The question ‘Which is the best macro beer?’ isn’t a conversation that crops up too often down my local craft beer hangout. To be honest, some of my pals can be beer snobs and don’t think any macro beer has anything to offer the beer lover.
The top ten best-selling beer brands of the American beer market consists wholly of macro beers and their brand names are as familiar to most of us as apple pie. They are simply too big a category of beer to be ignored, no matter how much you love your craft beers.
While craft beer enthusiasts appreciate the creativity and unique flavors of smaller-scale breweries, macro beers hold a special place in the hearts of many beer lovers. These large-scale productions have a widespread appeal and have managed to maintain their popularity for decades.
What defines a macro beer? Is it a style of beer or simply a description of who produces the beer? And why are these popular beers so frowned upon by beer aficionados? As the biggest-selling beers in America, they must have some redeeming features, so lets take a look at the top macro beers which just seem to be everywhere.
Who knows, by the end of this post you will probably find some of your favorite brews fit in to the macro beer or macro lager category. I know I still enjoy the odd bottle of Miller High Life on a hot summer’s day to quench my thirst, even though I’m a hophead at heart who loves my IPAs.
What Is a Macro Beer?
Put quite simply, a macro beer, short for macro-brewed beer, refers to a beer that is produced on a large scale by major commercial breweries. The term “macro” is used to distinguish these beers from craft beers, which are typically produced by smaller, independent breweries.
It’s generally accepted that a macro brewery is a large national, or international conglomerate, which produces and distributes over 6 million barrels of beer per year. A microbrewery is a brewery which produces less than 15,000 barrels a year while the craft breweries fall somewhere in the middle of micro- and macro- but can’t produce more than 6 million gallons of beer per year.
Macro brew is mass-produced beer that is brewed in very large quantities, which is why it generally sells for a cheaper price than craft beer.
Typically, the macro breweries will be large industrial facilities which use the latest advanced brewing technology with the capacity to produce millions of barrels of beer every year. These large conglomerates will normally have multiple locations, and this allows them to meet the demands of a global customer base and distribute their beer more widespread.
Why Are Macro Beers Unpopular With Craft Beer Fans?
The brewing process for macro beers is highly automated and efficient, which allows for more consistency in the finished beers. One of the biggest criticisms levelled at macro beers is this uniformity, with many saying macro beers are a vast canvas of sameness. Micro-brewed beer offers a level of uniqueness and innovation rarely found in the macro brews. However the macro beers are brewed to be easy to drink and offer a level of consistency so you know exactly what you are getting.
Think of macro beers as the McDonalds of the beer world compared to the boutique burger joints you find in small town America.
Thats not to say that all macro beers are bad beers. At some stage every macro beer has been a micro-brewed beer, and many brewers have stuck with the same faithful recipe which saw them become so popular in the first place and go from micro to macro. In some cases it’s just a case of the brewing technology being upgraded to meet the growing demands from more customers. Unfortunately, in other cases it can be a case of using more adjuncts to save cost or lower quality ingredients.
What Is the Difference Between Macro/Micro Beers and a Craft Beer?
Many people assume that a craft beer and a micro beer is the same thing, but there are some key differences. Craft brewers have a larger capacity for brewing than micro brewers but still nowhere near the huge capacities of the macro Breweries. Craft brewers also have a few more regulations in place than either the macro or micro brewers in order to protect the craft beer status of the craft beer industry.
It’s all very easy for anybody to add the word “craft” to a macro beer and try to persuade customers it has been crafted by a smaller brewer (just look at the case of Blue Moon owned by MolsonCoors) but in order to retain it’s status as a craft brewer, a company should be independently owned with no more than 25% of the company owned by a third party (many now consider Lagunitas not to be a craft beer anymore as it is now a subsidiary of the Heineken International Brewing Company, one of the world’s largest brewers).
Craft brewers also have regulations covering the ingredients they can use if they want to keep the craft status. All craft beers must be brewed with traditional ingredients such as barley, hops, malt, yeast and water. Although not as strict as the German Purity Laws, other ingredients can be added but must be for flavor only and not cost-cutting adjuncts as used by the macro, and to some extent micro, breweries.
Using these definitions, some micro breweries can also be classified as a craft brewer but they are still very different things. Not every craft brewery is a microbrewery and likewise not every microbrewer is a craft beer producer.
Different Types of Macro Beers in America
Although any beer which is mass brewed by a brewery producing more than 6 million barrels of beer per year can be called a macro beer, here in the US most macro beers are American macro lagers. American macro lager tends to be a catch-all term for any American beer which is brewed by the giant American beer producers such as Anheuser Busch, Molson Coors etc., usually produced with adjunct malts for a crisper, cleaner lager flavor profile, and also to be cheaper, of course.
Characteristics of Lite American (Macro/Adjunct) Lagers
|Color||Very pale straw to pale gold|
|ABV||3.4% - 4.5%|
|Commercial Examples||Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Light, Busch Light|
Light beers have become very popular in recent years, with even many of the craft brewers producing lighter versions of their top-selling beers (although craft brewers tend to call them “session” beers rather than light.)
