Beck’s Long Status as a Quality German Import
Back in 1977 Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer made an éclat and included most marquee beer names then current.
Not every name of renown was covered – in practical terms impossible – but most were including Budweiser, Pilsner Urquell, Bass, Heineken, Carlsberg, Guinness, Spaten, and the Munich Lowenbrau.
Beck’s Beer, long a reputed export from Bremen, was included. Jackson devoted a paragraph to it, calling the beer “full-bodied and well-hopped”.
He also noted the strong historic export association and stated the beer was brewed in the far east at one point. This stopped after WW II. Heineken, incidentally, also had a foreign branch brewery into the early 1940s, in Dutch East Indies. It supplied beer to America just prior to its entry into WW II.
Beck’s as sold in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s seems to have had a different formulation than for some other markets. For our market it had a lighter taste, at least according to the (fairly detailed) encyclopedia references quoted by Jay Brooks in his 2017 post on the founder Heinrich Beck, see here.
Jackson Flummoxed by Beck’s in Stylistic Terms
In his pocket guides that followed The World Guide to Beer Jackson became more 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 confounding statement from the king of beer description. Both the palate but especially the lack of a claimed style designation clearly unbalanced Jackson. Beyond allowing it was a Pilsener in the broadest terms he seemed unwilling, following the brewery 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 Pils style.
The Origins and Early Career of Heinrich Beck
Beck was born in Baden-Württemberg 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 Brook’s discussion of Heinrich Beck’s background.
Heinrich returned to Germany after some years but to the other end, in Bremen, to work at the St. Pauli brewery. He finally set up his own brewery with two others in 1873.
This U.S. experience had to influence the character of Heinrich Beck’s lager. The evidence is Beck’s is notably pale 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, has issued a number of 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 Beer, the classic version that is still the workhorse of the brewery. Indeed AB InBev, which owns Beck’s today, claims it is the largest-selling German beer in the world, see here from its English-language website.
Why the Coy Label?
So why has Beck’s not stated on the label that it is a Helles, or Pilsener, or Export, thus opening the door to speculation that it 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 to find new markets or expand the old. Australia was prime territory.
In 1907 the Daily News in Perth interviewed a Beck’s sales representative, A. Bergner (see here) who was quoted 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, it was a Pilsener, a very good one (naturally) in the company’s eyes, as further discussed in the account. But to sell the product more effectively “Pilsener” was removed from the labels. Finally, or at least in many markets, the word lager was replaced by “beer”.
It was marketing, in other words, that resulted in Beck’s seeming non-classifiable to Jackson, not the absence of a style name on the label. To the extent the palate itself bolstered that view for him, I believe Heinrich’s years of brewing in the U.S. convinced him blonde lager outside Germany should not be too malty or bitter.
The Situation Today
Beck’s still does not carry on the labels a statement that it is a Pilsener, not to my knowledge certainly.
Yet, as stated above, Beck’s in Germany introduced an apparently historical Beck’s beer named 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 discomfiture applying “Pilsener” to its label.
Also, the website of AB InBev noted above, even for regular Beck’s, states it is a “German Pilsener”.
Beck’s also markets locally in Bremen some beer styled Pilsener in its Haake-Beck line. Jackson discusses the beer in his pocket guide mentioned above and assumes (wrongly, in our view) that its “cosmopolitan cousins” Beck’s and (we infer) St. Pauli Girl, not labelled Pilsener beers, are a different style.
And so, while Beck’s Beer still avoids the Pilsener term on its label clearly it is not a sui generis German lager. It started its career as, and remains, a German Pilsener, one of many Pils-type beers in the market.
But the inspired label change to which A. Bergner referred in 1907 gave Beck’s an attractive singleton status. Something like this occurred with Kentucky Fried Chicken. The sometimes negative implications of “fried”, as well as a generic character implied by the full name, were obviated by adopting the name KFC – brilliant. KFC is its own thing, and many today have to think twice to remember, or don’t even know, it’s a fried-in-oil recipe.
I think Beck’s must still see benefit in keeping its labels as they have been essentially since 1907.
Is Beck’s a Superlative Beer?
Does Beck’s deserve its reputation as a famous import? The image may have changed at least in the U.S. Many reviews on Beer Advocate and Ratebeer suggest, as do the scores, that Beck’s is viewed as average, still outside the American lager palate but (on the plus side) at an affordable price.
The fact that it is brewed in the U.S. now tends to take some lustre away as well – a true import always has cachet by that fact alone. In Canada though it remains a German import.
Many comments on the rating services refer to a skunky taste or smell, the presumed effect of the green bottle. Yet to me, the taste is similar on draft or in a can.
I think it is probably DMS, dimethyl sulphide, that gives the impression of skunk or “marijuana”, as some state. Many European lagers have these traits as I have written frequently in the past. It is considered part of the pilsener or Helles profile especially in Germany. Not every central European blonde lager has the profile, but quite a few do in my experience.
Certainly Beck’s has an assertive, fairly distinctive taste, different from the domestic lager norm or most craft interpretations but approachable (by comparison, say, to Pilsner Urquell whose palate is challenging even for many craft beer fans).
Beck’s is not my preferred tipple for Pils or Helles style but clearly both in taste and image has a certain something that keeps it the No. 1 German beer in world markets.
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.