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What is the real difference between a macrobrew, a microbrew, and a craft beer?

September 9, 2011

Proposed design for Surly's Brewpub

Why are most “macrobrews”, as a quasi-ubiquitous ad campaign for Budweiser once christened its beer, far less tasty than their “micro” counterparts? Is it a placebo effect, brought to bear by snobbish dismissal of all that is mainstream? Or is there a legitimate, fact-based case for this ever-burgeoning dichotomy?

Thanks to our friends at the AltaVista terminal at the Pawnee library, I’ve been able to isolate exactly what separates a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from a Bud Ice. For the multitudes of beer geeks in our readership (I’d wager there’s at least 8 of you out there), this might sound like the grade-school obviousness often found in a description of how a distinctive item like, say, pizza, differs from OFF! Just this once, I ask for your patience with those of us lacking in the skills to distinguish between the twin staples of the beer-obsessed, like Steel Reserve and Steel Reserve Light.

As the US ramped up our commitment to freeing the world from the predecessors to Jake and Elwood’s nemeses, the Illinois Nazis (who descended from regular Nazis, I presume), we were no longer able to dedicate as many of our precious resources to leisure items like rubber, steel, hops and barley. In order to create a lower-cost beer, many breweries began to “cut” the wort – which according to modern interpretations of German procedures, should only consist of barley, hops and yeast – with cheaper grains like corn and rice. The resulting watery, less-flavorful concoction met our swilling needs for several decades, aided by aggressive (and clever) marketing campaigns. In addition, foreign lands also begat breweries utilizing these so-called adjunct ingredients. Eventually, many brewers discovered that other ingredients can be utilized to cheapen the process, all while enhancing the alcoholic content of the product, giving us the item called malt liquor (I am aware that “malt liquor” has a different technical definition, so assume I am referencing what the breweries market as such, like Olde English, etc.). Even after WWII concluded, our friendly brewers continued with the low-grade swill, investing their profits into marketing rather than improving the quality of their product (as one would expect, the more purist brewers were largely killed off by Prohibition). For those of us that appreciate the flavor and unique character of actual barley n’ hops beers, the recent-past was a dark, dark time. Cue the Schlitz Bull running towards your television screen, just taunting you with its awfulness (although I absolutely loved how these commercials made ad-breaks during Laker games far more entertaining in the early ’80s).

An informative essay on the history of malt liquor offers deadpan comedy like this (a description of an advertising campaign for the brand Hurricane):

Part of the attitude included “bikini posters” for Hurricane, competing for cooler space with similar posters from Schlitz Malt Liquor, Mickey’s Malt Liquor, Colt 45 and Olde English, perhaps suggesting that malt liquor is the beverage of choice for those who swim.

While not every beermeister gave us a “cut” brew, it was difficult to find non-adjunct slop outside of larger liquor stores and specialty pubs, even as late as the mid-1990s. Ads for malt liquor (a slowly dying varietal) gave way to campaigns for similarly-tasting cut beers like Red Dog, Icehouse, and that pesky Zima. Yowzer! …And people wonder why I didn’t drink in college.

European brewers, sensing a market for better beer, pumped up their efforts in the US, as Guinness, Newcastle, Beck’s and Negra Modelo slowly gained market share amongst those wanting more from their beer. All the while, the American craft beer market exploded, aided by stalwarts like Boston Brewing (Samuel Adams) and Sierra Nevada. by 2009, the US hosted 1,400 craft breweries, many of which served their beer on-site at a bar-restaurant. Most European countries, despite the front-row seats for serious infrastructure demolition in the 20th Century, maintained a tenuous connection with their brewing roots, avoiding the adjuncts that became synonymous with beer in the US. Not so with that prickly continent of Australia, where poor attempts at “bitters” like the triumvirate of tragedy from Carlton & United Breweries Limited (Average Rating on Beer Advocate: D+) – Victoria Bitter, Melbourne Bitter, and Carlton Draught – unquestionably dominate this more wine-oriented land mass.[i]

Now, I’m a preferentialist, but I’ll still grab a Miller Lite or Grain Belt Premium on occasion, and understand that not all moments require a strongly-flavored beer. However, it turns out that millions of Americans – although still a small percentage of what awaits – actually want to taste the results of old-school beermaking techniques that employ the time-tested building blocks of hops and barley instead of corn, dextrose and alpha-amylase. Modern incarnations of older styles like the India Pale Ale have grabbed hold of the craft beer culture (culminating in Bell’s HopSlam vs. Avery Maharaja, a battle rivaling the Mary Decker vs Zola Budd clash in 1984, sans the painful conclusion), as at least one “hoppy” choice has become a regular resident within the taps of a surprising array of pubs, even places often referred to as dives. Which leads to the obvious dilemma – are we better off with the smaller craft breweries, and their unbridled experimentation, maintaining the “good” side of beer, or should we, as consumers, encourage the Macros (Budweiser, MillerCoors, Pabst, etc) to push their beer to “craft” quality? Much like the expanding market for traditional foods (i.e., items available before post-war mass-consumption) like real butter and real maple syrup, perhaps the Macros will notice that we would prefer a return to traditionally-brewed beer? Would that crush the microbrew scene? Possibly, but a world where macrobrewers offer craft beers under their flagship brands has to be a good thing, if not only to avoid the ire of the geeks.

