We like craft beer. It’s tasty, it’ll get you drunk, and you can look down on others when you order it. You might remember that around this time last year we were holding an entire 64 beer tournament around the stuff, NCAA style. But sometimes, after a long day, it’s nice to unwind with a beer that doesn’t taste like pretension or use three adjectives to describe its hops. What the hell is mouthfeel anyway?
Craft beer may have more complexity and TLC, but the mass market behemoths have more history. Your father, your father’s father and his father before him were drinking this stuff, all the way back to the mid 1800s. (Pabst Blue Ribbon was introduced in 1844, Budweiser in 1876, Bud Light Lime soon after in 2008.) In other words, next time you shrug and say “whichever” when offered a Budweiser versus a Coors Banquet beer, you’re shrugging off what were once micro-breweries that, through grit and determination, survived the Great Depression and Prohibition to become part of something larger than themselves: billion dollar global partnerships.
So, we bring you the Mass Market Beer Tournament. After a few trips to the local 7-11, we assembled 34 of the most popular beers sold in America and pitted them against one another in a single elimination tournament (it’s the thing to do this time of year). If we could find it in a can, we bought it in a can. If the can was a tallboy, all the better. The point? If you’re going to drink in a Wendy’s parking lot, at least know which beer to shove into the paper bag.
The Cult Classic
Depending on your age, you either associate Colt 45 with actor Billy Dee Williams holding a can, staring straight into the camera and saying “It works every time!”, or Afroman singing “Colt 45 and two zig zags, baby that’s all we need.” Either way, since the early ’70s, Colt 45 has been the iconic American malt liquor, even though brands such as Olde English 800 share the market.
The name: It’s not the gun and it’s not the horse. Colt 45 was named in honor of football player Jerry Hill, number 45 on the 1963 Baltimore Colts football team, the same year and city where the malt liquor was first introduced.
The idea behind this tournament was to find the best beers available everywhere. No specialty stores, just a corner shop with a beer fridge or a dive bar without a doorman. We referenced industry reports from The Beverage Information Group, along with our best judgement, to ensure that the top-selling beer brands in America were represented and given a shot at the title.
We placed the 34 selected brews into four divisions and seeded them by annual sales volume (except when otherwise noted). In place of the NCAA’s South, West, East and Midwest divisions, we created the Light, Domestic, Imported and
Wild Card Specialty/Flavored divisions.
The Rules of the Game
We brought back our beer expert from last year’s tournament, Zach Mack, co-founder of ABC Beer Co. here in New York, to help five members of our staff judge the entire tournament. Each round a blind taste test matched up competitors and three of our tasters selected a winner based on their answer to the following question: Which beer would you most want to drink another two or three of? We didn’t want to find the best 2-ounce sample of beer — we wanted to find something you can order a few rounds of. The winner of this tournament isn’t a special treat. It’s bought and sold by the caseload.
A Note on Blind Testing: The blind aspect of the blind taste testing goes by the wayside when you are comparing, for example, the sole stout in the tournament to a strawberry flavored “beverage”. Beers in the Final Four were so obviously identifiable that winners were decided based on discussions among our six tasters.
Light Beer Division
At the cost of alcohol content, these beers weigh in at about 100 calories per serving. We could tell the difference between them about as well as we could distinguish between water bottle brands.
Play-In Game: Technically, Milwaukee’s Best Light (The Beast) should be the eighth seed in this division. However, Corona Light was close behind the Beast in sales volume, and imported light beers had no representation, so we decided to hold a play-in game between Corona Light and Heineken Light, the two most popular imported light beers, for the eighth seed.
Domestic Beer Division
The heavy version of many of the light beers featured in the tournament, these beers played a lead role in the story of your beer gut. We included Yuengling Lager and Sam Adams Boston Lager, both of which are technically craft beers (more on this Monday), but by producing about 2.5 million barrels (~5 million kegs) annually, they drank their way into the tournament (we didn’t include Miller Genuine Draft to avoid repeating brands). These are the two largest American-owned breweries, so you could call them the most “mass market” of the craft beers.
Imported Beer Division
We took some liberties with this category, mostly because Mexico dominates the imported beer market (they represent four of the top eight by volume). In this division, we decided to cap tournament berths at two for each country, which means Newcastle Brown Ale and Sapporo were able to clinch the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively. Like any realistic NCAA mock-up, there were spurned conference leaders. A shout out to the passed over Mexican beers, in order: Dos Equis, Tecate, Pacifico and Negra Modelo.
Specialty/Flavored Beer Division
Is Bud Light Lime a light beer? How about Bud Light Platinum? These are the types of intense ethical questions our newsroom spent days of paid labor debating. In this category we included two flavored malt beverages, two ciders (so sue us), two high-gravity beers and two malt liquors (which we defined as any beer that has an ABV above 5 percent and is available in a 40-ounce glass container, a.k.a. a forty). [Note: There’s nothing more satisfying than watching our photographer tastefully set up Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita for a shoot.]
Play-In Game: Like it or not, Bud Light Lime’s Straw-Ber-Rita and Lime-A-Rita dominate flavored malted beverage sales. As in the real NCAA, we wanted to give conference winners a shot at the title, no matter the shittiness of their home conference. To this end, we matched up the two ‘Rita’s in a play-in game, the winner of which faced off against its predecessor, Bud Light Lime.
Each day next week we’ll walk through the results from each beer division until we have our favorite domestic, import, specialty and light beer selected. Then these chosen four will match up in our Final Four on Friday. Accompanying the results will be a debate over craft vs. “crafty” beer, the history of the city once called “the beer capital of the world”, a roundup of international drinking customs and more. By Friday, you’ll know which beer took home the Mass Market Beer Championship Title and have enough time to revenge binge-drink some trendy IPAs before you stock up and celebrate the end of the real NCAA March Madness Tournament.