothy beer foams forth. The clock strikes. Friends whoop
and holler and hug and toast. The time for celebration has arrived!
Another friend watches the straw-pale lager flow onto the floor and
announces his own resolution. Next year, he won’t be volunteering his
credit card for the security deposit.
a day of floating and fishing in the Ozarks, we toss our kayaks on the
grass of our riverside campground. Everyone lines up behind a cooler
resting on a tailgate. One friend pulls out a Bud Light. Another person
extracts a Budweiser. Next, a Miller Lite emerges.
When it’s my turn, I plunge my hand into a slurry of ice. My fingers
burn from the cold as I retrieve, at random, an orange can. Sharp alpine
mountains rise into sky. A pair of ovals resemble a mounting plaque.
Above a snowy forest hangs a banner offering encouraging vocabulary like
celebrate, classic, and tradition. At the
bottom, a full paragraph relays the beer’s history and includes a
Jedi-like mind trick with August A. Busch declaring, from beyond the
grave, “I know you will like it.”
Busch, also known as “Booosh,” aka “B-smooth,” aka “Corn Soda,” was introduced in 1955 as Busch Bavarian. In 1980, Anheuser-Busch dropped the European reference from its name, yet retained the image of vaguely German Alps for its logo. As the company frequently mentions, Busch was their first new beer introduced after the 1932 repeal of prohibition. Such a lengthy delay might indicate AB spent 23 years perfecting the recipe, but a few facts from the company’s history suggest an ulterior motive.
In 1953, August Anheuser “Gussie” Busch Jr, brewery president and
CEO, purchased the St. Louis Cardinals. For marketing purposes, Gussie
sought to rename Sportsman’s Park as Budweiser Stadium. The change was
rejected by the MLB Commissioner over reservations about naming a
baseball stadium for a brand of beer. In response, Gussie named Busch
Stadium after himself. Two years later, in what is probably just a
random coincidence, he also bestowed his name upon his brewery’s newest
A typical American adjunct lager, Busch combines corn, rice, and
dextrose syrups with malted barley, hops, and extract syrups. It’s
mostly sweet and very bubbly, with perhaps a slight over-taste of corn,
hints of malt, and the faintest of hops. A 4.3% abv enigma, Busch is
surprisingly drinkable with as much taste as the beer’s slogan has
meaning: “Clear and bright as mountain air.”
Perhaps this enigmatic persona is what gives Busch the
confidence—some might say, arrogance—to rotate its image faster than a
college freshman, by directing its marketing campaigns at a variety of
demographics. Initially, Busch Bavarian courted baseball fans as the
Cardinals’ official sponsor. In 1963, Busch sought nostalgic
Germanophiles who didn’t speak the language by releasing the beer in a
bottle shaped like a German beer mug. Calling it the Busch Bavarian Beer
Stein, this name overlooked the fact that, in German, stein means stone and not mug, for which the proper word is krug. While a German krug can be made from stone ceramics, it is not named for that material.
In the 1980s, Busch shifted tactics with a cowboy-themed ad campaign carrying the motto “Head for the Mountains of Busch.” TV commercials presented hard-working men with rolled up sleeves and ten gallon hats who drove cattle past mountain streams and held impromptu country western sing-alongs. Every ad ended with the same black stallion rearing up on its hind legs. Through some impressive audio over-laying, these ads linked the opening of a beer can with the sound “Booosh.”
In the early 2000s, Busch pursued anglers, hiring as their spokesman
the universally-known celebrity, 4-time Bassmaster Classic Champion,
Kevin VanDam. A few years ago, a continuation of this theme saw Busch
release limited edition cans with images of sport fish such as trout,
bass, marlin, and, without a hint of irony, crappie. No one knows how
many customers these aquatic promotions hooked, since few among us will
readily confess to being pro-fishing fanatics.
In 2009, Busch switched to targeting hunters with a special release
of woodland camouflaged cans. While widely beloved, the original leaf
and twig coloring was short-lived. Presumably, Busch retired the design
due to the many unanticipated “wounded soldiers.” Set casually beside
hunters’ feet in the forest duff, countless camouflaged cans were
rendered invisible and tragically lost, never to be sipped again.
In recent years, Busch’s fall issue has become safety orange, which
encourages tipsy hunters to binge drink responsibly. Meanwhile, a
recurring promotion hides rare “golden trophy” cans in select packages.
Featuring silhouettes of deer, elk, and ducks framed in a bulls-eye,
these hazy images approximate what many a blitzed hunter has seen before
firing at a tree. Given Busch’s willingness to try any marketing
scheme, it’s a hot mystery what they’ll toss out next.
In our campground in the Ozarks, I join the others at a picnic table. Lifting my can, the sweet elixir of Busch beer crosses my palate. I take another sip, searching unsuccessfully for flavor. I glance inside the can and confirm beer is indeed present, so I toss back a third sip.
a small getränkemarkt, or beverage shop, on a side street in Munich, I
peruse the selection. Front and center are crates of Augustiner, a
celebrated local brewery offering a helles and slightly stronger
Edelstoff. On a wall-mounted shelf, I spot Köstritzer, a beloved black
lager from the northern state of Thuringia. Nearby are bottles of
Schlenkerla Rauch, a smoked bier from the Franconian city of Bamberg,
often called the “Beer Capital.”
