The five worst beers I ever tasted

I try not to drink bad beer: it’s a personal policy, and generally it serves me well. Sometimes, though, you’re in a bar far from home, or at a party thrown by people you don’t know very well, and there’s nothing in sight but a dubious-looking keg fount, or a pile of cans. The triumph of hope over experience means that, generally in these circumstances, my desire for a beer, any beer, leads me to say: “Oh, go on then.” Two minutes later, I’m thinking, once again, how much I want to smack very hard the grinning fool who first smugly coined that idiot’s motto: “There are no bad beers, it’s just that some are better than others.” There are plenty of bad beers, and many are far worse than you’d believe possible.

Of course, some bad beers are born of irretrievably bad ideas. The 1990s was full of muck like Chili Beer from Garcia Brewing in New Mexico. I reviewed this for a short-lived beer magazine called The Taste, and I knew it was going to be vile as soon as I saw the whole chili in the bottle. The best bit was pouring almost all of it down the sink. Another 1990s American abomination was Jetts Lime Clear Beer. Using filtering technology to remove the molecules that give beer its colour seems entirely pointless anyway. Adding lime flavouring meant Jetts Lime Clear Beer was disgusting, as well as dumb. The aroma was like soapy drains, and it actually fizzed noisily in the glass, something no beer I have ever tried has done before or since. That was another one down the sink.

Those, however, were stupid beers. The worst kind of bad beer is when a skilled brewer delivers something that is meant to be mainstream, but is actually muck. This, then, is Cornell’s Hall of Shame: five beers made from hops, malt and yeast that – perhaps because of poor brewing, often because of poor handling – were unfinishably awful.

John Smith’s Extra Smooth

I was drinking in a hotel in the Middle East, I was bored with bottled lager, and I thought: “It can’t be THAT bad, can it?” Dear god, reader, it was: I couldn’t credit how terrible this tasted. It seemed to have no association with the raw materials of beer at all: like foaming brown sick. Maybe on the way from the UK the kegs had sat for too long on a hot quayside: I doubt the beer lines in the hotel bar had been cleaned in ten years. But it certainly was impossible to finish. I had just two mouthfuls: one to alarm and dismay, the second only because it seemed unbelievable that something as bad as the initial swallow suggested could actually be still on sale, and I needed to confirm its awfulness.


There appears to be a growing movement to promote cans as the answer to a craft brewer’s quality problems. VB, however, is the riposte to those who declare that beer is much safer inside a tin than in a glass bottle. This was one of those “at a party, nothing else to drink” beers: VB, or Victoria Bitter (“bitter” in the Australian sense of being darker than a “lager”) is hugely popular among Australians. I was astonished that every can I opened tasted cardboardy, smelled skunky and was utterly undrinkable; problems that, had this been in bottles, I’d have put down to the beer being light-struck and oxygenated. The fans of cans, however, will insist that such errors do not occur in canned beer. Think again, people. Once more, I suspect that, on its way from Australia, the pallet of VB had spent too long in the heat, maybe in an uncooled shipping container. Whatever the reason, I moved to white wine: don’t like drinking wine at parties, I find if I don’t pay attention I neck it like beer and then have to be led to a quiet room away from the noise to lie down.

Gibbs Mew keg bitter

The West of England has seen its family brewers hammered over the past 30 years, and I was very sorry to see companies such as Ushers, Devenish and Eldridge Pope vanish from the scene. Gibbs Mew of Salisbury, however, not so much. It had been one of the first family brewers to pursue an all-keg policy for its draught beer, it was one of the last to bring cask beer back, and I never rated its cask brews highly. Late one weekend a few years before Gibbs Mew finally closed its brewery in 1997, however, I was driving back from Devon to Hertfordshire down the A303, and somewhere around 9pm and Wylie the need for an ale became overwhelming. Not having a beer guide on me, I thought: “Well, surely any Gibbs pub will now have cask,” and pulled off towards Salisbury. The first Gibbs Mew tied house I reached looked lively, the bar was full – but no handpumps. I really didn’t want to go driving from pub to pub, the evening was dying, so I thought: “WTF, I’ll have a pint of keg.” When you’re in a bar and you’re handed vile beer, the second thought (after “yuck!”) is: “Has nobody else in here realised how awful this is? Why do other people appear to be happily drinking hideous muck?” This is not “bland mainstream” beer with not very much going for it, this is actually beer so bad that one sip is reason enough never to come back to that pub – possibly that county – ever again.

