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On Sunday, May 24, the last day of Chicago Craft Beer Week ("Chicago Craft Beer Eleven Days" doesn't appear to be catching on), Thalia Hall comes down to earth with Crap Beer Day, a celebration of the Kamino clone troopers of the beer world—disposable, mass-produced, useful mostly in large quantities, and a source of widespread regret. Tickets are ten dollars, and starting at 4 PM the venue will sell bottles and cans for a buck apiece: Miller High Life, Schlitz, Mickey's grenades, Hamm's, Old Milwaukee, Tecate, Lone Star, and Icehouse. The Golden Horse Ranch Band will lead square-dance lessons starting at 5 PM.
You'll also have the chance to compete in blind taste tests against "experts" (it's in quotes because I was invited to be one of them—unfortunately I don't have the time). In that spirit I enlisted my buddy Adam Vavrick, beer manager at the Binny's on Marcey, for a blind tasting of our own selection of cheap lagers.
Adam provided the beers, all but one drawn from industry categories somewhat hubristically called "premium" and "subpremium." He also invited along a third taster, Chicago composer and sound designer Ed Herrmann, who puts together audio tours for museums and historical sites around the country. They met when Ed came into Binny's looking for good beer he could repackage as a gift for a fellow composer—he wanted bottles with blank caps and easily removable labels, so he could wrap them in, say, pictures of John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen. Adam made a Terry Riley joke ("A Rainbow in Curved Beer"), and a music-nerd friendship was born.
Adam's wife, Kim Vavrick, who works as Revolution Brewing's communications specialist, took care of "blinding" the panel, pouring our samples a couple rooms away. She waited till we'd tried all eight before she revealed what any of them were. Adam knew which beers were coming, of course, though not in what order, so he wasn't supposed to make his guesses out loud—but he sometimes forgot. I turned out to be so terrible at figuring out what I was drinking that I gave up a little more than halfway through.
As Kim walked into the room with the glasses, she said, "Smells like high school!" I thought it smelled more like what happens when you leave a piece of string cheese out on the dashboard of your car—if I'd known this was Old Style, a beer I've had more times than I can count, I would've been moved to consider the folly of sticking my face into a goblet of something that's meant to be drunk very quickly and very cold, preferably straight out of the can. "These are shotgunning beers," as Kim put it.
"A little bit of sulfur nose," said Adam. "That's just purely lager yeast. Like egg frittata." Strangely, he guessed Special Export ("It's what all the scrappers drink in our neighborhood"), even though that wasn't one of the beers he'd picked for the test.
"I'm guessing they sell this at Wrigley," said Ed. "Absolutely inoffensive. Miller Lite?" I found it watery and a little sweet, with a bit of corn flavor and an aftertaste of hard-boiled egg. I ended up putting my chips on Corona. So far, though we didn't know it yet, we were zero for three.
This tasted like sparkling mineral water to me, with maybe a dab of creamed corn and something mildly vinegary—a few drops of sauerkraut juice? I had to struggle to pull anything out of it to write down. I guessed Miller 64, though Bud Select 55 is an equally insubstantial "beer."
Tragically, Adam chose this sample for what he called a "proper" review. "Brilliant straw gold. Eggshell white head—very small. Lively, bright carbonation," he observed. He took a sniff. "Oof. The nose is like musty grain. Attic. Grandma's basement, as Kim would say. I do get a little stone fruit up top, like white grape. Extraordinarily light body. No finish—just gone immediately. The flavor's almost like club soda—it has sparkle and zest to it, but there's just nothing." He figured it might be Miller Genuine Draft.
"This looks a lot like the other one," said Ed, an observation that any of us could've made at any point in the afternoon. "I did get a little bit of vinegar." ("I think that's just alcohol," Adam interjected.) Ed went on: "The flavor is nonexistent. It's almost like a phantom beer." Heroically, he speculated that it might be Miller Extra Lite, which doesn't even exist.
Adam took this opportunity to defend the existence of American adjunct lagers as a class. ("Adjunct" in this context refers to the use of rice and corn products as fermentables, in addition to malted barley.) Early American brewers tended to use homegrown six-row malt, he explained, because two-row generally had to be imported from Europe and cost more. And six-row malt has higher diastatic power than two-row, meaning it contains a greater concentration of starch-converting enzymes. This allowed brewers to bulk up their beers with corn, which was plentiful and cheap but contains no enzymes of its own. Adjunct lagers like the ones we were drinking have deep historical roots—they could only have developed on the continent where corn was domesticated. "Adjunct," he said, "is not necessarily a dirty word."
