Cheap-Ass Regional Beers Bracketpalooza: The Bracket
All craft beers are alike. Each cheap-ass regional beer, however, is unique in its own special way.
Dirt cheap regional beer is one of my favorite aspects of American drinking culture. You can practically read the social and economic history of the United States by the names, logos, taste, and location of the bar you’re sitting in based on its affordable local beer.
The names of the beers tell you the history of bygone American families and corporations, primarily German in composition and character (Hudepohl, Schlitz), but nonetheless distinctly American in identity (Yuengling is the Anglicized version of the German surname Jüngling, Lone Star needs no explanation regarding its Texan roots). The taste of these pale lagers is crisp and smooth, the product of America’s unique availability and economy for corn, barley, and rice, with enough of an alcohol content to satisfy the nation’s laborers while tasting reminiscent to what its immigrants remembered, but not enough to get them (too) drunk on the job.
Regional character and pride are embedded both inside the can and out, commodities from a time when major American cities were producing and consuming beer in addition to just just about every other industrial product at an incredible rate. Before we had developed large-scale refrigeration, Cincinnati’s Hudepohl was stored in tunnels criss-crossing beneath the city’s German neighborhood. Schlitz claims — with some fairness — to have made Milwaukee famous (being Gene Wilder’s birthplace coming in second and being the deathbed of America’s coronaries a distant third for the city), and built its popularity in Chicago after donating barrels of beer to the city following the Great Chicago Fire.1 Coors puts the Rocky Mountains right on its goddamn can, and Grain Belt dropped its cap to look over Minneapolis’ most prominent goddamn bridge.
These aren’t just beers from a certain place, reliant on the natural waterways that led to the rise of their home cities — these are beers that have come to embody both what those places are and how the people who live in them perceive of themselves.
And although much of that mass market craftwork and blue-collar employment (and the adjoining civic and individual sense of self that comes with both) has gone by the wayside — through periods of corporate consolidation in the 70s and 80s to the current rapid development of our beer pallets/snobbery with the rise of the craft beer movement — these beers still remain, artifacts from a former time, available at a price point that’s at or below what a Belgian multinational corporation insists on charging you for their malted-rice-water swill.2
Context here is key. I appreciated Yuengling so much more the second I’d crossed back into Central Standard Time after my first Yuengling-fueled summer. The same thing happens once you can no longer find a non-overpriced Lone Star north of the Mason-Dixon line, get sunburned on the Rhode Island beach while nursing a Narragansett, or visit Wrigley Field’s bleachers while cooling off with an Old Style. The image of Matthew McConaughey holding forth over a Lone Star or your dad popping a Rolling Rock while surveying his freshly-mowed lawn gives you both a sense of who these men are (in our cultural imagination or real life), as well as what drinking that beer yourself is signifying about your own character and identity.
But let’s get to it already. Sure, all these beers are great and feature some of the most jarring assemblages of brown, gold, and green that Wisconsin-area graphic designers could possibly dream up onto their cans (not to mention some of the most stark sexism in American advertising history). But which one is the absolute best?
To settle the debate, we decided that the only acceptable format was a good old-fashioned bracket, paring the best cheap-ass beer hailing from each region of the U.S. down to four ultimate challengers for the top slot in our hearts and in our livers. But first, some guidelines, put forth by the selection committee at its official session in your favorite corner dive bar:
- All competitors must be “cheap,” a factor that admittedly varies by region, but for this purpose we’re only considering beers that are roughly as expensive as, if not less so, your standard Bud/Miller/Coors fare, with the exception being that Coors Banquet is allowed to compete in the West.
- No craft beers. Craft beer is awesome and it’s great for America that so many microbreweries (and not so micro breweries) are exploding around the country. But we’re talking about legit old school stuff, nothing that a social media manager has triple-hopped and steeped in hibiscus back home in their Brooklyn walk up.
- Each beer must be predominantly, if not exclusively, available in the geographic region it’s competing in. Obviously this can get a little fuzzy when perception and sheer economic facts come into play (PBR is everywhere it seems like), but we’re doing our best here, okay?
- Seeding shall be doled out in order of our very subjective and not at all scientific assessment of each beer’s name brand recognition. Is it a flawed system? Yes, of course. But come on, how exhilarating are these matchups between heavy hitters going to be, like Rhode Island’s brash Narragansett vs. Baltimore’s born and bred National Bohemian, or the northern vs. southern divide of Old Style vs. Lone Star?
- Qualifying beers must be American in origin only. Sorry, Labatt Blue and Mexico’s deep lineup of affordable imports, but we had to draw the border somewhere.