Watney’s Star Light

In the early 1970s, as a nignorant long-haired student ‘ippy, I knew very little about beer. I DID know that the beers I was drinking in pubs in and around Brighton tasted worse, often much worse, than the beers I was drinking in the bars on campus. Indeed, there was one pub in Hove, where I would go with mates to play darts, where the bitter was so awful that eventually I stopped drinking it, and would have Guinness instead, even though that was considerably more expensive (As a student, of course, cheap was not just cheerful but essential: my entire weekly budget was only £5, about £40 today.) Eventually I worked out, as my knowledge about beer grew, that the pubs in Brighton and Hove had mostly been serving as their cheapest “student friendly” brew Watney’s keg Star Light, because Watney’s had acquired the Brighton brewer, Tamplin’s, dumped Tamplin’s brands and rammed its own nationally-advertised beers into Tamplin’s tied houses. Out on campus, however, we were drinking Newcastle Exhibition: still a keg beer, still weak as nun’s piss, but actually delivering at least some of the flavours of beer – rather than the flavours of pipi des nonnes. What was wrong with Star Light wasn’t the usual complaints heard about keg beer today, that it was fizzy or lacked depth and character: its problem was that it tasted actively unpleasant, like a really badly made cup of cold tea. But Watney’s didn’t care, because the tied house system meant its publicans and customers had no choice except to take what Watney’s made. Scottish & Newcastle, however, makers of Newcastle Exhibition, were fighting for business in the free trade: if they delivered really crap beer, the bar owner, not being tied, could and would go elsewhere for supplies.

Courage Best

This is unfair, because Courage Best, especially from the former Bristol brewery, which this was, could be a fine beer on its day. But not this particular sunny day out in Devon with my beer-loving then girlfriend, her neurotic gay brother and her mother (who always reminded me of Richard Wattis – I could never say so then, obviously, but Mrs Roberts must now be long-dead, and anyway that girlfriend later dumped me in an especially brutal, selfish and hurtful way, so feck her) in a late Victorian village inn somewhere out towards Tiverton that I hadn’t been to before. The pair of pints I bought my girlfriend and me was about the worst-handled cask beer I have ever returned to the bar. It was so egregiously bad I remember it decades on: two glasses of liquid butterscotch. Whether it had been sent out too early from the brewery, or whether it had just not been given enough time in the pub cellar, I don’t know. The landlady grudgingly swapped the butterscotch for a couple of pints of bitter, and the gay brother and Richard Wattis sat looking embarrassed at the fuss while the girlfriend and I finished our beers. The sole local in the pub, a grey-haired plump man in his late 50s on a stool at the bar, wearing a tweed jacket and farmer’s trousers and clearly in a snit that strangers had dared to express criticism, told the landlady every two minutes as he drank his own beer: “Lovely pint tonight, Betty.” Prat.

There WAS another appallingly undrinkable pint I still remember, served in a pub in Ealing, West London, after a week of particularly hot weather in the early 1990s. Sarson’s would have been thrilled to sell it for sprinkling on chips. But I can’t remember what the beer was, and the state it was in certainly wasn’t the brewer’s fault. It brought the most spontaneously honest reaction from any pub person I have ever seen: as I handed the glass back and suggested the beer in it was perhaps past its best, the barman passed the beer on to the manageress, who said, as she raised the glass to her mouth to take a swig herself: “Well, nobody else has combleaugh!” Fortunately I was able to channel Buster Keaton and show no reaction, rather than point, jeer and laugh at the manageress’s expression after she had swallowed neat acetic acid from her own cellars. Sometimes karma is its own reward.

50 thoughts on “The five worst beers I ever tasted

  1. I drank (just) a can of VB in Sheila’s in Covent Garden in 1996.

    I moved to Australia in 2005 and have been here ever since.

    I’ve managed to avoid what is probably Australia’s biggest selling full strength beer ever since. It’s definitely in my top 5 worst beers.

