Schlitz, Cool and Cooler

Jim Flanagan is an avid home brewer and beer reviewer. You read his reviews and thoughts on beer and other subjects at jimflanagan.net and on Beer Advocate.

Traveling along Brackett street in Portland, you may find yourself across the street from the Reiche School, in front of an unimposing market/deli named Fresh Approach. Signs out front are typical for kind of establishment; they advertise current prices of produce and meat and promote shopping at independent, local groceries by reminding you that “It’s all in the name!” It is not until you opened the door and stepped inside that you would discover a literal shrine to the “beer that made Milwaukee famous,” Schlitz. Adorning the walls of the market, you will find all varieties of Schlitz paraphernalia. The collection is too extensive for me to catalog here, and really must be seen in person to fully appreciate, but included amongst the pieces are vintage magazine advertisements, neon signs, cans and bottles of various sizes, an impressive array of glassware, clocks, clothing, stuffed animals, a globe, and original artwork. It is quite impressive and would cause any beer snob who’s too good for mass-produced American adjunct lagers to turn right around and leave.

Today, I find myself at Fresh Approach to pick up the two items this market does best, Schlitz and sausage. Dan and the other butchers at F.A. make all of their sausages in house and offer well over a dozen varieties, ranging from breakfast links to big brats that would be great as a late night snack. My choice today is a few pieces of the award winning sweet Italian to serve atop a pizza, but if this article inspires you to go pick up some tasty naturally cased meat, let me recommend their one-of-a-kind Schlitz Onion. Yes, they make sausage with Schlitz (although I concur with above-linked Bollard article’s opinion of the sweet Italian, I have to disagree with their summary of the Schlitz Onion; I think it’s delicious). Because I want to be uninfluenced by any outside foods when I taste the beer I’ve purchased, I’ve had to bypass this tasty treat. But don’t feel the need to mimic my sacrifice; cold Schlitz beer and hot Schlitz onion sausages are a perfect afternoon treat.

After completing my transaction at the butcher counter, I head over to the wall of drink coolers. Despite the abundance of Schlitz memorabilia doubling as beer snob repellent, a craft beer fan can find plenty to whet their appetite. Local brewers Gearys, Gritty’s, Shipyard and Sebago all have multiple products for sale, as do the out of state manufacturers, such as Sierra Nevada. But today I’m skipping over my usual craft selections and going to the cooler holding the macro products; it’s the one with “When you’re Out of Schlitz, you’re Out of BEER” written on it. Today’s Schlitz options are twelve 12 oz cans or six 16 oz tall boys. The Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company was actually the first to offer their product in 16 ounce cans, so I grab the 6 pack and pay for my purchases, ready to head home and crack one open (for personal enjoyment, not to review).

It is now a few days later. Four of my five remaining cans have been sitting in my beer cellar to get to a bit warmer than fridge temperature. I have one can that has been left in the fridge. Most beer nerds will tell you that a beer should be reviewed at cellar temperature, as more of the flavor and aroma comes through that way. Beer nerds will also tell you that American adjunct lagers should be drank as cold as possible, for the same reasons (because beer nerds want to limit the aroma and flavors of this sytle of beer). I plan to drink a can at each serving temperature and see how they compare.

I crack open the cellar can and prepare to pour it into my 16 ounces Geary’s glass. Some foam pokes out of the pop top, but doesn’t spill over. As I pour, I can smell the grainy hops that are associated with this style. The beer foams a lot at this temperature. I can’t get all 16 ounces into my glass, as there is too much head. It is about three fingers thick when I stop my pour. It is made up of pure white foam. After a moment, it has settled down to about a centimeter of big white bubbles and some foam. The liquid has golden yellow color with lots of tiny bubbles rising within. The beer is crystal clear. There isn’t much (if anything) to distinguish Schlitz from any other American adjunct lager.

After spending the time to write up this description of the appearance, the head has settled to just a skim of patchy foam. I top off the glass with the beer that is remaining in my can. There is no change in the appearance of the beer; it’s still quite clear. The filtering process and tank (as opposed to can) conditioning mean that there will be no particles that have settled on the bottom of the can. I lift my glass up and take a big whiff. First off, it is a sweet aroma. It’s a corn sugar sweetness. There is also that distinct grainy, alcoholic aroma that you find in this style of beer. It isn’t very unpleasant, as some cheap beers can beer; but by the same token, it doesn’t really get me excited to take a sip. It’s a typical aroma for mass-produced American beers.