- No self-identifying “light” beers allowed. Let’s try to have some goddamn self-respect here.
- No malt liquor either. Sorry, asshole college students in NBA jerseys.
Which brings us to a final bracket of:
If you’d like to immediately make your mark on the world and have your voice heard, you can vote for the drink-in round contenders (the 4 vs. 5 seeds) in our Google form here. Voting will close at midnight on Sunday, July 10th, give or take. If you have more opinions than you can (or care to) express in the google form, feel free to shoot us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org — we’d love to publish any cogent and/or infuriated (or just straight up inebriated) remarks about the competition.
In the meantime, here’s a quick breakdown of each region:
1. Yuengling / Pottsville, PA
America’s oldest operating brewery, Yuengling is a staple in just about every blue state east of Indiana. Yuengling is crisp, refreshing, and feels somehow more American than even Budweiser, and certainly doesn’t need a label pronouncing that fact in order to say so.
2. Narragansett / Providence, RI
It’s unclear if Narragansett actually has clams baked into it, or if it just tastes like the sea. The beer doesn’t just taste like the region, but seems to even embody the exact same Masshole spirit of Massachusetts/Rhode Island. And of course there’s always this:
3. National “Natty Boh” Bohemian / Baltimore, MD
If you were to make a logo for a beer that has 90% of its sales in the city of Baltimore, you probably wouldn’t make it a mustachio’d cyclops proclaiming, “Oh boy, what a beer!” (you also hopefully wouldn’t choose red and gold as the primary colors). But if The Wire taught me anything about Baltimore it’s that I know nothing about that city besides what I learned from The Wire, so go figure.
4. Genesee / Rochester, NY
Fun fact: although Genesee Cream Ale drinkers compromise 1% of the US population, they happen to own 90% of the Norman Rockwell prints in distribution today. All Genesee drinkers either are currently smoking a cigar while coaching pee wee football, or are currently repressing major aspects of their youth. These are the facts.
5. Iron City / Pittsburgh, PA
Is there a cheap local beer with more close of a spiritual association between city and beer (outside of Milwaukee) than Iron City? Just the taste alone feels like Franco Harris dick-punching your throat coming off the graveyard shift at the local steel mill.
Drink-In Round: Genesee vs. Iron City
1. Coors Banquet / Golden, CO
Our one major exception to the rule, but how can you even have a western region if Coors won’t be represented? Coors was brewing in Colorado before it was cool, a fact that they will never pass up a chance to remind you of.
2. Grain Belt / Minneapolis, MN
In no particular order, here are the three best Grain Belt ads of all time:
And you know what? That’s not even close to the best thing about Grain Belt. The best thing is, let me reiterate, that they put a gigantic-ass Grain Belt bottlecap overlooking the entire city of Minneapolis. Grain Belt is a straight-ahead, no-frills beer, and you can feel the Midwestern nice sinking into your bloodstream as you drink one.
3. Hamm’s / St. Paul, MN
In a tight second-round matchup, Grain Belt has to face off against Hamm’s, a beer originally located just across the street in St. Paul, a city that apparently lets you put a drop of alcohol in brownish water and label the ensuing product ‘beer.’ But the Hamm’s can is a truly classic design, and just the sound of the word ‘Hamm’s’ harkens back to Nixon-era suburban football watching and 6-pack crushing.
4. Rainier / Seattle, WA
I know next to nothing about Rainier beer, besides the fact that it’s named after one of the few things I do know about the Pacific Northwest — that it’s named after a mountain located on a fault line that will destroy everything west of I-5 in the next few generations or so. So… take that at face value I guess.
5. Olympia / Tumwater, WA
Similar to Rainier, I know next to nothing about Olympia beer, although their ads do make the Olympia area sound like quite a nice place. This drink-in matchup’s a toss-up.
Drink-In Round: Rainier vs. Olympia
1. Pabst Blue Ribbon / Milwaukee, WI
Arguably the beer that started it all, or at least the last one standing today. PBR is the only remaining beer that can compete across the country with standards like Bud or Miller products, and has somehow managed to maintain its popularity among hipsters to remain a popular alternative for Americans of all walks of life.
2. Schlitz / Milwaukee, WI
The self-proclaimed beer that made Milwaukee famous, and apparently the beer that made sexist beer ads famous too. Of all the Wisconsin beers in this division, Schlitz feels like the most classic, one that’s heavily associated with blue collar fathers and Midwestern supper clubs (for better or much, much worse).
