Good Compromises

Looking for decent beer under two bucks? Go Western, my friend

by Jason Foster

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If you read this column on anything approaching a regular basis, it’s probably because you love good beer and want to learn more about underrated styles, great imports and superb microbrews.

But sometimes, even the biggest fan of quality beer can find themselves looking for something that’s cheap and passable.

Maybe your old Uncle Ted is in town; you know, the guy who asks you to pull his finger and thinks “cold” is a flavour. Maybe you’re doing a beer run for a party with friends and volume is more important than pedigree. Or maybe you’re just on a tight budget and need to stretch your beer money as far as you can.

There are lots of reasons for heading over to the discount aisle, and hey, I’m not judging — I’ve certainly been there. But if that’s where you find yourself, know that just like craft beers, not all cheap brews are equal. And while none of them will knock your taste buds out with brilliant flavour, some are much better than others.

Good Budget Brews, Bad Budget Brews

When you dip into the cheap end of the beer market you’re compromising flavour — full stop, no exceptions. To get the price-point down, companies skimp on ingredients:  adding more corn syrup, brewing to higher gravities and then watering down before bottling, and so on.

Brewers also know consumers in that market segment aren’t generally looking for big flavour, so that works to their advantage as well. It’s almost symbiotic in a way. Not a good way, perhaps, but a way nonetheless.

So: none of these beers suit my particular taste and I’m not necessarily recommending any of them. What I am doing is judging them for what they are rather than what I wish they were, and suggesting the best options in a bargain-basement bunch.

I’m defining discount beer as beer that sells for less than $2 per bottle/can in the SLGA. Nothing comes close to a-buck-a-bottle in this province, and most of the mainstream brands (Canadian, Coors, Budweiser, etc.) sell in the range of $2.10 to $2.50 per bottle. Craft beer is obviously a bit higher than that. Moving under $2 a bottle is a significant price break.

First, a couple of “avoid at all costs” beers. Minhas products — Boxer, Minhas Creek and others — disappoint even at their exceedingly low price point ($18.98 for 12): they’ve all got a metallic character and an odd after-taste that suggests some kind of unwanted fermentation. Also, despite its hipster reputation, Pabst Blue Ribbon ($24.70 for 15) is a shadow of its former self. At one time Pabst was a reputable North American lager; these days it’s basically an iconic label wrapped around a beer that’s far too sweet and dominated by a corn flavour.

There are better options. Saskatoon’s Great Western has something going on. They don’t have much street cred with beer-lovers, mostly because early on they realized their survival depends on producing beer a lot of people would drink — which means it isn’t craft beer, for the most part. But for discount beer, they do a damned good job of infusing flavour.

Judged on their own, Great Western Premium Lager, Pilsner, Bitter and Brewhouse Pilsner ($19.49 for 12 or $24.99 for 15) are fairly unimpressive. But compare those beers to other offerings selling for less than $2, and you start to see that Great Western is a step ahead in the quality department.

Great Western doesn’t offer all-malt beer, nor do they add a bunch of hops or such. These are straightforward pale lagers, but overall they aren’t so bad. Their beers tend to have a nice malt flavour with soft sweetness and a grainy character. Each beer has a distinct taste, which says something all by itself, and generally there’s a clean character to them.

It’s A Parade Of Beer Savings

Molson’s Old Style Pilsner ($25 for 15) — yup, the one with the rabbits on the label — also finds a way to lift itself above the other discount offerings. It’s not a real pilsner by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a light cereal grain character and a tiny whiff of hops at the end. It leans toward the sweet end and is fairly boring, but it’s clean and lacks any off-putting flavours common among cheap beers.

Calgary Beer ($21.99 for 12) and Rainier ($24.25 for 15) get semi-honourable mentions (hardly high praise considering the point of this list, but still), while in the light beer category you could go for Keystone Light ($24.35 for 15), despite it just being a watered down version of Keystone Lager.

There are no classics here, obviously, but at least a few of the cheaper beers are serviceable for those times when saving money, rather than a great beer drinking experience, is the priority.

And sometimes that’s good enough.

2014-03-20