Your bland mainstream-brand pint needs an upgrade

by Jason Foster

pintsHere’s a shocker for you: most Canadian beer drinkers are loyal to big corporate brands. Whether it’s Budweiser, Molson-Coors, Kokanee, Keith’s, Rickard’s or one of the cheaper regional brands like Lethbridge Old Style Pilsner, most beer sales go to the pale lager style these beers represent.

What? You’re not astounded? Oh, right.

What might surprise you is that the recent explosion of craft beer is leading a surprising number of ardent mainstream-beer drinkers to at least think about shifting to something better.

That’s great, but it also leads to a problem: where to jump into the wide world of craft? Expecting someone to leap from Coors Light straight into a crazy IPA or a barrel-aged stout and not be shocked by the flavour difference is unrealistic, and could turn that person off craft forever.

Baby steps, people. When you’re just dipping your toe into the craft end of the beer pool, it’s important to start with a beer that’s similar to the mainstream beer you prefer — just far better.

So here begins an inevitably irregular (What? You think writers and editors are actually any good at regular schedules? Silly goose.) series of columns looking at how to transition from the big, bland brands to more crafty options without being overwhelmed.

Abandon Bud, Quit Coors

Starting at the lightest end of the spectrum, Coors Light and Bud Light are brewed to be lower in alcohol and without much actual beer flavour at all. A great step up is Toronto’s Mill Street Organic Lager, which is only 4.2 per cent alcohol but has an all-grain flavour. It’s very light and easy, but definitely has more — and better — flavour than its corporate competitors.

Bud Light Lime and every other member of the lime beer bandwagon have (inconceivably) become very popular. They’re all about the lime rather than any real beer flavour, and are mostly beer for non-beer people. If you want a fruity, light taste, you can do much better by going for any one of Unibroue’s Éphémère series. You can get apple, black currant, peach, raspberry and other fruit versions. The base beer is light, dry and refreshing, and the fruit adds excellent character rather than overwhelming the beer.

The range of pale lagers in the mainstream market is huge, although they mostly all taste pretty much the same. (People’s loyalty is based far more on brand than flavour when it comes to the big brewers — that’s why they spend gerbillions on “good times”-style advertising.) But there are some ever-so-subtle differences in them that suggest a few alternatives.

The corn-based Budweiser is Canada’s biggest-selling brand. Moving away from it to a better alternative means you don’t want to start with too big of a beer, so try Brooklyn Lager. It’s all malt, but with a light body that should appeal to Bud drinkers.

Quit Keith’s And No Mo’ Corona

And how about those silly folks at Alexander Keith’s? Their advertising suggests you’re getting an India Pale Ale when you buy one, but do NOT start with a real IPA if you’re thinking you’re getting a craft version of Keith’s — because it’s a pale lager just like Canadian and Bud. But Keith’s drinkers usually feel like they’re unique in the mainstream beer world, so let’s show them Toronto’s Steam Whistle. Steam Whistle is a real pilsner in the Czech style, but it keeps the body very clean and the hopping is not overwhelming, meaning it can serve as a nice upgrade from Keith’s false hoppiness.

Corona is another beer that’s tough to pair with a suitable upgrade. The problem is that by the time most Canadians get to drink it, the clear bottle it comes in has caused the beer to become skunky. Skunk sounds awful, but at low levels it simply provides a sweet flavour and pungent aroma, and a lot of people seem to find that pleasant.

But no real craft brewer would be caught dead selling a skunky beer, so there’s no real flavour equivalent. Stretching the transition theme quite a bit, let’s go with Grizzly Paw’s Powder Hound Pilsner. Light and sharp, this lager offers a delicate malt, a moderate hop bite and a slightly sweet finish. It’s not skunked by any stretch of the imagination, but I bet that Corona fans wouldn’t be upset by its delicate flavours and accessible body.

Ditch Molson, Repudiate Pil

If you’re a Molson Canadian drinker, I’d say give Creemore Springs a try. It’s a bit fuller and sweeter than Canadian, and even though they come from the same company, Creemore is quite drinkable.

Molson’s Lethbridge Old Style Pilsner isn’t really a pilsner, but it does have a sharp, spicy edge that might mean fans of it would be fine with moving up to Great Western’s Pilsner. It’s not a real pilsner either, but it has a bit more body and a more distinct hop character — it’s basically a mainstream craft beer, which is pretty much exactly what we’re looking for. From there you could look at a variety of other craft lagers and pilsners.

So many bland, mainstream beers, so little space! Hopefully “Beer Upgrades: Volume II” will appear soon. As soon as I remember to write it and the editor remembers to run it, that is…