Beck’s, an Enduring Quality Import
In 1977, Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer burst onto 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 there. Budweiser, Pilsner Urquell, Bass, Heineken, Carlsberg, Guinness, Spaten, and Munich Lowenbrau are just some examples.
Beck’s Beer, for ages a reputed export from Bremen, was included as well. Jackson devoted a full paragraph to it, calling it “full-bodied and well-hopped”.
He noted also its strong connotations as an export beer. He remarked it was even brewed in the Far East at one point, before WW II. Heineken had a foreign branch brewery into the early 1940s, in the Dutch East Indies. In fact, it supplied beer to the U.S. until about Pearl Harbor. Thus, Americans could still enjoy a “Dutch” beer not available from its occupied homeland.
In the 1970s Beck’s in the United States and Canada seemed to differ from that 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 his pocket guides that followed The World Guide to Beer Jackson went granular on Beck’s. He wrote, in the 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 the absence of a claimed style, put Jackson off balance. Beyond allowing that it was a pilsener in broad terms, he seemed unwilling to type it as pils, even the drier German type (vs. the richer Czech original, that is).
Origins and Early Career of Heinrich Beck
Heinrich Beck was born in Baden-Württemberg in south-west Germany. Jackson seemed unaware of this, and that Beck had emigrated to Indiana and worked for years in an American brewery. See again Jay 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 its own unique style, not classifiable.
But there is an answer, 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 their 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. Bergner 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 “lager”, probably for greater clarity 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 term pilsener. Yet, as noted 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. But in other words, Beck’s had no issue applying “pilsener” to the label of that brand.
Also, AB InBev’s website states that Beck’s is a “German Pilsener”. That’s pretty clear. Further, in Bremen, Beck’s markets a line of beers labeled Pilsener, the Haake-Beck line. Jackson discusses them in his pocket guides and assumes, wrongly, in my 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 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 perceived negative implications of “fried” as well as the generic character implied by the full name, were, I infer, 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 a benefit in keeping the label for Beck’s Bier unchanged, or so it appears to me,
Is Beck’s Superlative?
Does Beck’s deserve its reputation as a reputed import? Its image may have evolved in the United States. Many reviews on Beer Advocate and Ratebeer suggest 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 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 (IMO) on draft or in can or a fresh bottle. I think the taste noted may be DMS, or dimethyl sulphide.
It can give the impression of skunk or “marijuana” to many tasters, but is considered part of the modern pilsener or Helles profile, especially in Germany. Not every central European blonde lager, German or other, has it. Pilsner Urquell does not, IMO – but many brands offer a hint of the taste.
Certainly Beck’s has an assertive, distinctive flavour. It is different from the mass-market norm and 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, which says a lot.
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.
*Note added December 24, 2020. Earlier this month on Twitter a Canadian noted that a bottle of Beck’s Bier obtained in Germany carried the “Pils” term on the rear label. He included an image, which showed it in fairly small letters. Clearly, therefore, the version sold today in Germany does state pils, in line with the website. Perhaps (I don’t know) local regulations require mention of the beer type. Earlier this week I picked up a can at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. We still get the import, whereas in the U.S. it is produced there, under licence. By the code on the base, it appears the can was packaged in September 2020, so certainly fresh. This can did not carry the term pils, so that part of the historical picture seems unchanged. I hadn’t had Beck’s in a number of years and thought it excellent: well-matured, clean-tasting with a good tangy European flavour. Certainly a cut or two above our domestic mass-market norm. I would definitely buy it again.