Baltimore has Natty Boh, Chicago has Old Style, Milwaukee has Schlitz, Minneapolis has Hamm’s, Austin has Lone Star and an amorphous swath of the Midwest has Busch Light — so why doesn’t D.C. have a signature cheap beer?
Not to say there’s any shortage of cheap beer in D.C. — I’ve been swilling it for years at various spots around town. But we don’t have that one cheap beer that’s synonymous with the city. Why is that?
One theory: All the cheap beers cited above were guzzled by a previous generation of blue-collar types — truck drivers and steel workers, who punched out at the union-mandated end of the day, retired to the bar to get soused, then stumbled home to yell at their wives and kids and then pass out face-first in the mashed potatoes.
For the next generation of urbanites, there’s an ironic appeal in tapping into that history — and it doesn’t hurt, after several decades of flat wage growth, that these beers are cheaper than dirt (and taste like it).
By this logic, the reason that D.C. doesn’t have a signature cheap beer is that Chocolate City was never a big blue-collar union town with a manufacturing base. But there’s another possibility.
What if D.C. does have a signature cheap beer, but it’s one that’s SO cheap that it can’t be sold in bars, and thus the millennials reading this article on their phones have no idea it even exists?
I lived in Shaw for a decade, paying minuscule rent in a rundown rowhouse, slumming it on unemployment for five or six of those years (long story), and in my experience, there was one beer that almost everyone bought in that mini-rush before the corner stores closed: Steel Reserve. I’d go so far as to say that if you took a survey among D.C.’s broke folks, bums, winos and general ne’er-do-wells, you’d find that Steel Reserve was actually D.C.’s low-key official cheap beer.
Why? Because a tallboy was 99 cents. And at just over 8% alcohol, it’s by far the cheapest way to get drunk on beer.
But even though it’s got an excess of street cred, it tastes really, really bad.
Let’s be honest, when people say beers like PBR taste bad, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t have a taste; they taste like tap water. But Steel Reserve very much has a taste, and that taste is shockingly, appallingly bad.
Imagine lawn clippings and urinal cakes soaked in leaded gasoline, left in the sun for two weeks.
It’s worse than Natty Ice, worse than Bud Light Lime, worse than actual pee (probably). You couldn’t even charge a dollar a pint for it in a bar; I’m pretty sure you couldn’t even give it away.
But who knows? If I walked into a bar, and they had Steel Reserve on tap, I might not order a pint (no, I definitely would not order a pint), but I would laugh and take an obnoxious photo of it for Instagram.
Could the pull of nostalgia, street cred and a savvy social media campaign be enough to overcome rock-bottom quality? In 2019, it’s not only possible, it’s an absolute certainty.
Maybe it’s time for D.C.’s signature cheap beer to step out of the shadows and into the zeitgeist.