“I think I need a glass of water to cleanse my palate," I said. "Just kidding—that last beer left nothing at all on my palate."
Ed was displeased with this sample. "This might be the first one I just don't like. It's got something bad going on," he said. "I was thinking rotten pineapple." Then, to Adam: "You have sort of a concerned scowl on your face. Well, it's not a happy beer."
"I was going to say overripe bananas," said Adam. "Like bruised fruit. There's a defined sweetness too, which makes me think more alcohol—higher-order esters. Very dry. The finish has an almost olive-brine kind of character to it. Woof."
I hated the smell of this beer so much I could hardly bring myself to taste it. It was like a dirty dishcloth that'd been sitting out wet for two days. That stink must've been produced by very volatile compounds, however, because it faded away in just a couple minutes. It was replaced by a corn-syrup aroma, though the beer was relatively dry on the palate. I got a touch of caramel malt, which right away made this more substantial than beer number two. Maybe even a bit of peppery hops? Then sulfur, hard-water scale, and black olive (but I'm pretty sure Adam put that in my head).
Either I was the only person who remembered to guess, or I forgot to write down what Ed told me. I said Schlitz Malt Liquor, and because I was very wrong, I feel like I owe Schlitz Malt Liquor an apology.
This beer literally smelled like skunk spray. I took the opportunity to inform my comrades that some folks call a skunk a "wood pussy." Nobody believed me.
"The taste is nothing compared to the scent of it," said Ed. "It's another one that disappears as soon as you put it in your mouth." He thought it might be Old Style or a Trader Joe's lager.
Adam was more complimentary. "It's actually got a little more body to it. It's slightly more well-composed, relative to what we've already tasted," he said. "It does have a very quick finish, but the flavors aren't all that unappealing. I would drink this one. Minus the light striking, it's a really nice lager. It has malt flavor—bready, water-cracker character. The hops are snappy."
I was inclined to agree. Other than the smell, this was the best beer so far. You could tell it had a decent dose of hops, because they'd photodegraded horribly. I persuaded myself that I could taste a crisp spiciness, like scallion, pepper, and lime rind. I guessed Old Style too, but I should've figured it was something in a clear bottle.
By now I was starting to get a headache. The past few years of drinking have apparently increased my tolerance only where schmancy beer is concerned.
"This is the first one that I drank the whole glass," said Ed, and beer five immediately became a front-runner. It says something about how quickly we'd adjusted our standards that our previous favorite (unbeknownst to us) had been Corona Light.
"This one smells a little sweeter," said Adam. "It's pretty decent. Body, flavor, aroma. Old Style?"
"And a much more robust head when you swirl it around," Ed cut in. "Cornbread? I'm guessing PBR. It's not a confident guess."
I liked the way this beer started sweet, with the corn flavor underlined by a touch of molasses or brown sugar ("Candied yams," said Adam), then finished clean and dry with a hint of lemon zest. I decided it might be Miller High Life, because I generally enjoy the Champagne of Beers. Little did I know that wasn't even one of our options.
This 1974 television spot, from the glory days of the Schlitz Malt Liquor brand, stars Memphis soul and R&B singer Rufus Thomas, variously known as "the Crown Prince of Dance" and "the World's Oldest Teenager." I don't think the Bull Slide is up there with "Walking the Dog" or "Do the Funky Chicken," but at least he's actually in one shot with the bull. And that outfit!
Kim and Adam slipped this craft lager into the rotation as a wild card. They figured that because it'd been marooned in the back of a fridge since 2013, time would've leveled the playing field.
I began to despair of my ability to guess anything correctly. "They're all so similar," I said. "And if you happen to drink any of these in the wild, you're probably not paying attention to it like we are now."
Adam disagreed with the implication that a cheap beer couldn't be memorable. "Our honeymoon was in Mexico, on Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancun," he said. "One of the things we did was swim with whale sharks, which was incredible. On the way back we drank these little seven-ounce bottles of Corona that the captain had on the boat—he'd moored in a shallow area for a swim, and we were waist-deep in the Caribbean. It was one of the best fucking beers I've ever had in my life."
