Buying beer at a gas station can put one’s soul at hazard. Choices!
So many of them, and let’s consider briefly why: when you open that cooler door or step into that beer cave jammed full of THE COLDEST BEER IN TOWN, you’re actually participating in the end game of a continent- (sometimes globe-) spanning internecine struggle of opposing market forces. You, your buying power, your potential (although almost certainly nonexistent) brand loyalty, your opinion, your $12: these are the prizes for the international corporations that by and large dictate what you see in that gas station.
With the phenomenal explosion of craft beer’s popularity comes the consumer’s expectation for more choices. Macro cartels slowly realized it was no longer sufficient merely to repackage the same Lite American Lager in as many different configurations as possible to keep craft brands off the shelves, and that there was now a need to actively cultivate (or perhaps simply acquire) craft brands of their own. The result being that the differentiation of choice at your average chain gas station or convenience store has increased dramatically.
Ours is a society that considers the freedom of consumer choice an untroubled good, and as someone who grew up in and consistently returns to rural parts of the Midwest, I very much appreciate that I can now grab a sixpack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in places where ten years ago the notion would’ve been ludicrous.
However, it’s worth pausing to consider, I think, what that choice means – not the act of it, so much, but its availability qua choosing. Choices are made within the bounds determined by forces whose sovereignty we acknowledge by the very act of choosing:
"What this means is that conferring the formal freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom will do the same thing as those (implicitly) denied it. This, however, does not mean that the reminder/bestowal of the freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom to choose will not only tend to choose the same as those denied it; they will tend to ‘rationalize' their ‘free' decision to continue to participate in the experiment – unable to endure the so-called cognitive dissonance (their awareness that they FREELY acted against their interests, propensities, tastes or norms), they will tend to change their opinion about the act they were asked to accomplish” (Slavoj Zizek, On Belief, 2001).
And so here are the best beers to buy at the gas station.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
The gold standard in gas station craft beers. Sierra Nevada’s huge growth over the past decade has put their beer virtually everywhere, from drug stores to minimarts to bodegas to country drive thrus.
Their flagship Pale Ale needs no introduction, but here goes: an American classic, this monument to the importance and influence of the Cascade hop in craft brewing is still one of the best American pale ales in the country. The fact that this beer still charts a 94 on RateBeer, a venue in which sessionability, longevity and balance are all usually pitilessly derided, is a testament to how beloved it really is.
At 5.6% alcohol, it’s sessionable indeed; medium-bodied, with a fresh spicy pine character that is, to my mind, the very exemplar of the aroma and flavor of Cascade, SNPA is both fantastic and ubiquitous—and what more do you want out of a gas station beer?
Sierra Nevada moved from slightly consumer-unfriendly Julian bottle coding to an easy-to-read packaged-on date several years ago, so checking freshness on their beers is not an issue; you should find the date near the top of the rear label.
Honorable mention here, as well, of Sierra Nevada Celebration, one of my absolute favorite seasonal beers. Released in the months before Christmas (so, like, maybe August, these days?), Celebration IPA has arguably had nearly as much influence on American craft brewing as SNPA. I remember clearly a Christmas drive to my grandmother’s a couple of years past, stopping in the bustling metropolis of Utica, OH in search of a tipple. Sierra Nevada Celebration was literally the only craft beer at the gas station, and it was plenty fresh.
Perhaps not as ubiquitous as Sierra Nevada (yet), Lagunitas’ recent, ah, partnership with Heineken will result (in founder Tony Magee’s words) in taking their beer “global,” which, given Heineken’s distribution network, is likely to mean your local gas station, too. I worked for a Lagunitas distributor in New York for a while, and let me tell you, we put the stuff everywhere.
And with good reason! Still one of my favorite go to “traditional” American IPAs, at 6.2% and ~50 IBUs, it packs considerably more punch than Sierra’s Pale Ale while still retaining a great deal of quaffability. In today’s environment, I guess this IPA would be considered “malty,” which, okay, if using a bit of Caramel malt to give the beer some structure and balance makes it too malty for you, then you are just on the bleeding edge bro.
