To shore-living Marylanders (who do indeed qualify as Southerners), the humble, blue-collar, all-American staple is more than just cheap beer.
Story by Mickie Meinhardt | Photographs by Gunner Hughes
The night I lost my virginity, I special-requested Natural Light. The “nice” version: a six-pack of 12-ounce long-neck bottles.
“Are you sure?” my then-boyfriend asked. “That’s really what you want?”
In his 17-year-old excitement, he surely would have bought me any beer I asked for. But I was a hard-headed 17-year-old, and when I imagined toasting what I naively thought would be a passionate, exhausting night, I knew only one beer would do.
“Um, yes. I like Natural Light.”
I still remember him popping off the top with the end of a lighter, toasting across the comforter and grinning at each other. I can’t say I remember the beer tasting any different. It blends in with the memories of every other time I’ve had a Natural Light, innumerous ones both important and utterly forgettable. (Or forgotten thanks to too many Natural Lights in one night.) I can safely say I’ve consumed more of that easy-drinking, silver-and-blue-canned domestic beer than any beverage other than water, and the reason can be traced directly to my hometown.
If a mass-produced domestic beer can have terroir, Natural Light’s is Ocean City, Maryland.
Ocean City is a beach town, a 10-mile strip of barrier island on Maryland’s Atlantic and a summer destination for a large swath of the central East Coast. It’s best known for blue crabs, seafood buffets, free public beaches, an insane bar complex called Seacrets, and a fantastic tropical drink called the Orange Crush. Like all beach towns, it’s boom in the summer and bust in the winter — hosting up to 8 million tourists annually but with a local population of only about 7,100. The locals like life simple: Surfing and skateboarding are big subcultures, but so are hunting and fishing. And like all small towns, people drink. A lot. Domestic beer and cheap wine mostly, nothing you’d call a “cocktail.” They drink at beach bars, pool bars, bars on the bay or the harbor or the inlet or the boardwalk. To celebrate the town coming alive in the spring and the tourists leaving in the fall. To cut the stagnation of long, dead winter nights when you can drive the length of town and see only two other cars, both of them driven by bored cops. And most — old and young, man and woman — drink Natural Light.
A resort town established in 1886, Ocean City was built from the start on the tourism and fishing industries which are at their peak in the summer. Which means that in those hottest months of the year, everyone works double time; most make the bulk of their annual income from mid May to early September and use it to live out the rest of the year, probably with a vacation to somewhere tropical in January when everything in town is closed. Many jobs are labor-intensive. Construction, working the docks in the harbor, mating a ship, serving or bartending. Or they’re outdoors: Beach patrol, manning an umbrella stand, serving food at a to-go counter with a hot kitchen at your back and the sun in your face, cocktail waitressing at a beach bar.
There’s a reason heavy IPAs aren’t a southern thing. It’s too hot here for anything heavy; being bloated and beer-drunk in direct sunlight in 80-90 degree weather is a recipe for passing out. This is why my neighbor always had a Natty in hand when cleaning his boat; why it’s omnipresent at dockside bars and in boat coolers; why many an outdoor bartender might sip one under the table during a shift. Refreshing, light, airy, and unfilling, it’s the perfect beer to cut the perpetual heat. In those circumstances, the libation doesn’t need to be trendy — they’re not drinking for cultural capital. (No one Instagrams a Natty.) Folks down here just want something to sip on while they shoot the shit. Overwhelmingly, Natural Light is precisely that beer.
When I was in high school, an article in a local newspaper went something like viral (before viral was a word people used) for citing that Delmarva — a name for the combined Atlantic-adjacent peninsula of lower Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia — was the highest per capita consumer of Natural Light in America. This statistic cannot be verified anywhere on the Internet today, but then as now the lack of hard facts didn’t prevent it from becoming lore.
Of course, it is, we all thought. Duh.
Natural Light is served in every bar and restaurant in a 50-mile radius, even the fine dining establishments, and nearly required at every cookout, party, and wedding, in every boat cooler, beach bag, and golf cart. It is far and away the beer of choice but not just because it’s cheap. People from Ocean City, like me at 17, will staunchly defend their choice of light domestic beer. They like it. The taste, the high carbonation, the slight skunkiness, the way it goes down the hatch easy and quick. Even if most people think it has no taste, we know better. God help you if you — you high-minded individual — try to suggest folks here drink Bud Light (too expensive), or Coors Light (trashy), or something more millennial-approved like Miller High Life (for sissies). No National Bohemians, thanks, that favorite domestic headquartered in Baltimore — that’s for Yuppies and their lax bro offspring.