  2. ah dear, I’ve had more than my fare share of VB’s, not a great beer but I wouldnt have called it terrible. I usually only drink it when I’m at family bbq’s or after a long day on the farm and thats all Dad has in the fridge. I think you may not have gotten the freshest sample, was it in Australia?
    Dont wory though we do have some worse beers, try a Tooheys Red, or the current run of low carb beers we have are truly terrible.

  3. John Smiths Extra smooth, awful awful stuff, your description matches perfectly hehe

    I don’t plan to test your theories any time soon.. 😉

  4. I’ve heard it said that drinkers blame brewers rather than pubs for bad beer. As for myself , the opposite is true: all the really offensive beer I’ve tasted – as opposed to bland keg – has been badly kept cask beer, which I’ve had elsewhere and enjoyed. So I steer clear of the pub rather than that beer.

    As someone who used to be diffident about returning a bad pint to the bar, either drinking it without pleasure or leaving it untouched if it was really bad, I now have no problem doing so. Once you’ve done it a couple of times – ignoring the stock “that barrel’s fresh/everyone else is drinking it” lines – it really does become easier, and it’s the only way quality is going to improve.

    1. I think the trick is not to do what most people do by asking the barman – “Is this beer alright?” You don’t want to ask his opinion, because, obviously, he’ll say it’s fine. Don’t ask him, tell him – say “I’m sorry, but this beer’s infected/oxydised/vinegary whatever” and hand it back to him.

  5. This is one of several things that Wetherspoon’s get right. I’ve returned pints at two different JDW’s and had exactly the same response – in fact, the response was so identical that I’m assuming it must be part of the training. In both cases, the bar staff immediately
    – apologised
    – turned the clip round
    – told a passing colleague that such-and-such a beer had gone
    – asked what I’d like to replace it

    All this without so much as sniffing the glass (maybe I’ve got an honest face).

    JDW’s – if they started running pubs they’d be awesome.

    1. I’m afraid my local ‘Spoons has all the atmosphere of drinking on board a cross- Channel ferry or in an airport lounge, so I don’t go in there, but good for them if this is how they deal with pints coming back.

      1. I agree totally – I do go in (for the beer and to spend my CAMRA-newbie tokens), but I’m always glad to get back to a real pub. Hence the line about how great it would be if JDW’s started running pubs!

  6. Excellent post. The worst beers I can remember were in New Zealand and were I suspect a result of continuous fermentation, a process that was pretty much abandoned everywhere else in the world soon after it was brought in.

    1. You obviously tried some of the ‘Steinlagers’ or a Dominion Breweries product. In DB’s case, if they didn’t put so much sugar in the rubbish, it might be OK. In Steinlager’s case, it’s a chemically-brewed poison which guarantees a thumping hangover.
      The new craft breweries which have sprung up in many Ale Houses are good though. Expensive but good.

  7. Top post! And not just because it takes me back to my own early drinking days in the late 70s. Best beer blog I’ve read in months

    1. Talking of the ’70’s, the absolute worst beer that I’ve ever drunk (that wasn’t actually off) was Ansell’s keg Bitter in the mid-’70’s when I was a student in Brum.
      Previous to going up to Birmingham, I’d drunk mainly Eldridge Pope, Hall and Woodhouse and Devenish, and I literally could not believe how appaling the beer in Brum was. They put foaming agent in it (I was assured by a guy I met who worked in the brewery) to create the large frothy head that Brummies wanted, and the beer tasted of soap. And metal. With no discernable flavours of malt or hops at all.
      Luckily my then girlfriend was a Wolverhampton girl, so we made regular trips to the Black Country – sh’e go and see her Grandma and I’d go off drinking decent Mild with her cousins and uncles.

  8. Dixie White Moose, from Dixie Brewing Company in Louisiana, is a white chocolate “flavored” amber. This abomination made me feel like less of a person for having drank it. I reckon it’s been ten years, but I still can’t get the taste out of my mouth.

