Bottom Shelf Beer Olympics: Germany

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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Next Tuesday is my birthday, and for the first time in several decades I care slightly more about the occasion than the rest of you do. It's entirely possible that I wrote a big "Hey, it's my birthday!" post last year, but if so I assure you I was faking it, because last year my birthday was a Sunday. No one needs an excuse to drink outside on a summer Sunday afternoon, and a dozen sunshine beers is plenty parade enough for any well-adjusted partially grown man. The birthday before that was a Saturday, which is like Sunday in being an automatically special occasion, and for about 100 years prior I was consistently single enough for no one to give a shit when I was born.

Bottom Shelf research director Emily is a huge birthday celebrant, though, which means I no longer have the option of letting them roll by unmarked. This comes as quite an adjustment after spending so many years ignoring (though only once forgetting) the occasion. I'm a man who talks about himself on the Internet for several thousand words a week and as such am in no position to claim modesty, but I still think there's something creepy and narcissistic about declaring your own sovereign holiday on some otherwise-innocent day in the middle of August.

After a few years of well intentioned fits and starts involving cupcakes and song, Emily and I have reached comfortable common birthday ground: The day must begin with Totino's Pizza Rolls in bed, because how can any successful day start otherwise?, followed by an afternoon of outdoor beer and an evening of yelling and pork. The details can vary from there—although, hint hint, the Pizza Roll details shouldn't vary too far from Combination flavor—because I am a reasonable and open-minded fellow who cares not if his birthday beers are deluxe ones that come in glasses and with flavor; I'm just as happy with cans or even plastic cups of watery nonsense. The only thing I require is that they be served outside.

Boston's not the best place for outdoor drinking, because most of the year's weather discourages bars from making too big of a patio investment. And climate aside, it's often just too hard to get all the necessary licenses in a city where you need a special legislative dispensation to flush the toilet with your non-dominant hand. The best part about living in Boston is going out of town and being blown away by the freedoms extended to drinkers in other lands. Did you know that in parts of Maryland bars are allowed to temporarily lower the price of a draft beer? It's true! Most of the time they cost $5, but then all of a sudden they cost $4 for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Most people die, though, and the economy collapses. But still, nice gesture.

I wish Boston could treat its drinkers more in the German manner. Now that's a country with no shortage of storms and regulations that still manages to support a lively outdoor beer culture. I know very little about Germany, but I know they have special gardens set aside just for their beer, which means I know more than enough about Germany. Now all I need to do is figure out which beer to drink when I get there. Let's see which is best among Beck's, Paulaner, Bitburger, and Spaten.

Before I get to this round of the Bottom Shelf Beer Olympics, I'll go over the rules one more time: I realize that these four beers are not perfectly representative of German beer, and I also recognize that their price and quality may not make them strictly bottom shelf material. But they're the least expensive, most available German beers near me. And we're on with it.

I'll start at the bottom: Beck's didn't make the podium. The American version of the world's best-selling German beer is brewed in St. Louis, which might have been expected to help my sample's freshness, but instead the only real flavor to fight through the water was a nasty metallic skunkiness.

Bitburger wasn't much better but it did inch over the line into drinkability: I could have a birthday dozen of these, no problem, but by the 9th or so I might tire of the slight sour note and touch of burnt grain. It's got an awfully bitter little finish to it, too.

Spaten Premium Lager was a great leap forward. It was a bit plain other than a welcome and surprising hoppiness, which is enough to make it an excellent mass-market lager. There was nothing bestial or spoiled about it, and that alone makes it the best green-bottled import I can remember drinking.

But Paulaner's Original Munich Premium Lager was my favorite. It starts with a vaguely sweet biscuit impression, then gets a little bit citrus on you before an assertively bitter finish. It's simultaneously clean and complex, and for that it moves on to join Grolsch and Sapporo in the finals of our international cheap beer tournament.

Next up, Canada.