“Shore Champagne,” we often call it, but mostly it’s just “Natty,” that y-sound making it into an affectionate pet name, softening it with a fondness that other single-name beers lack. Bud is heavy, flat, muddy; Miller sounds like your dopey next-door neighbor; Coors is uttered like a question. Coors? Why?
But Natty, oh, Natty is your friend. Your oldest, most dependable friend.
I know what you’re thinking: Is Ocean City the South? I’ve gotten this question since I left for college in New York City at age 18, decidedly not one of those who liked the simple life. Most of the early friends I made assumed I was from California — the beach town vibes were hard to shake. No, I’d reply, Maryland, “a small Southern beach town.” Invariably, I’d be met with the same reply I’ve been getting since: Is Maryland really the South? Or a scoff: Maryland isn’t the South.
“My part is,” I’d say, and still do. I ask the person if they’ve ever been — D.C. doesn’t count, I say. Usually, they concede they have not.
The lines of what is or isn’t the South are endlessly debated, and Maryland is a tricky state in that debate. Technically below the Mason Dixon line yet typically Democratic, dyed blue by D.C. area liberals but redder and redder as you go farther towards its edges, it’s a political hodgepodge. Much of this can be traced to the problems Maryland had before and during the Civil War: As a largely agrarian state with a central capitalistic engine, its people often have directly contradictory needs and wants. During the war, it was one of those states that split itself, a border slave state not part of the Confederacy but filled with sympathizers. The first bloodshed of the war was in Baltimore. Massachusetts troops on their way to D.C. to protect Lincoln were set upon by unsympathetic Baltimoreans, which prompted a Maryland man named James Randall, then living in Louisiana, to write a song called “Maryland, My Maryland,” still the state song, which includes the lyric, “Huzzah, she spurns the Northern scum!” John Wilkes Booth was a Marylander, but so was Harriet Tubman; the latter is the one most prefer to remember. Maryland’s Eastern Shore and southern Western Shore made their money on tobacco and slave labor and thus were on the side of the Confederacy (though not as heavily for secession). The center, around the capital, tended to be more abolitionist. The major port of Baltimore was crucial to the state’s and the surrounding region’s economies, and couldn’t afford to be sacked or occupied. Mostly, Maryland officials wanted to avoid fighting with both its southern and northern neighbors and thus voted not to secede — though they also asked Lincoln to remove the federal troops he had stationed there to protect the capital.
This rural edges vs. urban center debate makes it still somewhat a house divided. There are certainly parts of Maryland that are affluent and liberal, mostly around the D.C. metro area, and in fact, Maryland consistently ranks as the highest median household income in America, mostly due to overflow from that metro area. But the Eastern Shore is not one of those areas, and anyone who is from there will say, unequivocally, that it is Southern. Consider a recent interactive map from The New York Times showing the voting precincts of each state in the 2016 election. Maryland is overwhelmingly red, red, red — except around D.C. and Baltimore, which swung the state in favor of Hillary.
The Eastern Shore is a solidly blue-collar, lower-middle- and working-class area, small towns populated by hard-working, simple people. There are many back roads, pickup trucks, antique stores, farmers markets’, and run-down trailers at the edge of every town, hallmarks of the South, yes, but also of small American towns everywhere. There are miles of farmland that provide sweet corn, ripe red tomatoes, asparagus, blueberries, peaches, and pumpkins, more cows than you would think, and acres of chicken coops; Perdue, one of the largest chicken-processing corporations, is headquartered a few miles from my high school. In the winter, those farmlands are leased for deer or duck hunting, another favorite pastime here; it was not unusual for boys I knew to be pulled out of school by their fathers in peak deer season. There are a few city-ish areas, notably Salisbury, perhaps Cambridge, but these are nothing anyone would call metropolitan. And it is, notably, more conservative leaning. Maryland was a Catholic enclave, after all, which prevails still, and those boys I grew up with will die for their Second Amendment rights.
Another Southern hallmark: The heat. Maryland is hot and humid in the summer, especially the Eastern Shore — flat as a board and evenly sweltering for miles north, south, west, and east until you hit the Atlantic Ocean. Trees, where there are any, are scrubby pines; you have to make your own shade. At the beach, the ocean breeze offers some relief, but even just 15 minutes inland the heat settles into the hundreds, thick and oppressive.
