Beck’s Long Status as a Quality German Import
Back in 1977, Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer burst on the scene. It included most of the “marquee” names current at the time. Not every name was covered – in practical terms that would be impossible – but most were. Budweiser, Pilsner Urquell, Bass, Heineken, Carlsberg, Guinness, Spaten, and the Munich Lowenbrau are examples.
Beck’s Beer, for ages a reputed export from Bremen, was included as well. Jackson devoted a full paragraph to it, calling Beck’s “full-bodied and well-hopped”.
He also noted its strong export associations and stated the beer was even brewed in the Far East at one point, before WW II. Heineken also had a foreign branch brewery into the early 1940s, in the Dutch East Indies. In fact that territory supplied beer to the U.S. just prior to its entry into WW II.
Beck’s in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s seemed to have a different formulation than in Germany, with a lighter taste, at least according to the (fairly detailed) sources quoted by Jay Brooks in his 2017 post on Becks, see here.
Jackson Flummoxed by Beck’s as a Style
In the pocket guides that followed The World Guide to Beer Michael Jackson went granular on Beck’s. In the 1997 edition of The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, he stated at p. 27:
…Beck’s carries no description beyond a straightforward Beck’s Bier. It is broadly within the Pilsener style with a fresh aroma, a faintly fruity, firm, crisp, palate and a clean, dry finish. It is light by German but heavy by international standards, and difficult to place in context.
“Difficult to place in context” – a puzzling statement by Jackson, the king of beer description. Both the palate but especially the lack of a claimed style clearly put Jackson off balance. Beyond allowing that it was a Pilsener in broad terms he seemed unwilling, following the brewery’s lead ostensibly, to type it a Pils, even the German type that, while differing from Czech originals, has always been a prime international example of the Pilsener style.
The Origins and Early Career of Heinrich Beck
Heinrich Beck was born in Baden-Württemberg, Germany in the southwest. Jackson seemed unaware of this and that Beck had emigrated to Indiana and worked in an American brewery for years. See again Jay Brook’s discussion of Heinrich Beck’s background.
Heinrich returned to Germany after some years but to the opposite side, in Bremen, to work at the St. Pauli brewery. He finally set up his own brewery with two others, in 1873.
The U.S. experience had to influence the character of Heinrich Beck’s lager. The evidence is that Beck’s is notably pale in colour like adjunct American lager, is fairly dry albeit all-malt, and not greatly hopped. This is how I remember the beer from the 1970s in Canada and it is similar today. It tastes foreign to be sure, but is one or two steps away from the domestic profile, not five.
A Range of Modern Beck’s Styles
Today, Beck’s, both in Germany and the U.S. where Beck’s is now produced for that market, has issued beers in different styles. Beck’s Gold, Beck’s Red Ale, Becks Pilsener 1873, are just some. Here though I am focusing on Beck’s Bier, the classic mainstay of the label. AB InBev, which owns Beck’s today, claims it is the largest-selling German beer in the world, see here from the English-language website.
Why the Coy Label?
So why does Beck’s not state on the label that it is a Helles style, or Pilsener, or Export? This opens the door to speculation that Beck’s is a unique style of brew, not classifiable.
There is an answer, and an Australian news story explains it crisply: before WW I German export brewers like Beck’s were on the march for new markets or to expand the old. Australia was a prime territory in this regard.
In 1907 the Daily News of Perth interviewed a Beck’s sales representative, A. Bergner (see here). He stated as follows:
I have observed that there is a noticeable want of knowledge on the part of the general public; and also beer-drinkers as to the meaning of ‘Pilsener.’ In effect the word is practically what to you whisky would signify without any particular brand being mentioned. Many inferior breweries shelter themselves behind the word Pilsener and put on the market inferior beer. Many colonial breweries are also making use of the word ‘Pilsener’ so that the consumer is deluded into the idea that he is buying the real genuine imported German lager beer. This has driven us to the position that we have had to remove the word ‘Pilsener’ from our labels, and in future across the front will appear only the word ‘Beck’s Lager.’
In other words, Beck’s was a Pilsener – a very good one, naturally, in the company’s eyes, as elaborated in the account. But to sell the product more effectively the word Pilsener was removed from the label. And finally, at least in many markets, the simple term beer replaced the word lager.
Marketing reasons, in other words, resulted in Beck’s seeming non-classifiable to Michael Jackson, not the absence of a style name on the label. To the extent the palate itself contributed to his uncertainty I believe Heinrich’s years in the U.S. made him favour a beer not too bitter or malty, the direction of U.S. lager since the late 1800s.
The Situation Today
Beck’s still does not state on the labels that it is a Pilsener. Yet, as stated above, Beck’s in Germany has now introduced an apparently historical Beck’s beer called “Beck’s Pilsener 1873”. It was released just a few years ago and is a small seller. In practical terms there is no impact on the international image of Beck’s Beer, nonetheless Beck’s had no issues applying “Pilsener” to one of its labels, is my point.
Also, the website of AB InBev, even for regular Beck’s Bier, states it is a “German Pilsener”. That’s pretty clear. Also, in Bremen Beck’s markets a line of beers styled Pilsener, the Haake-Beck line. Jackson discusses them in the pocket guides and assumes, wrongly, in our view, that Beck’s Bier is a different and unique style.
So, while Beck’s Bier still refrains from calling itself a Pilsener clearly it is not an unclassifiable German lager. It started its career as, and remains, a German Pilsener, one of many in the market.
Yet, the inspired label change which A. Bergner mentioned in 1907 gave Beck’s an attractive, “singleton” status. Something like this occurred for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The negative implications of “fried”, as well as the generic character implied by the full product name, were side-stepped by adopting the term KFC – a brilliant move. “KFC” is or has become its own thing, and many today have to think twice to remember, or never knew, that it is a fried in oil recipe.
Beck’s must still see benefit in keeping its labels essentially the same since 1907, both for the German export and American-made version.
Is Beck’s a Superlative Beer?
Does Beck’s deserve its historic reputation as a reputed import? The image may have evolved in the U.S. Many reviews on Beer Advocate and Ratebeer suggest, as do the scores, that Beck’s is an average beer, superior to the American lager palate and at an affordable price, but not extra-special. The fact that it is currently brewed in the U.S. seems to take lustre away as well, as a true import gains cachet by that fact alone. In Canada though Beck’s remains a German import.
Numerous comments on the rating services refer to a skunky taste or smell, the presumed effect of the green bottle. Yet, the taste is similar whether draft or can. I think the explanation is probably DMS, or dimethyl sulphide, which can give the impression of skunk or “marijuana” in many lagers.
Indeed it is considered part of the modern pilsener or Helles profile especially in Germany. Not every central European blonde lager has it, but many do.
Certainly Beck’s has an assertive, distinctive taste, different from the American mass-market norm or even most craft interpretations but approachable. Beck’s is not my preferred tipple for Pils or Helles but is a good beer. It clearly has, in taste and image, a certain something that keeps it the No. 1 German import world-wide.
Note re image above: image was sourced from The Beer Store webpage for the brand, here. Used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the image belongs to its sole owner. All feedback welcome.