Drinking the Bottom Shelf: American Regional Lagers

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.




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The best thing about daylight saving time is that it makes it easier to drink before dark. I'm lucky enough to be independently lower-middle class, but I still need to work several hours a day to support my extravagant laundry habit. I don't drink at work because business is business and alcohol is pleasure, plus I'm self-employed, so my time actually matters. What am I going to do, have four beers at lunch and then spend the rest of the afternoon screwing around? It's no fun to come back buzzed, nap in the bathroom, and print out half the Internet when you're the one paying for the ink. I'd rather just wait until the day's wages have been slaved over, which during daylight spending time means the sun often storms out on me while I'm still drinking coffee and typing complete sentences.

I had to drink my way through work today, though, because it is spring and it is snowing and I am furious. I managed to drag my soul's sober carcass through a couple hours of boring grown-up work before noon, but then I had to knock that nonsense off so I could crack a cheap American regional lager and start talking to you guys about cheap American regional lager. I claim this is technically "work" when I'm whining to Maggie that I need an intern, but let's be reasonable. This version of work is so vacation-like that it got me to thinking about all the cool places I'm going to go this summer.

Until recently I kept a list of cities I'd like to visit but feared I never would unless someone I knew got married there. This means I had a to-do list featuring the line item "visit Cincinnati (likely unattainable)." How depressing; I clearly needed a new organizing principle.

A lot of bland boys like me plan long weekends around Red Sox games, but following strangers across the country makes me feel like a stalker—or worse, a filthy Phish weirdo—and also leads to a disproportionate amount of time in the Baltimore Red Roof Inn. So rather than wait for weddings or chase baseball, I've decided to plan my travels around pursuit of the aforementioned cheap American regional lagers (CARLs).

To help flesh out my summer travel priorities, I called around to a bunch of breweries to see if I could get some locally unavailable samples sent to me in Massachusetts. This research led to the depressing realization that very few of these classic old-man lawnmower beers are still independently owned, and some of them aren't even brewed in the same state they're distributed in or most closely associated with. Sucks, I know, but let's not get bogged down in those sad details. We'll start with these three, which I tasted alongside Pabst Blue Ribbon, my benchmark for a boring but drinkable fizzy yellow beer:

Utica Club Pilsener Lager Beer

I went to college in Central New York, but I don't recall ever drinking this—or anything else other than Milwaukee's Best. That's a shame, because Utica Club ain't bad. It's pretty thin and simple, but not at all generic-tasting. Some may prefer PBR's nothingness to UC's slightly vegetable notes, but I award points for character when judging CARLs. And extra credit for the extra "e" in Pilsener and the label's "XX Pure" boast. At first I didn't get it, but obviously "X Pure" would mean formerly pure and "XXX Pure" would mean pornographically pure, so kudos to the marketing department for threading the purity needle with the perfect number of X's.

Rainier Beer

This is now owned by Pabst and brewed in Illinois, but we're going to call it a Seattle beer, since that's where it originated and where most of it is still sold. I went to Seattle once and loved it. I don't much care for salmon or Pacific Northwestern smugness, but it's hard to argue with a city that gave us Sir Mix-a-Lot and a lot of good ideas about crab-eating. Count Rainier on the good side of the ledger. It's even sweeter than your average CARL, with very little evidence of the Yakima Valley hops mentioned on the label, but it's a distinctively bright, green sweetness that goes a long way toward atoning for Frasier.

Grain Belt Premium Lager

I will be very pleasantly surprised if I come across a finer CARL than this Minnesotan beauty. It doesn't smell like much of anything, which is a good quality in a cheap yellow beer, but it sits pretty thick on the tongue for its kind. What really sets Grain Belt apart is its kinky and unique caramel cream flavor. I can totally see Prince pouring this on his loved ones. I'm going to Minnesota.

Do they drink anything noteworthy where you're from? If so, got any room on your futon?