More than all that, though, there is a deep sense of pride in being from the Eastern Shore, the same type of stubborn pride one feels in most Southern states — it runs deep, rooted firmly in hometown ground. It’s in the dirt and, it’s in our blood, and we can’t usually explain why we feel the way we feel. We just do. Having lived in the Northeast for a decade now, I have never gotten that same sense from anyone from Connecticut, or Pennsylvania, or Vermont, or California. Ours is a jut-your-chin-out kind of pride that comes from knowing you are part of a line of hard-working, resilient people.
The Eastern Shore has that in spades. It took me a long time to feel it, and when I was younger, I rejected it. Only as I grew older did I feel that familiar tug pulling me all those miles back home. This can put me at odds, sometimes; I’m quite liberal, and my home is very much not. I have a handful of old friends who feel the same, but, like me, are drawn back year after year. Some end up staying. Maryland, my Maryland, for good or ill.
It’s precisely that irrational, inexplicable pride that supports the enthusiastic drinking of Natural Light by Ocean City-ers. How else would you rationalize serving it at your wedding, or graduation, or ordering it at a white tablecloth restaurant, if you didn’t feel deep down this beer was made exactly for someone like you?
Eastern Shore Marylanders are not the only people who feel this way. Natural Light is one of the best-selling beers in America; as of 2017, it was ranked No. 6 in sales, at $336.2 million, behind only Bud Light, Budweiser, Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Michelob Ultra. In 2001, Consumer Reports ranked it the No. 2 light beer in the country, and in 2006, The Wall Street Journal had it as the No. 5. Natty is overwhelmingly popular among college kids for its low price, and among light beer drinkers nationwide, also usually for its low price. As a strong presence at high school and college parties across the country, it’s the gateway beer for many young Americans.
Following the craft beer revolution, the mixology era, and the rise of natural wines, it’s easy to assume we are drinking better, more superiorly, than ever. But that type of thinking leaves out large swaths of the population; like our politics, it puts us in a bubble. In much of the country, populism reigns in alcoholic beverages as well as ideologies. Many Americans proudly consider themselves Not Fancy. They still love the U.S.A.-brewed light beers they started drinking young. They never saw the point in switching up, which is why many of my friends’ parents still keep Natural Light in their fridge.
Anheuser-Busch introduced Natural Light in 1977, the company’s first widely distributed light beer. Created initially to compete with the 96-calorie Miller Lite and get Anheuser-Busch a foothold in the reduced-calorie beer market, it rang in at 97 calories (it’s now 95) and 4.2% alcohol by volume.
It was in the market two years before Bud Light. Originally, Anheuser-Busch executives didn’t want to water down the Budweiser name with a light option, hence the entirely separate beer. Of course, they changed their minds when Natural Light and other light beers took off; now, Bud Light is the best-selling beer in America by millions of dollars.
Unlike other light beers, Natural Light wasn’t necessarily marketed toward women or the calorie-conscious when it debuted. Instead, taste, natural ingredients, and drinkability were the selling points, as well as a “refreshment for physical exertion” theme. In a 1977 television ad, “Airplane!” actor Peter Graves croons, “When you’re thirsty for a beer or two, but what you’re doing isn’t through, that’s the time to take a natural break.” The actor notes it’s “brewed naturally” and “won’t fill you up, so it won’t slow you down,” a perfect marketing position. Very light, easy-drinking, and with absolutely no identifiable or controversial flavors like hops or sourness or fruit, Natural is exactly the type of beer you want to guzzle when you’re doing something really terrible and hard, like moving or yard work, but aren’t necessarily done for the day yet and can’t get tipsy. A print ad from the same time features a woman with Princess Leia braids and reads, “If I’m going to have a beer after a jog, it’s got to be Natural. It’s my favorite light beer. Because I like the way Natural tastes. Clean and smooth, it’s really thirst-quenching.”
Teenage me’s idea of it as an ideal post-first-coitus beer wasn’t far off the mark.
Until Bud Light was introduced, Natural was a star child, priced nearly the same as other full-calorie beers and selling well. Then it was shunted off, gradually lowered in price and given less attention until it hit its status of today: one of the lowest-priced, least advertised beers on the market. Today, a 30-pack of Natural is a mere $16.99 in Ocean City; when I was in high school, it was only $11.99. Bud Light and Budweiser currently ring in at $23.99.