I raise the glass to my lips and take my first sip. The beer feels warm to me, even though I drink most of my beers at this temperature. I guess I’m just used to having this style served ice cold. I initially taste a bit of grain. I hold the beer over my tongue and move it around. I can make out a slight hint of bitterness. This must by the “just the kiss of the hops” that the can advertises. There is a biscuity flavor that is rather strong. It isn’t bready or yeasty, like you would find in some Belgian ales, this is more grainy. I swallow and can now taste the sweetness of this beer. It isn’t too strong though. Nor is there any oppressive aftertaste that I associate with Budweiser and other more famous American lagers. In fact, the hops are kind of pleasant, considering what the competition offers.

Each additional swallow that I take goes down very easily. The beer is watery, and drinks almost the same. It does leave behind a bit of a coat. It’s basically a mildly sticky film. The carbonation can certainly be felt on my tongue, but it isn’t as strong as seltzer water or other beverages of that ilk. Unfortunately, this drink isn’t nearly as refreshing as plain old water. The drawbacks of a low 50’s serving temperature become apparent here. It’s a little hard for me to get over the flavor after about a quarter of my glass has been consumed. it doesn’t help that the temperature of the beer is obviously getting higher now that it is out of the basement. There is no depth or complexity to the taste, just lots of water, rice, corn and a kiss of the hops that produce slightly sweet, watery, bland-yet-inoffensive flavor.

After finishing my glass, I feel rather full. All of that carbonation makes my stomach feel extended. I have to subject my wife to more than one belch to relieve the pressure within. I decide this is enough Schlitz for one evening, and leave my second can to chill for 24 more hours. In the meantime, I wash, rinse and chill my Geary’s pint glass to prepare it for round two.

It’s now Wednesday, and today has been the second consecutive day of temperatures over 90°, a perfect time for a ice cold can of American beer. As I walk from my kitchen to the living room, the can acquires a good layer of condensation. I crack it open and notice there isn’t any foam trying to escape. In fact, there aren’t very many bubbles visible within at all. I fill my glass without any risk of overflowing. The head is much smaller, still pure white, but has more small bubbles and less pure foam. The beer is about the same color and clarity, and there is still quite a bit of rising carbonation. The beer doesn’t really appear clear, as the glass is covered with a film of condensation. A quick swipe of my thumb on the glass reveals the clear liquid within. I like this aspect of a chilled Schlitz’s appearance, but I miss the giant foam head. In a direct comaprison, I will say the appearance is a tie between the two cans.

The aroma this time around is less sweet and more grainy and slightly hoppy. It smells like an adjunct lager, but a very good one. I’m actually excited to taste the beer this time around. When it comes to aroma, the limiting factors of a chilled beer is an improvement over cellar temperature Schlitz.

I also feel that the flavor improves with a lower temperature. I can still taste a lot of corn, mostly in the finish, but it works well. There is some grain as soon as I taste the beer, but it is a mild flavor and easy to overlook if you were consuming this beer for refreshment and not to review it. After a few sips, I can drink this beer without concentrating on it. Any issues I have with the ingredients is ignored; all I notice are the refreshing qualities of the beer. When I begin to pay more attention, I notice the limited flavor also benefits the hop profile. The kiss of the hops is still there, but because all the other tastes are reduced, it feels as though the hops are more pronounced, even though it is a very small hop presence. There is also an effervescent quality as I swallow; it reminds me of ginger ale. There isn’t nearly as much coating at this temperature, and the carbonation seems more spread out, less concentrated. It actually makes the beer feel less watery, which is always an improvement in my book. It actually makes the beer much more drinkable. I have a mildly flavored, very cold, refreshing beverage. I can consume it without thinking about it. It is possibly the perfect beer for this warm evening on the cusp of the summer season. What’s not to like? I have to say that I really prefer Schlitz at this temperature. Considering the style, it’s an impressive beer. My taste test has proven to me that the beer should be served as tradition instructs; I’m moving my three remaining cans form my beer cellar to my fridge. I recommend you put a sixer in your fridge as well, to have on hand next time you need a refreshing treat this summer.

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