Mass Market Lagers Compared (Part 1)

I have always intended to do a survey of mass market lagers, and there's nothing like a book chapter to bring urgency to such a plan.  So on Wednesday I went out and rounded up a bunch of them (there are tons, more than you probably imagine) and last night Sally and I cracked open the first chunk.  To make this interesting, I will list the beers I tried and you can guess which were the tastiest.  I'd put one head and shoulders above the rest, another two were quite nice, two were skunked (green bottles!) but somewhat discernible, and one was really quite bad.  So the challenge--which was the really good and which the really bad?  (I've listed the countries of origin, not necessarily where they were produced.)
  • Asahi Super Dry (Japan)
  • Beck's (Germany)
  • Carlsberg (Denmark)
  • Foster's (Australia)
  • Heineken (Netherlands)
  • Peroni (Italy)
  • Steinlager (New Zealand)
  • Stella Artois (Belgium)
  • Warsteiner (Germany)

So first off, what characterizes these beers generally?  It's not that mass market lagers have less flavor than some other styles.  Rather, the flavors are just more overly-processed and hard to distinguish.  A helles is no tour de force of intensity, but you are able to distinguish the malt and hop flavors.  In mass market lagers, you get a sweetness without malt definition and usually just a tiny sprinkle of hop spice.  I've forgotten how fizzy and gassy they are, too.  When you're drinking a bunch in a row (not that I drank anywhere near all of any single beer), you instantly start to bloat and burp.  This is what the mass of men like in a beer.

The Good
By far the best was Peroni.   More a true pils than a mass-market lager, it had less carbonation and a warm bready malting.  The hops were--at least in comparison to every other beer we tried--vivid with spicy herbal quality.  In a blind tasting, I would have been certain it was a German beer.  In the next tier down was, quite surprisingly, Foster's.  It's a full beer with toasty malting.  Many of these wear badly, as the sugars begin to cloy, but the toastiness of Foster's makes it far more moreish.  I threw Warsteiner in partly as a ringer, but it disappointed me and was only good, not great.  It had the nice malt character you expect from a German beer but only a tiny blush of peppery hops.  Smooth and easy-drinking, but very, very mild.  Sally was also picking up a strong honey ester that put her off it.

The Bad
By far the worst beer was Carlsberg.  I'm not sure I've ever even had the beer before, and I certainly won't again.  It had a wicked combination of tin and sweet corn in a very watery solution.  It is an august brand (lager yeast was first isolated there) and I expected better.

The Stinky
Stella and Beck's were both lightstruck.  It wasn't too horrible in the case of Stella, which was otherwise quite a bit like club soda.  Beck's is a fairly hoppy beer by comparison, but has a watery consistency--like a watered-down pils.

The Average
Asahi has almost no flavor whatsoever, and because it is dry, it finishes without a whisper.  Heineken, the most familiar to me of all these beers, is a medium-bodied, fairly sweet beer that is on the upper end for mass market hopping.  Steinlager is actually pushing the upper tier--it's closer to a pils and has grainy malts and fairly decent hopping. 

The Ringer
I did toss a Session Lager in there just to see what to make of it.  It stuck out like a sore thumb.  Lots of husky, thick American malts and obvious citrus hopping.  I joked to Sally that it tasted like an imperial stout next to the others.  I was really hoping it would stick out, but I had to make it run the gauntlet to see. 

Stay tuned for round two...