As I approached the bar at Thomas Street Tavern, I took a look at the many options before me and went with what I believed to be the worst one.
I asked the bartender for a Schlitz and a Mickey's, and then I paused.
"What's another beer that is cheap as hell and rarely gets ordered?" I asked.
She looked at me like I was the cheapest bastard at the bar, which I was for the day, and she suggested an Old Milwaukee.
"Perfect. I'll take it."
I found myself in this discussion after an editorial staff meeting for this week's Beer Issue, at which time I recalled a conversation I had with Brian Heffron, co-owner of Small Bar in the Music Factory, back in January 2017. Heffron was telling me why his bar prioritizes the cheap stuff over craft beer.
"People will eventually figure out that spending $10 on a beer because it smells like a strawberry juniper is not the best decision," he told me over a couple cold Miller Lites. "If you want to go across town and buy a beer for $8 or $10 because it has a blueberry in it or whatever, that's fine. But I believe at some point people will come to their senses and realize that beer and a good bite to eat should be reasonably priced the way it's been for generations."
And such is the crux of this week's feature story. The staff did a little research and found that a certain triangle of Plaza Midwood dive bars — Thomas Street Tavern (ok, divish), Thirsty Beaver Saloon and Elizabeth Billiards — offered up the best selection of cheap beers within a walking distance of each other in the city.
Then we set out to drink them all.
On one recent Thursday night, art director Dana Vindigni, sales associate Justin LaFrancois, local rapper Black Linen and I hit Plaza Midwood to turn up on each of 12 different beers under $5 that we decided would make for a nice, diverse line-up of cheap beers.
- [From left] Black Linen, Ryan Pitkin and Justin LaFrancois at Thirsty Beaver Saloon.
Sure, there are some missing from the list that weren't being served at any of the three bars we visited that night. But if you must have a Natural Light, Busch Light or Colt 45 while following along on our tour, there's always Harris Teeter within walking distance as well.
We tested a baker's dozen that night (look at Black Linen's comments near the end for his shortened review of Pinner), and the following is the un-researched, non-expert, beyond buzzed analysis that followed...
Miller High Life, 4.6% alcohol by volume
Ryan Pitkin: High Life is, as we all know, the Champagne of Beers, and I think it's on the higher end of the spectrum for what we'll be drinking here today, just in that it doesn't make you cringe to think about. This is what you get into when you're trying to prep yourself to do some heavy drinking later on.
Dana Vindigni: This is when you transition from junior high to high school. This is what you do. You start off and say, "I'm going to start drinking Miller High Life."
Black Linen: It's watered down, but it's like they use Fiji water or something. When they make High Life they use that top H2O. They call themselves the Champagne of Beers, so they're selling an idea. It's got a lot of flavor, too, so it's not tasteless like Rolling Rock.
RP: The thing about High Life is that it tastes way different out of a bottle than out of a can. I can't stand it from a can.
Pabst Blue Ribbon, 4.7% ABV
DV: On the nose we've got a little dead tree bark smell. Miller High Life is golden, this is lighter; more of like a honey or a hay color.
BL: This beer, no matter where you go, it always fits the budget. It's traditional. It doesn't taste all watered down. You're definitely getting a beer.
RP: This is my beer. The typical Plaza Midwood hipster beer. I find it hard to review in any meaningful sense because it's just my go-to. I don't need to know why. It just feels right.
DV: Who hasn't had a PBR? It's an American standard. What kind of hipster hasn't gotten their hands on a PBR in the last 15 years?
It's woodish. It tastes like lumber. That's what it tastes like to me. Not sawdust, but like fresh wood. Like when you smell a real tree and you're like, "Hmm." It's a little piney. It's not bad, but that's kind of what it reminds me of. It's an OK beer.
Schlitz, 4.6% ABV
JL: This is the first time I've ever had Schlitz. It kind of tastes like a really old PBR. I would call this lighter than both High Life and PBR. I get way more of a beer taste out of either of those. This is just like really bad water.
They distill liquor to make it smoother, so this is like a distilled PBR. Way smoother. Sometimes when I drink beer it feels like I'm holding Pop Rocks in my mouth. This is just dirty water. Whoever doesn't like fizzle on your tongue too much and dry your mouth out, this is that one.