Lagunitas is pretty tight-lipped about the hop bill, but their IPA is citrusy, fruity and peppery. A word to the wise: Lagunitas is definitely not progressive about their date coding. Bottled-on dates are printed in hard to read black in near the bottle’s shoulder; the code is in Julian dating, which gives the day number of the year, then year number, then bottling time on a 24 hour clock (usually). http://www.freshbeeronly.com/ is your friend here.
As an inveterate consumer of sparkling water, I love the high carbonation, seltzer-like quality of this beer.”
New Belgium Fat Tire
Another American classic whose influence is hard to overstate, New Belgium recently launched in Massachusetts, making it the 46th state of distribution for the iconic Colorado brewery. One of a number of national breweries to undertake an eastern expansion in recent years, NB’s massive new facility in Asheville, North Carolina went online in May of 2016, which means (theoretically) fresher beer for its Midwest and East Coast distribution networks.
Fat Tire is the brand that made all this possible. A 5.2% American Amber Ale, it is biscuity and caramelly but not cloying, with enough hop balance to give it a nice snappy finish. Widely acknowledged as having been inspired by Belgium’s native Palm Amber Ale, Fat Tire is one of those curious behemoths in craft beer that is both loved by the masses and derided by the cognoscenti: scoring a meager 42 on RateBeer, this is definitely one I’ve seen many geeks dismiss.
I say it’s a great amber in a pinch, especially as a bridge beer for macro drinkers for whom excess hoppiness (that is, in excess of say ~10 IBUs) is alienating. When I was in graduate school at Miami University in rural southwestern Ohio (before NB had Ohio distro), folks would drive the 30 minutes or so across the nearby Indiana border to buy Fat Tire 12 packs from a dirt-floored convenience store – so yeah, the brand has some reach. New Belgium is a stickler for freshness and quality, and the Best By date should feature prominently on the label/packaging.
Miller High Life
So let’s say there’s no craft in this theoretical gas station. What then? Go dry? Maybe you, o my human brother; not I. For me, it’s the High Life.
The Champagne of Beers is my nominee for best, most interesting macro option when faced with a lack of craft. But hell, I’ll cop to grabbing a six pack occasionally no matter where I am.
As an inveterate consumer of sparkling water, I love the high carbonation, seltzer-like quality of this beer. Its clear bottle is, as the Miller marketing copy directs us, “iconic,” and made possible by the light-insensitive tetra-hop extract Miller uses in most of their beers, making High Life and others impervious to “skunking.” I find High Life to have a bit more sweet malt flavor than its completely deracinated brethren like Bud Light or Coors.
I’ve been drinking this beer since I was a teenager, and it seems somewhat unlikely that I’m going to stop any time soon. Plus it’s a solid 1 on RateBeer!
Freshness is still worth thinking about here; according to BeerDates.com, most Miller brands have a “Do Not Sell” date in MMDDY format somewhere on the bottle or can, and most of their brands are meant for consumption within 120 days after packaging. Pour one out for the Mayor.
Goose Island Seasonal
Goose Island was arguably the first craft brewery acquired by one of the macro giants; acquired outright by Anheuser-Busch InBev (whose venture capital firm, ZX Ventures, is a partner in this very publication) in 2011, Goose’s consequent relationship with the craft community at large has been… complicated.
Certainly it’s put the brand in places its founders probably couldn’t have imagined less than a decade ago, including every grocery store, ball park, carryout and gas station in my neck of the woods and throughout most of the country. People who enjoy getting all chest-out about the purity of small independent craft are also in my experience adept at talking out of both sides of their mouths regarding something like Goose’s iconic Bourbon County Brand Stouts, but – I digress.
The ubiquity of Goose Island means it may be one of the only seasonal beers on the shelf, depending on where you are. While I’m not a fan of many of their core brands, like Honker’s Ale or their 312 Wheat, I have in the past and would again reach for their Oktoberfest, a respectable if somewhat untraditional Märzen at 6.4%. Their brown Winter Ale (5.3%) will also do if you’re craving something on the malty side. Though no longer a seasonal, I’ve gathered from studying store shelves that many distributors use their Four Star Pils (5.1%) as a warm weather seasonal, and it’s a good alternative to blander macro entries in this category.
Goose Island uses packaged on dates that should be easy to find; the packaging should also indicate the beer’s shelf life, “Enjoy Within 180 Days,” etc.