I’m looking at a chart showing beer sales in the U.S., and the numbers are huge. If Greece had our beer money, they’d get out of their financial mess in no time.
Bud Light leads the way by an astounding margin at $2 billion-plus, followed by Coors Light at $1 billion and change, then Miller Lite at $863 million. World-renowned Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa or Sacramento favorite Integral IPA by Device Brewing are nowhere to be found on such a list.
I flip to another statistic – growth – and big beer is not doing as well. Craft beer sales last year grew by 17.6 percent and now accounts for 11 percent, or $19.6 billion, of the $101 billion overall beer market.
There’s plenty of good news here for the little guys: 1) More and more consumers are gravitating toward small-batch, flavorful beer, often made with a good bit of panache, and 2) There is plenty more room for growth and many millions of dollars to be divvied up by everyone from the Sierra Nevadas and New Belgiums of the industry to the Track 7s and Knee Deeps.
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This is an exciting time in craft beer and, if you’re anything like most beer enthusiasts, you’ve been too busy hanging out with your friends, your dogs and your kids at your favorite neighborhood brewery and taproom to bother with Bud, Coors Light and MGD.
I can actually remember the last big beer I tasted. It was a Heineken three years ago, at a restaurant that has since gone out of business. It was jarring because it was so very underwhelming.
How should we look at big beer in the age of craft beer? I called Charles Bamforth, the esteemed brewing professor at UC Davis, to get his take. He’s not one to slam the big guys. Many UCD graduates are employed by them and do quality work.
“They’re still very skillfully done and that has not changed. People are still putting a lot of care and devotion into making very consistent, what I call gently flavored products,” Bamforth told me. “The reality is, there are still thousands and thousands of people who prefer the beers they grew up with. They still think of beer drinking as cracking open a beer and drinking it directly from a can or bottle. That’s OK. That doesn’t make them bad people.”
In the interests of updating and calibrating my palate, I decided to do a more thorough big beer tasting. I invited celebrated beer enthusiast and world traveler Louie Toro, Burgers and Brews co-owner Derar Zawaydeh and Brandon Megowen, brewmaster of Zawaydeh’s in-the-works local brewery called Olde Ritual. On a recent afternoon, we sipped and scored some of the best-selling beers in the land.
My vision was to do a detailed rundown, but I’m going to play spoiler alert from the get-go. These were not the worst beers I have tasted. I’ve had plenty of misguided craft beers in which some fledgling, possibly delusional brewer swung for the fences and wound up whiffing badly. With big beer, the idea is to appeal to as many people as possible. To do that, you don’t smack them around with big hops, high alcohol or anything sour.
The best big beer we tasted? Budweiser. There, I said it. Budweiser was better than Stella Artois, which I had always considered a better, more sophisticated, pricier Bud. It’s not. Hipsters beware: Bud was better than PBR, too.
The Bud we tasted was clean and obviously very fresh. There were no off flavors. But neither were there many on flavors. Bud is safe, simple, ho-hum. It will wet your whistle after you mow the lawn. It’s probably good while fishing. I was actually impressed by the quality of the Bud we had. My fellow tasters? Not so much.
Zawaydeh: “It’s malt all the way. Nothing but malt.”
Toro: “It smells like a rice cooker, but it’s actually refreshing.”
Megowen: “It’s very straightforward. It’s got a sweet malt and barley taste.”
Pabst Blue Ribbon was in the same ballpark but not quite as appealing. “Very subtle” is how Zawaydeh put it. “A couple of notches above water.”
How is craft beer thriving? The answer can be gleaned from the comments above. Craft beer inspires more intense reactions with far better adjectives. Craft beer is not afraid of exploring the edges and is less concerned with appealing to the middle ground.
My least favorite big beer was Corona. Toro agreed.
“Very offensive on the nose and the mouth,” he said. “Lime, please!”
“Very mild nose,” countered Zawaydeh. “Taste-wise, that’s why they put in the lime. I don’t taste anything.”
Even the big imports didn’t offer any kind of wow factor.
Heineken was too “sweet” (Zawaydeh) or too “harsh” and “skunky” (Toro) or “finishes very sweet” (Megowen).
But the sweetest finish of all was the end of this tasting.