Consider: Have you ever seen an ad for Natural Light? Probably not. Its marketing comes from prominently placed, towering stacks of 30-racks in package store windows, silver and blue cardboard gleaming in the sun, never dusty because it has such high turnover. It’s an “economy” or “value” beer, the industry category for light beers or other cheap domestic lagers and ales. For the now-mega conglomerate AB-InBev (comprising Anheuser Busch, MillerCoors, and the many smaller brewing companies the two have swallowed over the years), the value beers include Natty’s siblings, Natural Ice and the malt beverage hybrid Natty Daddy, neither of which inspire much fandom even in Ocean City; Busch/Busch Light/Busch Ice; Rolling Rock; Bud Ice; Hurricane; and King Cobra. The lack of marketing suits them fine; most sell well without it. (In 2008, for example, Natty received 0.0015 percent of Anheuser-Busch’s advertising dollars but was still a top earner.)
The “natural” part quickly fell off as a selling point, though in that area it certainly isn’t the worst beer you can drink. Natural’s current listed ingredients are water, barley malt, cereal grains, hops, and yeast, the same as they were in 1977. It has no added sugars and is low-carb and low-calorie. Still, you won’t find anyone who drinks it championing it as a healthier alternative, especially in the wellness era. Cheapness and drinkability remain Natural’s stalwart traits, though opinions on the quality of the latter vary. If a person has any sort of palate for finer beers, not necessarily even a craft beer but just something that’s not light, they’ll likely call it garbage. Natural is ranked the No. 1 worst-tasting beer on RateBeer.com, and Beer Advocate’s experts give it a 37/100 overall score (the Beer Advocate public has it higher, but only by 10 points). Raters describe as “piss water,” “skunky,” “stale,” and “total crap.” Often people say it doesn’t taste like anything, or it's “like water.”
This might be why the beer is such a success. It’s inoffensive. Unmemorable. Sessionable, to borrow a craft beer term.
But speak to an Ocean City local, and you’ll hear Natty is the preferred beer, not the last resort.
It tastes like home — pronounced, down here, as “hoehm.”
So, what is that taste exactly? Popping a can to actually think about it, writing tasting notes like I’m considering a fine wine, I note it’s first and foremost yeasty, a bready beer; those cereal grains make themselves known. “Skunky” is right on, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s more like a tang, one that dissipates as the beer’s heavy carbonation turns to pure bubbles in your mouth, becoming almost gentle as it finishes. It tastes, in short, like a shaken up can of beach foam, something that was once crisp but has happily mellowed. There’s a total absence of sugar; in fact, Natural somehow manages to miss all the major taste buds. It’s not sweet, not salty, neither bitter nor sour, and it certainly has no umami. From experience, it’s best enjoyed when your lips are salty from the ocean, perhaps with a little sand on the rim for crunch. Don’t linger over it; the carbonation leaves the can quickly, and flat Natty is no good. Also, about that: Always go canned. Natural is one of the few beers that is leagues better when drunk from a can rather than glass, something I didn’t have the perception to realize as a teen. Bottled Natty is flatter. The zip of metal from the aluminum perfectly offsets the taste. There’s something about the shining silver of the can, too, the retro blue type and thin ribbon of red above the cobalt base.
I am utterly American, it says and so is anyone who drinks me.
It’s a simple, humble, light beer, made for picking up and putting down over and over quickly until it’s gone. It does not want the heft of a bottle, a fancy label, a TV ad on Sunday night football, a place on a big-city bar’s bottle list. It doesn’t need it.
I returned to Ocean City and Natural Light last summer, living home again in a break after a master’s program for the first time in seven years. I was there to write a book, funded by a side job waiting tables at a popular mid-range American restaurant and wine bar/store. Years in New York had turned me into an amateur wine snob. Concerned about my summer libations, I left Brooklyn with a case of natural wine in the back of my car, aware that Ocean City bars — except for the restaurant where I’d be working — served only sweet whites and rotgut reds. Establishments in Ocean City are built for tourists, stocked with loud Top 40 music a drink list of various “bombs,” a six-ounce beer-liquor mixes that will get you drunk frighteningly fast. The town’s most popular drink is the Orange Crush, a cocktail invented by local bar Harborside in the ’80s and made of freshly squeezed orange juice, orange vodka, orange liqueur, and Sprite. Delicious, certainly, but dangerous and not sustainable for a summer.
