Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Schlitz Classic 1960s Formula

Editor's Note: Your drinking buddy Will is back, tasting all the cheap booze so you don't have to.

20110107schlitzbottlestory.jpgHappy New Year, serious drinkers! Holidays good? Get all your candles lit, your saviors born, your hams slaughtered, your langs syned? How'd it go pretending to like eggnog? Did Santa bring you any Schlitz? If so, did he include the receipt?

My original holiday disappointment was my sister's disclosure that there was no creepily benevolent fat man who would bring me a bike if I was nice, and it's been all downhill from there. The annual holiday heartbreaks keep on coming, long after the bikes have stopped. There was the year I got dumped, which was an eerie foreshadowing of the other years I got dumped. On several occasions there have been illegal snowfalls before winter even starts. And this year, they came for my beer.

I like cheap beer. I realize low-end macrobrewed Ameri'canned lager sucks by most objective measures having to do with flavor or dignity. But it fares well by this standard: is it tolerable to swallow a drunkard's dozen (14) of these things while fishing, yelling at large strangers running into each other on TV, or waiting patiently in your pajamas for life to finally happen?

For the past dozen years, I've drawn courage from my conviction that Schlitz is the best beer for such circumstances.

I bet you've never had Schlitz. These are the salient facts:

  1. "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous" was the top-selling swill in the world at several points in the first half of the 20th century.
  2. During my formative drinking years, Schlitz was available for $1.50 per 40-ounce bottle at the liquor store closest to my apartment.
  3. The label is rad.
  4. It's really fun to refer to yourself as Schlitz-faced.
  5. Most important and I swear to you, I truly thought it tasted better than other, better-marketed beers of its kind.

So I was quite excited a few years ago when I heard that the Pabst Brewing Company (purveyors of Schlitz, along with Lonestar, Colt 45, Blue Ribbon, and McSorley's, amongst others) was fixing to replace the stuff I'd been drinking with a recreation of what the deepest thinkers on the matter considered to be the original Schlitz formula, which had been tinkered downward in the 1960s in the name of production efficiency. This new-old brew was rolled out slowly, debuting in the Midwest in 2008 and not washing up on my shore until a few weeks ago.

I was a bit taken aback to see that a new Schlitz sixer cost slightly more than Budweiser, but I was excited to try it in bottles. I'm a can man, myself, but in this category, bottles connote grandeur and ambition, as well as faith that your consumers are refined enough to forgo brand-besmirching smashings and stabbings.

I grabbed the Schlitz and also a few other beers of its kind, so as to conduct the blind tasting that would finally prove that my preference wasn't based on packaging, euphony, or false nostalgia. I settled on Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Miller High Life. I was pushing for a more comprehensive study, but my research assistant boycotts Coors due to perceived fascism of some sort and/or its role in at least one of those movies where Clint Eastwood makes Tony Danza drive cross-country with a chimp.

We took turns pouring secret shots for each other and both liked PBR best. I ranked Schlitz last, while she showed the good sense to hate High Life (great bottle, great slogan, bad beer). As a beer lover it pains me to admit that the PBR was the best because it had the least discernible flavor. It was simple and clean and inoffensive, whereas the Schlitz was too ambitious. It was more complex, but that's nowhere near analogous to being better. It was sweeter and yeastier, and those are admirable qualities in a higher-end beer, but at this end of the spectrum it's reminiscent of the way a cinnamon raisin bagel from Dunkin Donuts is worse than a plain one: the more elements you introduce, the more you can screw up.

So I guess I'm relieved that the new official house swill is the cheapest and most readily available in the circles we travel, and I take some comfort in telling myself that even though new-old Schlitz is disappointing, I really did prefer the soon-to-be-defunct second generation version I grew up on. And I am absolutely devastated to begin 2011 believing in one fewer beautiful fairy tale.

About the Author: Will Gordon is an itinerant reader and writer who's not above slinging drinks or pushing commas to pay life's various tabs. He likes cheese and bacon, but not as much as the rest of you weirdos seem to.