RP: This tastes like an old, very-expired LaCroix — like club soda that has something terribly wrong with it.
JL: This is actually delicious. It doesn't sting the tongue too much. I'm going to start drinking Schlitz wherever I can find it. I always thought Schlitz was shit, but now I think that Schlitz is the shit.
Old Milwaukee, 4.6% ABV
DV: Look at how pretty this can is! Look at the sexy girl on this right now. This beer, which incidentally is strawberry-hued, is strawberry flavored as well. It's kind of light, almost as light as the Schlitz, but with more of a straw color to it.
Justin LaFrancois: It kind of tastes like you rolled your cat around in blueberries then licked on it.
This is the kind of stuff I like to drink in the summer. It doesn't get me full, it doesn't bubble up inside me, and it's $2.
RP: I don't like that one as much. It's definitely light. It tastes similar to Schlitz without the club soda vibe. I'm not quite getting the same fruity vibe y'all are getting.
DV: I'm really into the fact that I think Old Milwaukee has a fruity overtone and is super approachable for a beer. And it also looks completely sexist, but I wish I was wearing this girl's outfit.
This is cool because it's antiquated now. Like it's so cool it's gone out of style, come back in style, gone out of style again and now we're resurrecting it from the dead.
LaBatt Blue, 5% ABV
JL: This Labatt Blue is definitely wheatier than the Schlitz. I can taste the malt more. It tastes darker.
This tastes like two Canadian men shaking hands in my mouth. It's very nice. I thought this was going to be way worse.
RP: It's maybe because I'm just bringing the Canadian into it subconsciously, but this tastes like a log cabin vacation. I can taste the Canada in it.
JL: When you say it, yeah. I just always thought, "This beer has got to taste like shit." But no, that was a good pilsner.
Red Stripe, 4.7% ABV
JL: I always pictured this tasting like medicine, just because of the bottle. But it doesn't. It's like a sweet lager.
RP: It's got that tropical vibe to it. Again, I wonder how much of the marketing plays into these tastes, when we talk about these Canadian, Mexican and Jamaican beers. I feel like this is a good beach beer, but maybe that's just because of its Jamaican roots.
JL: This one's a little too heavy to be a beach beer. I want something like Old Milwaukee on the beach. Something super fuckin' light.
DV: There's like a lime back-taste to it, it tastes citrusy kind of, which is what makes you think of the beach.
JL: It's crazy what craft beer can do to the minds of people, because there's nothing wrong with this beer. I could drink this for the rest of the day. But people see this as taboo. Like who the fuck orders a Red Stripe?
DV: I don't think of Red Stripe as a taboo beer. It's not super cheap. We're not at $2 anymore.
RP: This is more full-bodied than anything we've had so far.
JL: Yes, definitely, this is that heavier bodied one that we were looking for.
- LaFrancois early in the day.
Dos Equis, 4.2% ABV
DV: Oh yeah, oh, now I remember why I like this beer, because it tastes like I just ate a mouthful of guaca-fuckin'-mole. It is super delicious and kind of sweet, which you kind of take for granted when you have a bunch of light beers.
I like things that are sweet because if I'm eating candy or any garbage food I want a sweet garbage beer to go with it, and I like Dos Equis because I feel like I'm on vacation a little bit.
JL: It kind of smells like a freeway underpass.
DV: Uh huh, gym socks.
JL: Like a storm drain under a freeway underpass that has old gym socks in it.
DV: But you have to admit that it's sweeter than all the other beers.
JL: I think the Red Stripe is sweeter.
RP: Well, they're both closer to the equator.
JL: Right, a lot of sugars down there.
DV: Dos Equis is light, but body-wise it doesn't taste super light. It's a little bit more medium. It's a little heavier in the mouth.
JL:My least favorite thing about drinking is feeling full, and most of these are great beers to drink when you don't want to feel full. They're mostly at 4.7% [ABV]. I mean, most craft beers are between 3.8 and 7.5 so that's right in the middle.
DV:I thought these shitty beers were supposed to suck, and it turns out that none of them are sucking. We're going to go back from the craft beer revolution to the cheap beer.
