Mass Market Lagers

Note: Post has been updated.

As you may have guessed from my most recent brewery tour, I'm working on a portion of the book involving what we variously call "macro" lagers.  Nomenclature and taxonomy are interesting here.  For some reason, people have felt it necessary to make separate categories for a ton of beers that consumers think of as one continuum--examples like Budweiser, Bud Light, Singha, Foster's, Stella Artois, Kirin, Pacifico, and so on.  Most countries have these beers, and the similarities far outweigh the differences.  Yet distinguish people do.

Here's how the BJCP does it:
  • "Lite" American lagers (why does the BJCP use that spelling?)
  • Standard American lagers
  • Premium American lagers
  • Helles
  • Dortmund export
For reference, Kirin would be a "standard American Lager," while Singha would be a premium.  Clear?

BeerAdvocate, which speaks for the mind of the beer geek, does it this way:
  • American Adjunct Lager 
  • American Malt Liquor 
  • American Pale Lager 
  • Light Lager
By their lights, Budweiser is an adjunct lager while Kirin (also made with rice) is an American pale lager.

In my book, I have decided to dispense with these categories.  There's something supremely bizarre about using American brewing and its attendant prejudices to conceptualize style.  It's just silly to call a Japanese lager made with rice an "American lager" (standard or pale) while Budweiser, an American lager made with rice, is an adjunct or "premium" lager.  Those divisions of standard and premium (along with super-premium) are marketing artifacts of the pre-craft brewing era that the large American companies used to distinguish between pretty well indistinguishable beers.

The beer geek framework is equally dubious.  "Adjunct" is propaganda, too.  It's what the Brewers Association used to distinguish their membership from the big companies--more marketing--but it's ahistorical and misleading.  There's nothing wrong with adjuncts.  In saisons, the beer geeks' beer, we celebrate them.  But in our own indigenous beers, where corn and rice are as American an expression as invert sugar is in English brewing, they are somehow the stain of shame. Don't buy the hype.

The story of how there came to be mass-market beer is much like the stories of how there came to be mass-market everything: the industrial revolution made it possible to mass-produce beer, which led to mass marketing and mass distribution, the practices of standardization and preservation. In this way, beer isn’t much different from meat or bread or cheese. The development of mass markets make it possible to manufacture and distribute a product cheaply, putting it in front of the largest number of people possible. Tailoring products for huge populations, in beer as much as other product categories, necessarily meant appealing to the center of the bell curve, where most people’s tastes congregate. When made to serve the median palate, products lose their thorns and idiosyncracies and become a more generic, bland version of the thing. More or less, that was the story of the 20th century in beer just as much as it was in other products.

Kirin reflects the mass tastes of Japan the way Budweiser reflects the mass tastes of the US and Singha the mass tastes of Thailand.  To try to distinguish these in terms of their taxonomy misses the forest for the trees.  To add a moral component by focusing on ingredients is also a matter of putting on blinders.  These are a category because they evolved to appeal to the largest group in a population.  That's what distinguishes them.  There are a few wrinkles we can argue over, like light beer and malt liquor, but I'm defaulting to "mass market lagers" when I can see no other reason to try to sort beers like Singha, Budweiser, and Foster's.

Update.  In a case of synchronicity, Pete Brown has posted a fascinating video illustrating my point.   For what it's worth, my own experience at Budweiser was completely different.  In several hours of my tour, the only question anyone dodged was about future projects--which isn't actually a dodge, but prudence.  I would use the video to illustrate the nature of the product, not the perfidy of the makers.  Had the filmmaker been speaking to a brewer, this would have been a very different video.