Light American macro lagers are the stuff summertime beer commercials are made of. They are advertised as a healthy choice for drinkers looking for a refreshing beer as a reward for their latest efforts at the spin class.
Light beers are brewed in the lager style and the flavors tend to be less accentuated thanks to the use of cereal adjuncts in the grain bill, like corn or rice, used to lower the calorific impact of the beer. They are normally heavily carbonated and recommended to be served “ice cold”, which can help mask the lack of depth while making the beer just as refreshing.
There may be some flavors from the grains used and a minimal hop flavor, but the general aim of these beers is to be thirst-quenching with an often slightly mindless drinkability – which isn’t always a bad thing.
Harsher critics of the American light macro lagers have often described beers such as Coors Light as close to water as you can get without it actually being water. OUCH!
Characteristics of American Macro/Adjunct Lagers
|Color||Pale straw to pale golden|
|ABV||4.5% - 6%|
|Commercial Examples||Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Miller High Life, Coors Banquet, Corona Extra, Tecate, Modelo Especial, Michelob, Hamm's|
Many would argue American macro lagers are the beers that made America great! There’s certainly a lot of historic brands there which are now known throughout the world.
Influenced by the European immigrants that arrived on American shores in the mid-19th century, many of the older brewers such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller used the German method of lager brewing to produce an all American style of pale ale/lagers. As they got larger, the brewers would add adjuncts like rice, corn or maize, which gave the cold beer a crisp taste and helped keep the costs of production down.
You don’t get too much in the way of complex malt like some German lagers, but maybe some spiciness from hops and, again, a lot of carbonation. On the other hand, American “all malt” lagers, aka premium lagers, tend to use fewer to no adjuncts, implying a fuller flavor profile that should still be fairly relaxed. No aggressive hops or malt, just a bit more body in what’s still a thirst-quenching, high-carbonation beer.
This style has been replicated in many other countries, especially Mexico, where many of the beers use adjuncts and are similar to the macro beers of the USA.
The Top 10 Macro Beers
Now we are clear what a macro beer is, let’s take a look at some of the leading and best macro beers, not just from the USA but some global brands too. Although it may all sound doom and gloom, many of the beers are very drinkable and can be quite an appealing drink on certain occasions. They certainly sell a lot more quantity than the craft beers, so they must be doing something right.
The self-styled “King of Beers”, you can’t discuss macro beers without mentioning Budweiser, one of the most iconic and oldest brands of lager in the USA and globally too. First brewed in 1876 ins St Louis, Missouri, Budweiser has perfected its recipe over the years. It offers a light, crisp, and clean taste that makes it the beer of choice for many mainstream beer drinkers.. The use of high-quality ingredients, including malted barley and a unique strain of yeast, ensures consistency and enhances its drinkability.
Decades of marketing have seen Budweiser available in over 80 countries worldwide. Not all Budweiser is produced by Anheuser-Busch in America, though. In Canada, Budweiser is licensed, produced and distributed by the Labatt Brewing Company (although still owned by AB InBev- a conglomerate of Anheuser-Busch and the Belgian Interbrew group which is the largest beer distributor in the world). Anheuser Busch has 14 breweries in China where it is the fourth largest brand in the Chinese market. If you are talking big or macro, they don’t get much bigger than Budweiser.
Another prominent macro beer is Coors, known for its refreshing taste and smoothness. Coors Lager is brewed with Rocky Mountain water, which is filtered to perfection, resulting in a crisp and pure flavor profile. With a mild hop bitterness and a balanced malt sweetness, Coors appeals to those seeking a classic, easy-drinking beer.
Coors has the largest brewery facility in the USA and mills all its own grains on site. When asked to name their go-to macro beers, Judy Neff, the founder and head brewer of the Checkerspot Brewing Company in Baltimore, chose Coors Banquet for its crisp and refreshing flavor which is very light on the palate. Judy finishes by saying “If it’s hot outside, this will do the trick”.
Miller High Life
Known as the champagne of beers, we now get to what is probably my favorite of all the macro beers of America. And it seems I’m not alone, many beer lovers in bars across America refer to High Life as “the beer Budweiser should have been”. You often see many brewers at beer festivals drinking High Life from its distinctive champagne style bottle behind their tables.
Hailing from Milwaukee, Miller High Life is seen by many as a nostalgic beer, but it’s till the same crisp and crushable beer it always was and tends to have more flavor than many of the other American macro lagers in the field. The corn adjunct used in the grist of High Life adds a smoothness to the mouthfeel and a perceived sweetness that is so well balanced by hop bitterness. It has a similar taste to many craft beer lagers but the sheer volume of Miller High Life brewed every year certainly puts it in the macro beer category.
Perhaps the best known macro beer from the Miller Brewing Company (now part of Molson Coors) is Miller Lite, the beer which kicked off the whole light beer revolution here in the beer culture of America. Miller Light wasn’t the first light beer to market however, that honor goes to Coors in the late 1940s, but the original Coors Light was unsuccessful and taken off the market, only to be rereleased in 1978.
