Tasteful Review: Dos Equis Especial

At 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 Especial.

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’ praises.

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 doctors.

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.

Tasteful Review: Corona Extra

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 Extras.

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 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’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 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 hide.”

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 water.

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.

Tasteful Review: Stag

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: Stag.

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.

Tasteful Review: Miller High Life

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 Michigan.

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.

Tasteful Review: Busch

After 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 beer.

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.

Tasteful Review: Oettinger Pils

In 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 stomachs: Uhhr-ting-err.

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% Oettinger Malz.

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 500-year-old cathedral.

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.

Hey, do you ever just lie down on a random cobblestone street in Germany and stare up at the sky because you had too many of me?

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 fermentation.

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. 100% BEER.”

Tasteful Review: Natural Light

Rock music blares through the dingy bar. Coeds squirm toward a bartender lining up long-neck domestics—Miller Lites, Coors Lights, Budweisers. My friend Kev inches forward, flanked by a business casual entourage of former fraternity brothers. It’s their annual reunion, and he invited me to join.

With a sneaky look, Kev shouts in the bartender’s ear. Moments later, eight silver Natty Lights, tabs ajar, rest in front of us. Kev grins as he passes out these glimmering, condensation-drenched vessels. Half of his crew nostalgically cheer, while the rest involuntarily groan.

Natural—“Natty”—even “Nasty” Light, as some call it, is favored by dorm residents, campus “Greeks,” spring breakers, and other thirsty consumers who sacrifice quality in pursuit of maximum quantity. With such a niche clientèle, one might think it rare to encounter Natural Light drinkers outside their natural college habitat. However, a keen observer can spot these clean-cut young males striding through gas station florescence with 24-cases of Natty, like business men rushing through airport terminals. Meanwhile, the young female of the species, typically clad in yoga pants, may be observed in grocery store aisles, pushing shopping carts filled with Natty on Friday afternoons during their post-class, pre-party migration.

Having neither a long nor illustrious history, Natty Light was introduced by Anheuser-Busch in 1977 as their first reduced-calorie beer. Among its few claims to fame, Natty Light received a Bronze Award for American-Style Light Lager at the 2008 World Beer Cup. It’s a highly discerning competition that awards only the top three beers judged in each of 90+ categories—less than 300 total awards—every two years. Curiously—and perhaps in homage to Natty Light’s victory—the WBC retired the light lager category after the ’08 competition.

Natty’s uneventful time-line is mirrored by its minimalistic logo, which combines the beer’s name, a miniature AB icon, and two futuristic boomerangs. These curious symbols suggest that hurling one Natty Light into a backyard of inebriated partiers will result in two Natty Lights being flung back in your general direction. In fact, in 2011, a pair of industrious explorers received a research grant from Natural Light to test a similar theory.

“You guys go on ahead without me. I know, in my heart of hearts, that the bro who left me here will be coming back.”

Possibly taking inspiration from events that overshadowed the beer’s 1977 release—specifically the Voyager I & II launches and the blockbuster film Star Wars—two fans launched a Natty Light into space. Suspended by ropes from a balloon, one full and one empty can lifted off from a farm field in the Midwest. They rose for two hours into what the amateur scientists renamed the “Natmosphere,” reaching an altitude of 90,000 feet, where stars twinkled above the curvature of the Earth. Sadly, instead of achieving escape velocity, the balloon popped and the cans plummeted to the ground in a matter of minutes. This experiment proved something many beer-drinkers have long known (especially those who have had a Natty in their refrigerator for months following a party): It can be really fucking difficult to get rid of Natty Light.

In the dingy bar, we ceremoniously clink cans. After taking a gulp, one fraternity brother dramatically gags, like a cat with a hairball. I put the Natty to my lips and let the cold beer flow like a watery memory from the past. Brewed with American and import hops, plus a blend of malted barley and corn adjunct, it’s similar to other American light lagers, such as Busch Light. Thus, Natty doesn’t so much strike the palate as wash past with a bubbly blandness pierced by the tiniest echo of beer-related flavor.

But, ultimately, drinking Natty is less about beer and more a rite of passage—an experience Natural Light describes as “always keeping it real and letting things just happen.” Because when “the real you is with your real friends, that’s when the fun starts.” Real words from a real beer that is as light in wisdom as it is in taste. But whatever it lacks in flavor and philosophy, it more than makes up for with personality.

Self-billed as “A Natural Choice,” this slogan is often paired with an attractive bleach-blond in a blue halter top that barely contains two surgically enhanced breasts. But certainly no enhancement was needed, or used, in the brewing of Natural Light.