If you were drinking beer in the 1970s or 1980s, you’ll probably remember a cheap beer that just went by the name of “beer.”
In a plain white can, it simply had the word “BEER” in a bold black font emblazoned across the front of the tin. It could normally be found in your local 7/11 or Walmart for mere pennies, not much more than some other soft carbonated beverages.
Why did America seem to fall out of love with these cheaper generic beers? And now with a world recession looming, are generic beers about to make a comeback?
The Rise of Generic Beer
Generic products grew from an era in the 1970s when interest rates and inflation were both high. Saving the costs of elaborate packaging and expensive marketing, they offered consumers similar products to many of the better-known brands (in some cases the same) but at much cheaper prices.
With beer being America’s favorite tipple, it was obvious that at some time a generic beer would enter the market. Ralph’s out of California was one of the first major plain-label beer brands and within a few years, their generic products including beer had swept across America.
Their “President’s Choice” beer is the only classic generic beer that is still sold today but only in Canada.
The Generic branding concept was a thing that fit really well with the business model of Falstaff Brewing which, after being bought out in 1975 by S & P, was in a phase of cost-cutting. Advertising budgets had been slashed along with packaging costs which were cut too.
Under the umbrella of General Brewing Company, BEER was brewed by Falstaff Brewing from their Fort Wayne brewery. BEER and its sister drink, LITE BEER, had packaging which was intentionally cheap and devoid of any color on the beer labels.
No advertising of the brand was needed as it would sell from the popularity of generic goods alone. When you’re buying generic green beans and generic ketchup in a supermarket, why not beer too?
BEER came in 12 oz beer cans, 12 oz one-way bottles, and occasionally on draft. Although nobody is sure how long it was available on draft, it did come out of Falstaff’s Omaha brewery and keg labels have been found bearing the distinctive word BEER on them, as well as at least one variety of BEER tap handles.
Although I never saw BEER on draft, and have never met anyone else who did, we can assume by the fact that keg labels and beer handles exist, so did draft BEER.
What Was Generic Beer?
Apart from being a cheap beer, not much else is known about the formulation of the beer. A pale lager, rumors abound that generic beer was just something of whatever extra brew was leftover and was even a blend of leftover beers sometimes.
One time a customer could be getting Ballantine, and maybe Falstaff beer the next. There were even rumors at the time that generic BEER was just Lucky Lager repackaged. (This did the Lucky Lager brand no favors, which saw a sharp fall in popularity with label-obsessed beer drinkers!)
Looking through a 1980s recipe book from the Ft. Wayne Brewery, there is no recipe or even mention of the brand BEER, although all other beers produced at the brewery have recipes. There’s even a generic recipe for a low-calorie beer which was to be used for the light beers of all brands produced by the S & P Group.
Where Was BEER Brewed?
Originally, BEER was produced at the Omaha Brewery, but as its popularity and demand grew, production moved to other breweries in the S & P parent group, including facilities in Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, and Vancouver Washington.
Generic BEER and LITE BEER were good sources of profit as the production and packaging costs were very low. In addition to Falstaff’s own generic BEER, they also brewed unlabelled beers for Ralph’s generic brand, Scotch Buy, Always Save, Cost Cutter, Path Mark, and Value Time.
A slightly less generic brand was also produced by Falstaff’s very own Steinbrau, which used the same low-cost model of minimalist branding and packaging.
Many of these brands were also produced by other S & P-owned industrial brewers, and it wasn’t uncommon to see canned beers of this type with Pearl, General Brewing, or Falstaff listed as the brewer.
The Fall of Generic BEER
As the 1980s came to a close, the popularity of generic products began to wane, with the novelty wearing off for many consumers. The major stores started to upgrade their packaging to be more attractive and allow them to mix in better with branded products from the major suppliers.
Plain-label generic items started to be viewed as cheap, second-rate products. There was often a stigma associated with buying a plain label generic product, just ask any Lucky lager drinker.
As the craft beer market took off, more private label beers would be seen in the grocery beer cooler and generic brands just would get lost in the competition. Popular beers like Budweiser, Miller, or Coors would often take up the shelf space normally reserved for generic brands.
S & P continued to produce their generic BEER and LITE BEER until at least 1994 when the Fort Wayne Brewery closed its doors for a final time. Although Pabst now owns the copyright and names of many of the S & P Brewing groups brands, there’s not been any attempt to revive the BEER brand which, to be honest, doesn’t carry the same nostalgic value as other beers like Lucky lager or Schlitz in the portfolio.
Can You Buy Generic Beer Today?
Although BEER doesn’t exist as a product anymore, there are some generic beers out there, though you may not recognize them as generic.
Stores have upgraded the packaging and branding of their own generic beers with names like Big Flats at Walgreens and Moe’s Tap Room from Kroger stores.
They seem to have much more customer appeal than BEER had in the day with their attractive branding and packaging, but they’re still cheap. The Walgreen’s Big Flats 1901 premium American lager sits at just under $12 for a 24-pack. That’s less than 50 cents a can!
Today, as the craft beer market has seen many fancy, pretentious, and expensive beers launch, the pricing of these craft beers has increased while the pour size and packaging have shrunk.
With a threatened recession just around the corner, soon the world will cry out for less expensive beer brands, or cheap beer even, and some enterprising brewers will answer that call – just look at what happened in the wine industry.
All we need to do now is get Whole Foods to start stocking their own generic beers… anybody fancy an organic 365 IPA for just 50 cents?