At the end of one of my first shifts at the restaurant, a waitress invited me to the pub next door for a nightcap. Standing at the bar, I realized nothing I normally drank was on hand; I don’t drink much beer anymore, and hardly ever liquor. Everyone else ordered Natural Light, so I did, too. I laughed to myself, a condescending city girl slumming it with the locals, thinking, “This again?” as the bartender cracked the can and a burst of pure white foam engulfed the rim.
But with one sip, I was back — chastised and reconverted. There were the shotgun contests with my brother on the back porch, the high school flip-cup and beer-pong games, swimming in the bay at night and having friends on the dock throw beers into the water. The unopened beers float, bobbing and gleaming in the blackness, reflecting the moon.
I drank that first beer quickly, and had another, then another. It is possible to get drunk on Natural Light, but thanks to the low ABV, it’s harder to do than with most beers; your evening can be long and relatively put together if you stick with Natty. It’s perfect for talking long and late into the night, which is what I did that first night after work that summer and most after at that pub’s lacquered bar, sitting under neon signs with a mix of waitresses, bartenders, chefs, and Hispanic line cooks, shooting the service-life shit. People tend to leave their manners at home when they go on vacation, and beach-town service folk spend our nights gabbing about the hellish demands that come from middle-American families enjoying their one week off a summer. Every night, we looked forward to that first beer. We were bone-tired, hadn’t sat down in hours, and when that first brush of bubbles hit our lips we could suddenly, finally, relax.
By the end of the summer, I was drinking Natural Light at home, out to dinner, at all occasions. The case of natural wine sat languishing in a dark corner of the living room — I’d found quickly that in the heat of the summer, it just wasn’t what I wanted. New York friends visiting for my birthday laughed at my fridge full of Natty cases, but they drank it, too. By the time I returned to Brooklyn in late September, I’d renamed it as my favorite beer, and when I went to my local bodega, I was saddened to be reminded they didn’t stock it. Few stores in New York City do. I had one at a party months later, an errant can found and saved for a special moment. When that first foamy sip hit my lips, I instantly had a wave of homesickness.
In 2008, Natural Light won the Bronze for best-tasting American-Style Light Lager at the World Beer Cup. People were outraged. That piss water? That skunky cheap shit? It offended their palates. I wondered if perhaps they had bothered to taste it at all.
In the wake of the long exhaustive craft-beer boom, there’s been a return to drinking more easy-going beers. Lagers and pilsners are acceptable again, and heavily hopped, high-ABV California IPAs get the bad rap; no one wants a beer that smacks you in the face with every sip. But that hasn’t necessarily meant a return to the major domestic beer conglomerate beverages. The demand for local is unceasing. If you live in certain (urban, coastal) areas of the country, the idea that people wouldn’t want small-batch over mass-produced, even if it is a pilsner, is bizarre.
But most of this country simply doesn’t care. They don’t want fancy. They want familiar, something that does the trick and tastes the same every time. Price matters, but they won’t settle for just anything cheap — they want cheap and good. The irony isn’t lost on me that my Hispanic colleagues at the restaurant loved it, too — immigrants, the people who are currently being cast as “non-Americans” and told to “go home” despite being the foundation of this nation. They take to this low-rent beer alongside good ol’ boys — perhaps because it’s not as loudly American as Budweiser or Bud Light. Maybe the non-marketing scheme allows Natty to occupy a niche as an American beverage without any of the aggressively patriotic overtones.
The flavor of Natural Light isn’t memorable, but it is memory. It’s the feeling of a cold can in your hand after a long shift on your feet. It’s the day on the boat in the middle of the bay, all your friends swimming and sunning themselves around you. It’s the shit-eating grin before you take your clothes off with someone else. It’s beer pong in the backyard, a can in a tote bag going to the beach at night, a case presented proudly at a barbecue. It’s simple, humble, comfortable. It’s home.
Mickie Meinhardt is a Maryland-bred, Brooklyn-based writer of many things. She writes the weekly newsletter The Interwebs Weekly, co-founded and hosts the New York reading series Same Page, and is a former MFA in Creative Writing Fellow at The New School. She still loves Natural Light.
Gunner Hughes is an East Coast photographer: Maryland born and bred, with a stint in Florida, and currently based in New York.