3. Point / Stevens Point, WI
Do you like campfires and mosquito bites? If so this beer’s for you, because I don’t think anybody has ever had a Point under any other set of circumstances than ones requiring both a campfire and a veritable shit-ton of bugs in a forest somewhere in Wisconsin.
4. Old Milwaukee / Milwaukee, WI
You know what? Let’s just watch Will Ferrell pump up Old Milwaukee better than anybody else can (or really should):
5. Blatz / Milwaukee, WI
Blatz — a beer infamously known as ‘the beer that makes you say its name’ (at least by both my dad and my grandfather, which seems to combine for a resounding consensus) — is everything a cheap American beer should be: one marketed to the working class, sporting a heinous color scheme, and more or less unavailable to the general public in 2016.
Drink-In Round: Old Milwaukee vs. Blatz
1. Rolling Rock / Latrobe, PA
Rolling Rock used to be brewed in Latrobe, PA, a city that’s actually on the eastern outskirts of Pittsburgh, whose Iron City beer is competing in our East Region. We put Rolling Rock in the Lower Midwest region, however, because the beer just feels so much more midwestern than anything else.
Maybe it’s the fact that Rolling Rock is owned by Anheuser-Busch, itself technically located in the nation’s armpit of St. Louis. Maybe it’s the killer green color that lends itself so well to countless bric-a-brac items. Maybe it’s because one time I read a Chuck Klosterman story referencing Minnesota kids drinking Rolling Rock before Lollapalooza rolled into town “because it’s ‘Rolling Rock,’ like ‘Rock n Roll,’ you know?” Maybe it’s because my millennial self only saw “Latrobe Brewing Co., St. Louis” and took that at face value.
Or maybe it’s because all of Rolling Rock’s imagery got conflated in my mind with that of the area between the Rocky Mountains and Appalachia, and only later did I realize the true geographic location of Latrobe, at which point the hopelessly disorienting sense of displacement that can arise from life in the age of transnational corporations really started to take hold, you know?
Or maybe it’s in the Lower Midwest region just because we say it is, and that’s that. Rolling Rock is cheap, refreshing, and delicious (or, depending on who you talk to, insubstantial pisswater). That should speak for itself.
2. Lone Star / San Antonio, TX
Initially we wanted to make this region the “Southern” region, but the fact of the matter was that there are just so few cheap local southern beer that it would be Lone Star or bust (Shiner was a debatable entry in the “cheap-ass regional beer” category). Lone Star’s currently riding on the remaining fumes of True Detectives season 1 and The McConaissance, but that doesn’t make it any less of a cheap beer that perfectly fits within and represents Texas identity.
3. Old Style / Milwaukee, WI
Technically Old Style is a Wisconsin beer, but we’re moving it to the Lower Midwest Division because of its association with Chicago in general and the Cubs in particular. It’s a tragic shame that Old Style is no longer sold at Wrigley Field, where the beer became aligned with the spirit of both the team, their fans, and the city in general.
Many Chicagoans still consider it the official beer of the city (Goose Island’s 312 be damned), and nothing can beat an Old Style after (or during) a Chicago 16-inch softball game. Like the Cubs, it’s not always great, but it was always closely associated with drunk people on the city’s North Side.
4. Hudepohl / Cincinnati, OH
The history of Hudepohl closely mirrors the German experience in America — founded by the son of Bavarian immigrants, Hudepohl soon grew as a favorite of drink of the city’s working class, many of which were German immigrants themselves. The beer was the product of the Ohio River, which gave rise to the city’s numerous beer barons and was also a source of distribution for the company (as well as bringing in the barley, corn, and German immigrants necessary to make the beer in the first place).
But hurt by anti-German and prohibitionist sentiment between WWI, Prohibition, and WWII, the company never fully recovered from the same kinds of bias that radically altered the formerly German neighborhood (dubbed Over-the-Rhine) that the brewery helped establish (few breweries did). But it’s seeing a resurgence now to match the city’s recent rise, and I have to say, their “Hudy Delight” light beer cans are both a delight to behold and a delight to drink (and also a delight to purchase a 12-pack for less than a case of water).
5. Stroh’s / Detroit, MI
Another beer perfectly matched for its city, both in terms of its blue collar image as well as the rise and eventual fall of its Detroit family ownership, Stroh’s is the product of ambitious expansion without the foresight to look out for coming changes that eventually hammered the industry. But hey, that lion is dope, right?
Drink-In Round: Hudepohl vs. Stroh’s
Again, one final remember to cast your votes for the drink-in round here, hit us up with any additional commentary at email@example.com or @National_Ave, and be sure to check back next week for the results and next week’s matchups!