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SXSW to-do: Go to panels, see shows, drink cheap American beer

We sat down for a blind taste test of canned mainstream American lager beer, the kind you'll probably have in your hand for much of your time here. What we found might surprise you.

Patrick Beach
Matthew Odam, left, Patrick Beach, Courtney Sebesta, Peter Mongillo and Jordan Weeks raise their glasses during the taste testing. What can they recommend? Not these beers.

Hola, hipsters. Welcome to Austin. Now when are you leaving? We kid, we kid.

As you slog your way through panels, day parties, showcases and wall-to-wall schmoozing, you've got to hydrate. If you drink beer, the unofficial beer of SXSW is whatever's cheap and plentiful and not so heavy as to impede your momentum through the day and night. If you're like us, you'll probably drink more mass-market American lager in the days you're here than you will the rest of the year. So, for your benefit, we recently conducted a blind tasting of canned American lager beers to see which ones were best, or least nasty. Honestly, the best thing we can say about these beers is they're reasonably easy to rinse out of your clothes when Mr. Jostle spills a full one on you at Antone's.

Just so you know where we're coming from.

There were five of us: the beer columnist (me), the American-Statesman's Peter Mongillo, Courtney Sebesta and Matthew Odam, plus South Austin Brewing Company's Jordan Weeks. (Don't look for his beers when you're out and about, but maybe this time next year.) I bought tall-boy cans of six different beers: Miller High Life - the "Champagne of Beers," don't you know - Lone Star, Budweiser, Busch, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coors Light and threw them in a Styrofoam cooler. We put on our low-rent finery (trucker hats, pearl-snap shirts) and headed to the Ginger Man, the greatest bar in the known universe. With intern Emily Macrander helping out, Statesman restaurant critic Mike Sutter stealthily poured the canned beer into plastic cups so we wouldn't know what we were sampling. Besides me, none of our lucky contestants had any idea what we'd be drinking, simply that it was mass-market American lager - not a favorite style for any of us, but we were there to take one for the greater good.

Yeah, we're all beer snobs to a certain degree. The point of the exercise was to have a little fun, sometimes at our own expense. I managed to embarrass myself for guessing that two of our offerings might be Keystone. And I bought the beer. I should have remembered there was no Keystone.

We weren't required to make a guess, but it was suggested that we do. And one of us got a perfect score of zero. I won't name him but his initials are "Peter Mongillo"; he found what turned out to be Lone Star "poundable, watery but not in a bad way" and Pabst Blue Ribbon "probably good for those day parties when you don't want to drink anymore," "smells like nothing, tastes like nothing."

Weeks, the only one of us with actual commercial brewery experience, unhesitatingly and correctly guessed Lone Star, saying it "tastes like every outdoor concert and tube down the San Marcos I've ever been on. Distinct Texas rice with Bubba sweat on the nose."

It's worth noting that Weeks is dead-on with that rice comment. The style commonly contains adjuncts such as rice and/or corn, which make the end product even lighter in color, body and taste than an all-barley malt lager. And if you think you're making a more sophisticated choice by ordering a Shiner Bock, incidentally, be advised that one also contains a ton of corn.

There is, in reviewing our tasting notes, a competitive note, an effort to see who could be the snarkiest, as if we've assembled a sort of trailer-park version of the Algonquin Round Table. And let's pause to say an uncharacteristically kind word about these beers: This style is among the hardest to brew, and brew consistently, and the style is very unforgiving of mistakes. Every step in the brewing process, from mashing to lagering, requires strict attention. There's no place to hide as there is in darker, heavier ales. The brewers at these big commercial breweries truly are masters at their craft, and the big boys are geniuses at convincing us their beer is somehow substantially different than the other guys'. And whenever I taste one of these, I'm reminded of what Homer Simpson said on biting into a rice cake: "Hello, taste? Where are you?"

OK then. I see we're getting back to relentless disparagement. For what it's worth, we all practically spat out what was revealed to be Budweiser. Weeks noted it had "sewage overtones" and was "like drinking halitosis," while Odam, who really, really needs a ton of therapy, noted that it was "like kissing your great aunt." I pronounced it "universally, existentially awful." And if there was one I should have guessed right, it was that one. I used to drink a lot of Budweiser and still have that "This is the famous Budweiser beer" thing printed on the can committed to memory. Ask me sometime. Mongillo said the aroma was redolent of "Emo's bathroom." Sebesta noted that it "tastes like it had been left out all day, like I've been at a show in the summer and this is the last swallow in the can."

How did the professional beer snob do? I got one right. I correctly guessed Lone Star, which I noted contained "less than zero hops." My notes on Miller High Life suggest I was closing in on a correct guess: "Skunky - fishing on the coast - no hops!" That skunkiness should have reminded me of the yellow beer in the clear glass bottle even though we were pouring out of cans. What can I say? Mistakes were made. The first and worst one was Statesman food writer Addie Broyles coming up with this story idea. Thanks, Addie!

After reviewing the instant replay, our grand champion was Sebesta, who said of PBR, "I know this!!" and pronounced Lone Star a "keg-party classic." She also gets a half-point for guessing that Miller High Life was Miller Lite. Good show.

Alas, our results did not yield a recommendation about which of these you should drink. But you don't have to thank us, really. Though if you see us running around SXSW, we'll let you buy us a nice Stone Ruination.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

The SXSW six-pack

• Lone Star: 'Real light, thin finish. Hints of regret and sadness.'

• Busch: 'The head looks like my kid's tub water when they sneak shampoo in to make a bubble bath. Sweet as rock candy from Lammes. Miller Lite?'

• Budweiser: 'Tastes like horrible . Day after = worst gas ever.'

• Pabst Blue Ribbon: 'A little body. But skunky, too. Miller High Life.'

• Miller High Life: 'No distinct flavor ... Tastes like a three-day weekend on the beach in high school.'

• Coors Light: 'Astringent. Would rather drink some really bad promo cocktail… Old Milwaukee?'