In the corner, away from the favorites, rests another. A bier
sporting a remarkably low price of €0.39 per half liter bottle. A bier
that is simultaneously the most ridiculed and best-selling in all of
Germany. A bier whose name phonetically resembles the sickly sounds of
over-inebriated drinkers forcefully evacuating the contents of their
En route to visit a relocated college buddy, I’m unable to resist
this purchase. At the counter, the proprietor gives me a quizzical look,
like I’m trying to buy vegetables in a butcher shop. But before he can
convince me to pick a “real” beer and pour this one into the street, I’m
out the door and on my way.
In 1733, in the Swabian town of Oettingen, the Oettinger Brauerei was
founded and subsequently introduced their Original Pils. Today, the
brewery is Germany’s largest producer by volume, letting roughly 600
million liters flow forth each year.
In addition to their best-selling pilsner, they produce 10 soft
drinks and 24 other beers and “beer-mix” drinks. Whatever you want—and
perhaps some you don’t—chances are they have it. For those desiring an
extra kick, there’s Oettinger Bier & Cola Mixed. Counting
calories? Try the Oettinger Leicht or Leichte Weisse. For something
fruity, choose from Weizen & Grapefruit, Weizen & Zitrone
(lemon), or Weizen & Erdbeere (strawberry). Want a product name
that’s just as hard to pronounce as the brewery? Then there’s Oettinger
Urtyp. And for those drinkers who are children, or for those seeking
what Oettinger describes as “food in a bottle,” or for those, like me,
who don’t read the labels closely enough before purchasing, there’s 0.5%
With the German drinking age at 16, Oettinger is the preferred brew
of high school boys with empty pockets and places to be. These tipsy
jungen can be found guzzling it by the crate-load while loitering
outside of pricey Oktoberfest, while killing time at rural picnic
tables, or while wandering streets outside clubs waiting for the girls
to show up. German college kids can often be seen pushing shopping carts
filled with Oettinger between supermärkte and their wohngemeinschaften,
or communal apartments. Even the occasional thrifty adult can be caught
downing an Oettinger in a city park, on a riverside bench, or outside a
It’s not uncommon, come Sunday morning, to find the cobblestones of German altstädte, or old towns, to be layered with the glass fragments of shattered Oettinger bottles, like a prickly snow fell overnight.
Since the beginning, Oettinger Pils has been brewed in adherence to
the Reinheitsgebot, which is one German purity law that everyone can
support. Referring to ingredients, it allows only water, malted barley,
hops, and yeast for making beer. Adopted in 1516, the original law did
not include yeast. The microorganism, which consumes sugar and excretes
alcohol, was not discovered until 1857 by Louis Pasteur. Prior to that
time, according to brewing expert John J. Palmer, a common belief was
that magical brewer’s sticks, which were passed down among families and
resembled witches’ brooms, must be stirred into the wort to create beer.
These sticks no doubt carried the yeast strains critical to
Today, Oettinger Brauerei claims to keep prices low through a variety
of cost-cutting strategies. They use state-of-the-art production
machinery that is efficient and cost-effective. They own a fleet of
delivery trucks, supplying directly to retailers. And they do not use
expensive advertising. In fact, the photos splashed across their website
could very well be left-overs from retailer Lands’ End with Oettinger
bottles slipped in surreptitiously.
Despite their thrifty ways, Oettinger is fairly liberal when it comes
to slogans, particularly those part of their “0%. 100%.” campaign. The
entry page to their website offers the paradoxical choice: “0% TOO
YOUNG. 100% OF AGE.” An Indiana Jones-style riddle allowing only German
16-year-olds to pass.
Navigating the website, the savvy consumer is inundated with further
mind-bending statements. Some seem contradictory: “0% YESTERYEAR. 100%
TRADITION.” Some suggest radioactivity: “0% RISK. 100% SAFE TO
TRANSPORT.” And some are just plain weird: “0% BORING. 100% FOAM BEARD.”
At his flat, my friend opens the door with a welcoming smile, which
becomes a bemused grin when he notices my proffered gift. Inside, he
pours Oettinger into two tall-necked pilsner glasses. We say, “Prost,”
and clink our glasses, making demonstrative eye contact to avoid, as the
Germans warn, seven years of bad sex.
The first splash across the tongue is a bit metallic and slightly
rough, like a better pilsner was dirtied during a dusty hike through the
Bavarian countryside. The second sip is a bit bready and tastes of
medium-quality barley. The hoppy bitterness offers a decent balance.
“It’s not bad,” says my friend. He takes his third sip.
“No, not bad.” I take my fourth. “Especially for the price.”
We nod simultaneously—a not-bad pils for a budget Bavarian. A beer
that everyone can agree, as Oettinger claims, is literally “0% BALONEY.