Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Cheap Light Beer

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

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


[Photograph: Will Gordon]

I have to drop a quick dozen pounds before Speedo season. When I've needed to lose weight in the past I've stopped drinking beer altogether, but that doesn't seem feasible this time. Bottom Shelf research coordinator Emily and I just moved back to Cambridge, where we are surrounded by thirsty friends and family, and our new apartment has a perfect little drinking balcony that overlooks an honorable old establishment called Paddy's Lunch. The day we went, the lunch special was draft beer; I'm told that on other days, the lunch special is bottled beer.

So it's time for me to finally give in and become a light beer drinker. I tried drinking Miller Lite a couple years ago as a tribute to my father, one of the world's great high-volume drinkers of low-flavor beer, but all that did was give me bad breath and flashbacks to the "M.A.S.H." theme song. Bud Light's okay and probably no worse than regular Budweiser, but you know those weirdos who take their beer bottle into the bar bathroom with them? Nine times out of 10, it's Bud Light. Bad sign. I was tempted to try Coors Light once Ice Cube started pushing it on TV, but then I remembered that for some reason good lockstep liberals aren't supposed to drink it, which means I wouldn't be able to find it in Cambridge even if I wanted to.

When I realized the three leading lights of American macro-brewing all have strikes against them, I turned, as always, to the lower end of the spectrum. If I'm going to sacrifice taste for calories, I might as well save a couple bucks a case along the way.

It seems like the three most widely distributed subprime light beers are Keystone Light, Busch Light, and Natural Light, so I picked up a can of each, along with a Narragansett Light. Narragansett is a classic old-timey New England beer that's trying to resurrect itself, and anecdotal evidence suggests it's making some hay. I see it at a lot of bars now, and both the regular lager and the porter are very good for their weight class. I headed into this tasting pretty certain the light was going to far exceed Keystone, Busch, and Natty. In fact, I almost didn't want to include it because I know the endorsement wouldn't be of any use to most of you. Turns out the beer isn't of any use to anyone, so let's just deal with the other three for now.

Natural Light

This is brewed by Anheuser-Busch, and A-B at least has clean tanks and efficient distribution, so I was daydreaming about a best-case scenario in which Natty tastes exactly like Bud Light but is just marketed differently. Nope, it's pretty rough stuff. It was the blandest of the three, which is usually a good quality on the bottom shelf, but the only detectable flavor other than Pale Yellow Beer was a distinct sourness. The can I sampled was well within its "best by" window, so we can safely assume that rather than having gone bad, this beer was simply born bad.

Busch Light

Well, my Uncle Pete drinks Busch, and he's a good dude who had the good sense to marry my Aunt Mary. And the commercials were cool when I was a kid. "Head for the mountains." Sure, why not? I mean, I don't like mountains and I'm not sure what elevation could have to do with beer quality, but the slogan's decent and the logo is borderline regal.

Alas, this was even worse than the Natural Light. It was just as sour as the Natural Light, but with the extra defect of being stale, too. It smells like a warped-wood barroom floor on Sunday morning.

Keystone Light

Well, I'll be damned. I was positive this would be the worst of the bunch, but it actually turned out to be my least unfavorite.

I remembered regular Keystone as being the worst beer of my life, with a pronounced rotting-fruit character that set it apart from other bad brews. I'm not sure if my memory's mistaken or if the Light is vastly superior to the regular, but this stuff is better than Busch Light, Natural Light, and even the local ringer, Narragansett Light. It was marred by the same sourness as the others, but to a lesser degree, and it's not inconceivable that a more generous taster could describe it as pleasantly lemony.

The Bottom Shelf Bottom Line

All in all, bad news. After a streak of good luck here on the Bottom Shelf, I have to report that none of these beers are worth buying just to save a dollar or two a sixer.