Bottom Shelf Beer: Rheingold Lager

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

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




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Complacency is a very dangerous state of mind, which is why I just put Grape-Nuts in my leftover black bean soup. It's not February anymore, people: We can no longer be content to merely make it through breakfast without tears or blood or whiskey. These March days are here to be seized in a hopeful and high-fiber way.

A few days ago I would have considered myself lucky just to have the leftover soup, but I'm trying to break free of the holding pattern of February survivalism by making the most out of every soup and Nut. I urge you all to do the same. It's high time we make something of ourselves and our breakfasts around here. Don't just settle for any old bullshit that was good enough last month.

We all go through certain periods where the most realistic goal is simply to hang in there, but March 2012 is not going to be one of those times, kittens. We need to model ourselves on the more ambitious motivational posters, the ones with mountains and dragons and pole vaulters and the like. If in February we paid the rent, in March we're going to pay the rent and the gas bill. If in February we wore pants every time we went out in public, in March those pants are going to have zippers. If in February we watched college basketball with passive interest, in March we're going to watch it with active interest.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is my favorite sporting event, and this year it's going to double as my favorite get-less-broke-quick scheme. I'm going to bet everything I have—currently several dozen dollars and at least as many half-empty Bottom Shelf schnapps samples—on Syracuse University to win. I'm actually rooting for them to lose the last couple games of the regular season so I can get more favorable odds in the tournament. If everything goes according to plan (and it pretty much always does), I should have a bank account in the mid triple figures come this time in April. Beer's on me!

I went to Syracuse several thousand years ago. I liked it, because college is a likeable thing when your parents are paying for it and you're studying communications. Not a ton of stress involved, which leaves plenty of time to care about the basketball team. This year's Orange are the best I've seen, and they're fun to watch too. They're all so tall and fast and jumpy, and one of them is named Fab! But before staking my financial future on teenage strangers who nominally represent my alma mater, I had to make sure I was being rational and not just acting out of nostalgia.

Some of my favorite young-adult memories involve playing and watching basketball in the great gray north of Central New York, and as much as I value those memories, I find nostalgia to be one of the few forces as potentially dangerous as complacency. You let yourself get too caught up in glorifying the past and pretty soon you're voting for a bigot or eating a Filet O Fish.

A lot of beer marketing is based on nostalgia. The most egregious example is Trader Joe's Simpler Times lager. I know this is the Cambridge in me talking, but every time I see Simpler Times on the shelf it strikes me as vaguely racist. This is horribly unfair to the good Trader, but my internal monologue always jumps to "Oh, right, you mean those bygone times when we kept the Japanese in internment camps? Or back a little further, in the truly good old days before we let women vote?"

But for all my vigilance, I am also susceptible to nostalgia-based beer marketing. My greatest disappointment on the Bottom Shelf was the realization that I don't like Schlitz nearly as much as I'd always thought. I spent 10 years claiming Schlitz was my favorite cheap beer, and the recipe did change recently so maybe I was telling the truth for eight of those 10 years, but it's just as likely that I desperately wanted to identify with something with such a cool name.

Among retro brews currently attempting comebacks, I regard Schlitz as a notable failure and Narragansett as a resounding success. Next up is Rheingold Lager.

Rheingold is an old-time New York City beer currently brewed in Pennsylvania. It was introduced in 1883 and in the middle of the last century it captured a third of the New York beer market. Then it went away in the 1970s for the same reason other beers of its kind did: It couldn't compete with the national brands. It's come and gone in fits and starts since being brought out of retirement in 1998, and we all want to like it, because who doesn't want to prefer a classic regional lager to Budweiser?

Bad news, forward-lookers: The Rheiny (let's assume its adherents call it Rheiny) I picked up last week in the Boston suburbs has a cool name, a cool label, a cool back story, and a terrible flavor. It smells like sweet musty corn, and the flavor is so sweet as to be almost fruity. Rheingold is one of the least hoppy beers I can remember tasting, and the nicest thing I can say about it is that the lack of balance makes it distinct. This doesn't taste like "just another crappy macro-lager," but in my opinion it tastes worse.