These beers we can definitely surmise are not heavy, they're not overly complicated as far as taste, they're simple. They're all pretty clean, they're all light, and they were all created in the 1850s, so they were all probably made by children. [laughs]
Mickey's, 5.6% ABV
DV: Mickey's is a little spicy.
RP: That tastes like a broken home. I don't like it. It tastes like what would be on an abusive stepdad's breath. And it even looks like a grenade.
You're right that it has a spiciness to it. It's got this weird burning aftertaste.
BL: My cousins up north, this is all they drink; Heineken, Mickey's and Hennessy. That stuff is crazy. I don't drink Mickey's. I had my malt liquor days. Malt liquor is the dev-il.
JL: So this is a malt liquor, ok, so now I'm picturing what it tastes like.
DV: The spiciness kind of somehow works a little.
JL: I still have too much nachos in my mouth to taste it.
DV: No, you taste it, it tastes like regret. I totally agree that it tastes like an old man's beer breath. And presenting it in — what is this supposed to be, a barrel? Are we supposed to think it was stolen?
JL: It's very cold. This is so much colder than all the other beers we've had.
RP: I've never understood why big beer companies like Coors Light advertise themselves that way. "It's the coldest beer ever brewed!" Who cares? You put in a fridge, it's going to be cold. Put it in a freezer, it's going be colder. Take it out, gonna get warm.
Singha, 5% ABV
JL: That tastes like shit. I don't like that one at all.
DV: The color of this one is definitely pee — cat piss, yellow, very little bubbles.
This one is all the bad things about hops. This is what you want to clean a toilet with. Not ideal.
JL: It's like they took super old barley and washed a toilet with it.
DV: This is not an ideal beer if you want to taste anything. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the worst, that's a 9.
- A few selections at Elizabeth Billiards.
Hamm's, 4.7% ABV
RP: This tastes like what I was expecting all of today's beers to taste like.
JL: Yeah, this is definitely the worst tasting of them all. This is a beer that I have to drink when I'm already drunk. I can't start with this.
DV: This is college beer. This is the stuff that you hope you can find in your parent's garage at night.
BL: It's got a lot of water in there. It's definitely been cut, so they can just make their margins on the shit.
JL: I'm getting slight notes of water, hops, yeast and malt. And toilet.
BL: I can taste the malt liquor in there, too.
DV: I don't think I would give this to my dog.
RP: You know that feeling when you're really hungover and a beer sounds like the worst thing ever and the smell of one can make you puke? This tastes like that feeling. It is that beer you smell in your hangover nightmares.
BL: This is faux pimp beer. It's C-list Colt 45.
DV: We had at least seven beers that were all good and now we're really running into some bad beers.
Yuengling, 4.4% ABV
DV: This is a light, kind of chocolatey, mid-toned beer.
JL: Heavy malt, definitely a little chocolatey. I would call it the most craft out of everything that we've tasted so far.
BL: Yuengling is a good balance.
DV: It's almost like a real beer.
JL: Well now, haven't we decided that these beers are all real and the craft beers are just trying to take that and change it for nothing?
BL: Naw, some of these beers are fake, though. [laughs] This shit [holding a [Pinner Throwback IPA] is fake as hell.
- Black Linen and Dana Vindigni struggle with a Hamm's Beer at the Beaver.
Dale's Pale Ale, 6.5% ABV
RP: This tastes like a bad rip-off of a craft IPA. I can't mess with this stuff. It's always on special here and there, but I stay away from it. It's been a while but now I remember why. It takes me a while just to finish one of these.
BL: That shit just looks funny as hell in your hand, that can.
Coors Banquet, 5% ABV
RP: Is this any different than regular Coors Light? I've drank so many of these beers I can't really tell anymore.
JL: This tastes like if I took a bunch of river rocks and ground them up until they were liquid and put them in a bottle.
BL: This bottle looks like it has a label on it that reads. "Drink this to cure all your ailments." Any virus, any bacteria you have in your body, it will kill it and it will all come out in your piss. It looks like you're drinking lean.
DV: This is good, what's wrong with you guys? This is not shit. "Ground up rocks" my ass.
From there, our drunken conversations veered elsewhere and we forgot about our mission and our short-lived career as beer critics...