  9. VB is a decent enough beer when fresh. It has good body and a noticeable, flowery hop taste, with some estery notes as well (pineapple-like). I suspect the beer you referred to, Martyn, suffered some mishandling or became too old. I am a proponent of cans because light cannot penetrate them. The downside to cans is, they conduct heat (and of course chill) at a much higher rate than glass containers. Therefore…

    I rarely if ever have had a non-craft beer of the smooth/creamflow/creampour style etc., i.e., nitro dispensed keg, that seemed beer-like to me, except Guinness when well served. Because Guinness, not to mention unpasteurized craft beers served this way, can be good , it must be the way these are made, almost as if to appeal to a non-beer-aware audience, which perhaps is the point.

    Non-nitro keg beers can be goodish. Bass keg is okay, it has some of the appley and oaky-like notes you get in the cask version or White Shield; Smithwick’s and Newcastle Brown on draft can be quite acceptable, at least as we get them in North America where they are 5% ABV or thereabouts. But most keg beer leaves me flat because it doesn’t taste like beer to me.

    As for real ale, well, it’s all down to how it is served as often discussed here. It’s a real challenge because everything has to be right to make a really good pint: the brewing, the maturation in the pub, the service at the counter including temperature. Even not dipping the spout into the beer, I practice I disliked and think is wrong, but one that seems almost invariable today.

    But when it’s on, real beer is the best beer in the world IMO especially when made along traditional English lines. It’s one of those areas too where personal preference/quirks/however-you-define-it has to have the final say. I remember years ago frequenting a pub in East London said to have excellent real ale. The beer guides said so, journalists, everyone seemingly. To me the beers always had a slight cellar note though, “damp cellar”, which put me off. Real ale is sort of a nightmare to vend though and I am grateful people still try to do it. It is worth putting up with the hassle to get the great experiences that can be gleaned.


  10. Chili beer! Wow, that brings back memories. I think the bottle with the whole chili inside that I poured into the sink was Cave Creek Chili beer. Another burn was Watney’s Red Barrel in a 2 liter bottle, a memory that has mercifully been wiped from my mind. Some years ago, I was served a “cask” at Boston Beerworks that was so murky it looked like it could hide twigs and tasted like a whole grapefruit squeezed over a pound of brown sugar. In a Boston bar, I managed to drink a supposedly English beer that tasted so like weak tea, the only name I can recall is Tetley. But the very worst beer-like substance I ever encountered was a bottle of Michelob Lite, which prickled on the tongue like a jar of ants and tasted like hard mineral water with a bar of laundry soap dissolved into it. Luckily for me, it gave me a headache before it finished destroying my sensory apparatus.

  11. By far one of the WORST Beer, if you want to call it that at all, was a Brew that JImmy Careter’s brother a well known beer drinker at the timeof Jimmy’s election to President of the United States of America was talked into having a Brewery Produce and it was labeled “Billie’s Beer”. Gads, it would make you gag and hate yourself forever being so stupid as to purchase such swill with good money. The cans, however, unopened became collectors items. NASTY STUFF…
    respectfully submitted,

  12. John Smith’s Extra Smooth is bad, but have you tasted the ‘cask’ version? Your perfect description applies equally!

  13. Of course, in Jimmy Carter’s favor, he made it possibleforus to have MicroBrewery’s in the U.S.A. and removed the laws about having to have licenses to Brew your own Beer which I did for 20 years, mostly I might add when it was illegal to Brew Any Beverage made from a Grain nor Distillate. The Distillates still remain illegal, but one can now Home Brew Beer thank goodness. Hurrah for Jimmy Carter, he always like my Home Brew and took 2 six packs to the Governors Mansion and 2 six packs to the Whitehouse with him. I was quite proud to be of service to him.

  14. I vividly remember my worst beer. My first day as a Student at Bradford University and I went to the bar and, being at a loss as to what to drink, I chose a Websters Bitter. It was a keg beer and up until then I’d only had beer from a hand pump (we were a bit behind the times in North Derbyshire!).
    I took one thirsty swig and most of it went straight back in the glass! I now know those nasty flavours to have been a case of severe oxidation, it was nasty, nasty nasty. And even now I wonder how beer in a sealed keg could have got so oxidised.
    Luckily I was directed to a pub just down the road and it was suggested I try Websters Green label, a delicate Pennine Light Mild. And it was good.