Thankfully, the failures in the Macro world have been lovingly catalogued on the trusty internet. The aforementioned Beer Advocate, in addition to offering a solid summary of the numerous beer styles available, serves as a fine database for the individual ratings for thousands of brews throughout the world. While most ratings seek to inform the reader of the drinking experience in a non-judgemental manner, many reviewers eschew the politeness to drop some early-2000s Pitchfork Music Review-level bluster.

Oh, how we thank thee! Below are some examples, with all names unchanged, ’cause they would want it that way:

Budweiser Chelada (that unmistakeable blend of Adjunct Lager and Clamato juice):

Kojevargas; Galway, Ireland:

Smell: Vomit and tamato puree, with perchance some light grapefruit. This is one of the worst aromas I’ve ever encountered. And it’s moderately strong to boot.

Taste: Vomit and tomato. Really one of the foulest concoctions I’ve ever endeavored to swallow. Some light clam notes are present, which add to the mixture in a distinctly miserable way…Atrociously awful. What in Ireland we refer to as “utter shite”. It’s like they combined Hitler’s bodily fluids (and I do mean ALL of them) with smegma. I imagine it would taste the same on the way up. Seriously disgusting…

…Please for the love of God don’t consume this filth. This is an insult to beer, even by AH Busch standards. Jaysus H Fooking Christ, lads. Don’t even use this for cooking.

Victoria Bitter (which I once characterized as tasting like “rotting onion in liquid form”):

Aeoliansredhead; Brisbane, Australia:

Here it is: one of the main offenders to the Australian beer industry, VB itself…The worst part is, I really can’t tell what is causing this scent. Is it malt? God no. Is it hops? I sincerely doubt that. Whatever it is, smells like it should definitely not be there…It’s bloating, gassy, abrasive and watery. These are not good things, people. The fizziness just does not work here. This is a true pain to drink.

Bud Ice Light:

Mhl060; Talahassee, Florida:

…It was horrible corn sweet mess that I’m glad will never have to grace the earth again. This is the worst beer in the history of the world…If I rinsed out my socks after running through mud and playing Ultimate frisbee for 10 hours… and then decided to make a beer with the excess water.. it would taste something like this piece of crap.

Colt .45 Double Malt Liquor:

Woodychandler; Lancaster City, Pennsylvania:

…I love that the logo features a bucking colt and in this case, two of them, because I always come away feeling like I just got kicked in the head…Nose smelled like the inside of a plastics factory. Happy happy, joy joy!

Milwaukee’s Best Premium:

OrangeAmps; Somerset, Massachusetts:

Looks like someone pissed into the can, carbonated it to death, liquified a corn cob, and then diluted it with water.

The taste was so bad that I spit it out after my first sip. I tried to drink more of it, and eventually dumped it. It tasted like afterbirth.

Never again.

Natural Light:

FrankenBeerStein; Denver Colorado:

Had this in an Old Chicago as a humorous way to mark a halfway point in their “World Beer Tour”… It’s as if rancid water was shown a picture of Coors/Bud/Miller light and told to try and imitate it, and it failed miserably. Very very bad beer, and even an insult to “cheap beer”….

[i] Thankfully, Cooper’s and Little Creatures are making the Big Continent a safe place for beer fans.

  1. Lloyd permalink
    September 9, 2011 4:46 pm

    Good stuff. It occurred to me while reading your article that the World of Beer is perhaps where we see the purest dichotomy between “good indie” and “bad corporate mainstream.” Pretty much everything about the Anheuser Busch evil empire is bad — taste, production techniques, business practices, political influence, etc. Not all “indie” beers are good, of course, but even the beers that don’t appeal to me taste-wise are made the right way. It’s somehow deeply satisfying to know with such clarity who the bad guys are and be able to avoid their products at will. With so many other things–telecommunications, for one–there is no choice BUT to give your money to the bad guys unless you completely avoid the product category altogether.

  2. July 2, 2012 9:57 am

    I like the idea of the german purity act, even with the ‘law’ in place they still make good beer, but i also like to think outside the box and make crazy beers (just for myself) like blueberry or peach, ect. Thanks for the article I did enjoy reading it!

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