We returned our attention to our glasses. "It smells like fresh-mown grass," Ed said. "I could drink this at a ball game." For some reason deciding he needed to whisper, he made a guess: "Budweiser?"
"I heard Bloodweasel," said Adam. "The malt flavor is very creamy. Nice and grassy."
For the first time all afternoon I could smell yeast, like rising bread dough. The beer was delicately sweet, almost floral, with a decent body, but it tasted slightly musty. Nonetheless it vaulted into a dead heat with beer five for most tolerable. Still, I had no idea what it was. "This is going to be very educational," I thought. "I'll learn which garbage lagers are actually decent." The joke was on me!
"A trace of lemon or peach in the nose," Ed observed, which I never thought I'd hear anybody say about a beer that turned out to be Bud Light. "It really bubbles in your mouth. The flavor is all right there for the first few milliseconds, and then it's gone. I haven't had Schlitz, but I think this is what it would taste like. So that's my guess."
"Pretty good," agreed Adam. He complimented its brightness and "classic American lager flavor," and said it smelled a little like a haystack. "Really highly carbonated. The finish is basically nonexistent. Drank cold and slammed quickly, it's perfectly decent. This is the idealized 'first beer.' The thing you drank as a kid that your dad gave you and you hated, and then that you drank in college because you remembered it as the flavor of beer."
Kim chimed in: "I guess this is beer. Shrug."
I liked the relatively creamy texture and the flavor's quick flicker from sweet to dry. I decided I could pick up a little of the peachiness that Ed mentioned too. I also thought the beer smelled vaguely of cake frosting and hard-boiled egg.
"Moldy yeast?" said Ed. "And there's no flavor. It might be a good palate cleanser if you accidentally drank some bong water." He guessed Miller, which could be considered incorrect only by virtue of not being specific enough.
"It's got a little bit of that basement smell," said Adam. "I'd say yeasty. It's sweeter, which makes me think corn grits. A pretty bog-standard macro lager. It’s got a long, sweet finish."
By contrast, I found the flavor of this one fleeting and insubstantial, but I decided I could taste cornmeal, or at least something curiously like dried grain rather than boiled mash. When you're trying to take detailed notes on a beer that has very little flavor by design, you end up magnifying the smallest olfactory impressions simply by concentrating on them—which can produce bizarre results. I threw in the towel. "Totally fine," I wrote. "Not bothering me at all, probably because it's beer eight."
What did we learn from this foolishness, besides that we're lousy at blind taste tests? You already knew that New Glarus can make very good beer—good enough that a bottle of Totally Naked still drinks fine long after it should've been pulled from the shelf and dumped.
It surprised me to find out that our consensus favorite, at least among the macro lagers, was Schlitz Original Malt Liquor—even more than it did to discover that I'd given high marks (relatively speaking) to Corona Light. The three of us agreed that Bud Light is OK, though it surely benefited from all the beer we'd already had. I'm beginning to suspect that Old Style owes much of its popularity to sentimental attachment, since on its virtues alone it landed squarely in the middle of an undistinguished field.
I do wish we'd tested Miller High Life. Fifteen or so years ago, I drank a ton of that stuff at Marzano's Miami Bowl on the southwest side after rehearsals with my first punk band—and to this day I'll usually go for a High Life when I end up someplace that only carries macros. It would've been interesting to see if my preference owes anything to quality or if it's just brand loyalty masquerading as good taste.
That's not to say I don't have any nostalgia for Schlitz. The South-East Asia Center at 5120 N. Broadway, a few doors from a house that I shared till 1998 with six friends, two cats, and dozens of terrified mice, was built by Schlitz in 1904 as a "tied house"—that is, a tavern that served only the controlling brewery's beer. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks calls it one of the best surviving examples in the city.
In honor of the famous mascot of Schlitz Original Malt Liquor, I'm signing off with a song by Chicago blackened-prog band Murmur, whose most recent album, also called Murmur, I reviewed last year. "Bull of Crete" refers to the animal that fathered Asterion, the legendary Minotaur—his mother was Pasiphaë, daughter of Helios, to whom Poseidon sent an apparently very sexy white bull as part of one of those bonkers curses that Greek gods were always laying on each other.
Have fun at Thalia Hall on Sunday, folks, and remember: Beer first, square dancing second. Trust me.