First launched in 1974, Miller Lite proved extremely successful and paved the way for beers such as Bud Light, Coors Light, Michelob Ultra and a whole host of others include the Natural and Busch Light variants of Anheuser-Busch. You even get international macro beer brands like Corona now producing lighter versions such as Corona Light.
Miller Coors use a blend of Galena and Pacific Northwest hops but the initial taste is more bread like with a grainy smell, a little bit like corn syrup. It only has a slightly malty aroma which is easy on the nose and pours an opaque-golden brown with a short white head. If it wasn’t for the subdued flavors and thinner body you would struggle to know this is a light beer as in blind tastings many have found it similar to a domestic American adjunct lager.
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) is another macro beer of America has garnered a cult following among beer drinkers looking for a reliable and affordable option. First introduced in 1844 by Pabst Brewing, PBR is known for its light body, mild hop bitterness, and a clean finish. It’s a great choice for those who prefer a straightforward beer without overwhelming flavors.
Seen as beer for blue collar workers, PBR is your typical crisp American adjunct lager and has more recently been adopted by the hipster movement. At least it tastes better than the soy, no fat, demi shot venti lattes they normally order.
Macro beers aren’t just an American innovation, other countries have breweries who produce huge volumes of beer too.
While Heineken is technically considered an international brand, it has gained immense popularity and availability, making it a notable macro beer option. This Dutch brew is famous for its distinctive green bottle and iconic logo. Heineken offers a crisp and refreshing taste, with balanced bitterness and a smooth mouthfeel. It has a touch of fruity notes and a slight hoppy character, making it a go-to beer for many.
Although I have so far focussed on macro adjunct lagers, when talking macro beers you can’t ignore the giant in the beer world which is Guinness. Synonomous with the Irish and St Patricks Day parades all around the world, Guinness is one of the biggest brands in the world, not just in the beer scene either.
With its velvety texture, creamy head, and rich flavor, Guinness is an exceptional example of a macro brew that excels in craftsmanship. It’s an Irish dry stout that combines roasted malt and a hint of bitterness, resulting in a unique and satisfying taste experience.
Stout is now a popular variety of craft beer, even Sierra Nevada, more famous for their Pale Ale, first brewed a stout which was to become known as the world’s first West Coast stout. But when anybody looks for a stout, the first actual beer they look for is the macro brew which is Guinness.
Originating from Belgium, Stella Artois has established itself as a widely recognized and respected macro beer. It embodies the European brewing tradition and is known for its full-bodied flavor, balanced bitterness, and crisp finish. Stella Artois is a great choice for those seeking a slightly more complex taste profile in a macro beer.
Although Stella is successfully marketed as a reassuringly expensive premium brand around the world, in Belgium Stella Artois isn’t the most popular macro beer, that honor goes to Juliper lager.
Corona Extra is a well-known macro beer that has achieved global recognition. With its distinct clear bottle and wedge of lime, Corona has become synonymous with beachside relaxation and social gatherings.
This Mexican lager is known for its light and crisp taste, making it a popular choice for those seeking a refreshing and easy-drinking beer. Corona Extra boasts a mild malt sweetness and a subtle hop bitterness, complemented by a smooth finish. Its widespread availability and branding have contributed to its status as one of the most recognizable macro beers, enjoyed by many around the world.
And finally we reach the number one selling beer in America today (well at least until the whole transgender Dylan Mulvaney controversy hit), Bud Light was Anheuser-Busch’s first foray into the world of macro light beers.
Bud Light’s marketing targeted younger more health-conscious beer drinkers, and during college days Bud Light was the beer of choice for most parties. There are better macro light beers out there, but there’s also a lot worse too (Keystone Light, anybody?).
Lightly skunky on the nose, Bud Light has a weird finish with a cloying sweetness and an artificial grape-like fruitiness that can be distracting. Luckily, the flavors are not too strong and if served ice cold it can be quite a refreshing summer beer. Some of the flavored varieties like Bud Light Lime can be quite sweet but go down easily. And best of all, it’s cheap.
Budweiser have certainly done a good job of marketing Bud Light (until recently of course) and although not many craft beer fans would admit to favouring Bud Light, it will no doubt remain a popular macro lager internationally.
The Best Macro Beers – Are There Any Good Macro Beers Out There?
There’s probably quite a few craft beer drinkers amongst you who will never be persauded that macro beers can be good. I totally understand! Yes, I like to support the diversity and innovation of the smaller micro or craft brewers of America too, rather than the faceless and often souless conglomerates of the larger national macro breweries.
However, remember that one day these breweries started life as smaller independent micro breweries, often family-owned too. As the beers became more popular and news of the refreshing new brews became more widespread, the breweries inevitably grew. If drinkers didn’t like the beers, they wouldn’t have sold the volumes which turned them into macro breweries. Many of the macro beers of America still use the same recipes they did before they became huge macro brewers, and can still offer a flavoursome, if mass produced, beer.
With the acquisition of Stone Brewing Company by the huge Japanese macro Brewer Sapporo, it raises the question when does a craft beer become a macro beer? I for one will keep drinking Stone beers even if they are now owned by a huge international brewing corporation, as long as they keep those same craft beer standards that Stone are known for with their hop-forward ales.