Beck’s Enduring Status as a Quality Import
In 1977 Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer burst on the scene. It included most of the “marquee” brands then current. Not every name was covered, in practical terms impossible, but most of the great marques were included, e.g., Budweiser, Pilsner Urquell, Bass, Heineken, Carlsberg, Guinness, Spaten, and Munich Lowenbrau.
Beck’s Beer, for ages a reputed export from Bremen, was included as well. Jackson devotes a full paragraph to it, calling it “full-bodied and well-hopped”.
He noted also its strong export connotation. He remarks it was even brewed in the Far East at one point, before WW II. Heineken had a foreign branch brewery into the early 40s, in the Dutch East Indies. In fact, this supplied beer to the U.S. until about Pearl Harbor. Thus Americans could still enjoy a beer not available from its occupied homeland, Holland.
In the 1970s Beck’s in the U.S. and Canada seemed to differ from than in Germany, with a lighter taste. See the sources assembled by Jay Brooks in his 2017 post on Becks, here.
Jackson Flummoxed by Beck’s Style
In the pocket guides that followed The World Guide to Beer Jackson went granular on Beck’s. From his 1997 edition (The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, 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 from Jackson, the king of beer description. The palate, but especially absence of a claimed style, put Jackson off balance. Beyond allowing it was a pilsener in broad terms he seemed unwilling to type it as a pils, even the drier German style, vs. the richer Czech original that is.
The Origins and Early Career of Heinrich Beck
Heinrich Beck was born in Baden-Württemberg in south-west Germany. Jackson seemed unaware, and that Beck had emigrated to Indiana and worked for years in an American brewery. See again Brooks on Heinrich Beck’s background.
Heinrich returned to Germany after some years but to the far north, in Bremen, to work at the St. Pauli brewery. He finally set up his own brewery with two others, in 1873.
The American brewing experience had to influence Heinrich Beck’s lager in Germany. Beck’s is notably pale in colour like adjunct American lager, is fairly dry albeit all-malt, and not greatly hopped. That is how I remember it in the 1970s in Canada, and it is similar today. It tastes foreign, yes, but is one or two steps away from the domestic norm (mass market), not five.
A Range of Modern Beck’s Styles
Today, both in Germany, and the U.S. where Beck’s is now produced for the American market, Beck’s issues beers in different styles. Beck’s Gold, Beck’s Red Ale, Becks Pilsener 1873, are just some. Here though I am talking of Beck’s Bier plain and simple. AB InBev, which owns Beck’s, claims it is the largest-selling German beer in the world, see here in the website.
Why the Coy Label?
So why does Beck’s not state on the label that it is a Helles style, or Pilsener, or Dortmund/Export? This opens the door, as I think it did for Jackson, to speculation Beck’s is a unique style, not classifiable.
But there is an answer, and an Australian news story explained it crisply. Before WW I German export brewers like Beck’s were on the march to enter new markets or expand the existing ones. Australia was a prime goal in this regard.
In 1907, the Daily News in Perth interviewed a Beck’s sales representative, A. Bergner; see the report 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. But to sell the product more effectively the word pilsener was removed from the label. And finally, the simple term beer replaced the “lager”, probably for greater intelligibility in distant markets.
Marketing, in other words, resulted in Beck’s seeming non-classifiable to Jackson, not the absence of a style designation on the label. To the extent the palate contributed to the 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 later 1800s.
The Situation Today
Beck’s labels still omit the word pilsener. Yet, as stated above, Beck’s in Germany 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. Still, Beck’s had no issue applying “pilsener” to the label of that brand.
Also, the website of AB InBev states Beck’s 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. It started as a pilsener and remains one.
The label change A. Bergner mentioned in 1907 gave Beck’s an attractive, “singleton” status. Something like this happened with Kentucky Fried Chicken. The negative implications of “fried”, as well as the generic character implied by the full name, were neatly side-stepped by adopting the moniker “KFC”. It became its own thing, and many today have to think twice to remember the chicken is fried in oil.
Beck’s must see benefit in keeping the label for Beck’s Bier uncharged.
Is Beck’s a Superlative Beer?
Does Beck’s deserve its reputation as a reputed import? The image may have evolved in the United States. Many reviews on Beer Advocate and Ratebeer suggest, as do their scores, that Beck’s is an average beer, superior to standard American lager and affordable, but not more. The fact that it is brewed in the U.S. currently may take some lustre away as well, as an import gains cachet from 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 effects of the green bottle. Yet, the taste is similar whether draft or can. I think that taste is probably DMS, i.e., dimethyl sulphide. It can give the impression of skunk or “marijuana” in many lagers, but is considered part of the modern pilsener or Helles profile, especially in Germany. Not every central European blonde lager has it (Pilsner Urquell does not, imo), but many do.
Certainly Beck’s has an assertive, distinctive taste, different from the mass-market norm or even most craft interpretations, but approachable. Beck’s is not my preferred tipple for pilsener or Helles but is a good beer. It has, in taste and image, a certain something. This 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.