  15. It makes me remember of something. October 2009, i’m on my first trip to England. I’ve tasted some fabulous ales, and drinked in may countys. In Wiltshire, I’ve had a I.P.A, I think from Wadworth’s. It was way past it’s prime, absolutly flat and I smelled a bit of “funkiness”. So, I returned my pint, and said “i’m sorry, I think the cask have a problem, the beer is completly flat and it tasted stale” But, i’m from Quebec, so have a french accent. The landlord look at me and said “there’s no problem with this beer, it’s meant to be flat”. I’m a brewer, and I was starting the only brewery in Quebec specialized in English ales. I know how to work with casks in a cellar. For the guy, I was a little picky frenchman, who knows nothing about real ales. But in England, you cross the street, have a completly different line-up of beers, and maybe better kept. So it’s not that bad!
    I don’t blame the guy, french and beer is not often a glorious mix 😉

  16. Thinking of some more from my youth, Newcastle Breweries / Scottish & Newcastle were responsible for some of the most disgusting concoctions to ever leave a brewery.
    McEwan’s Scotch was an insipid, fizzy, over-caramelised ‘beer’ that was derived from McEwan / Youngers 70/- when S&N used to badge engineer their products. Tyneside loved it – you’d drown before getting drunk.
    The creme de la creme was Newcastle Bright: A ‘lagered ale’ that tasted revolting. Like someone had mixed a bit of McEwans Scotch into Harp lager. Thankfully it didn’t last long as it was too much even for the notoriously unfussy Tyneside palate. S&N also produced a Star Bright and although I was too young to taste it older folk still grimace when reminded of it.

  17. Well, I was going to say that the VB was probably just … VB, but if Haywards 5000 ranks better, something was most definitely amiss. VB is swill, but it’s not that bad!

    The most consistently poor beer I have around here (VIC, Australia) is Carlton Draught – something about the aroma of old damp cardboard, mouse cage and wet Wonder bread just doesn’t do it for me!

  18. Some modern British microbrewery beers can be pretty bad. I remember I had a ‘strawberry beer’ last summer – called something like Strawberry Fields Forever, which was truly and utterly disgusting with a dominant ersatz strawberry flavour, although there was nothing wrong with how it was kept. Still I should have known better as I broke two of my own rules about beer. The wackier the name the worst the beer, and avoid any beer with additional flavourings. Only the Belgians can be trusted to make a decent fruit beer (and even here you have to be very careful).

  19. Watney’s Star Light was 15p a pint in the Student Union in my first year at college, and that’s what I’d pay for it now

  20. “I’d have put down to the beer being light-struck and oxygenated. The fans of cans, however, will insist that such errors do not occur in canned beer. Think again, people.”

    It is actually impossible for beer to get light-struck in a metal can, as light can’t pass through aluminium, but one of the very worst beers I have ever drunk was Binding Roemer Pis in cans. It is not a good beer on draught or in bottle, but in cans it was vile, tasting of margarine and tin and it certainly was oxydised.
    Oxydisation can occur at any stage in the brewing process, so it’s certainly not true that canned beer can’t be oxydised.

  21. Interesting post. Thanks. Tons of good beer out there… but yeah there are some really bad ones. Have you ever tried the ‘non alcohol Guinness’ called Kaliber? It’s pretty bad. I also had a beer in Toronto called Steam Whistle. It’s a Pilsner… but it has a really odd taste.

    1. That article makes me wonder why any of us bother brewing beer or writing about it. Bet it gets more hits than all beer blogs put together too.

  22. Great article, I found a ‘JETTS – LIME CLEAR BEER’ label, do you remember who brewed it?

    I’m racking my brain – any help?

  23. I drink in my local JDW regularly – in their current BEERFEST they have a Batemans Brewery Beer called MOCHA – a chochelate coffee bar as a pint – Its bloody tasty/ a good pint.

  24. Last night I bought 8 cans of Greene King Abbot Ale in cans (500 ml cans, 5% ABV). I found it disgusting. Far too bitter and it generally had a very unpleasant taste as far as I’m concerned.
    Don’t know who the hell enjoys this stuff, but there’s something wrong with their taste buds as far as I’m concerned.

  25. You are correct on Steinlager and VB. In the 90,s I tasted around 25 different lagers from around the world and those 2 were plain awful.
    Going back to the early 70,s my worst every drinking memory is of attempting to finish a warm pint of Double Diamond on a summer evening.

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